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March 18, 2019

A Brief History of American Tobacco Barns.

Sean Waters is a composition instructor at CSU fascinated with American culture.  His father was a woodworker. He can be reached at . And at Medium

While American Tobacco Barns and their reclaimed wood may seem uninteresting to the uninitiated, American barns are full of fascinating history of the people and places of early America.    

Reclaimed barn wood, you could say, tells the story of American Forests and early Americans – a complex story of ecology and survival – in the harvesting, milling and construction of the barns that would cure Kentucky tobacco crop for early American farmers.

Reclaimed Tobacco Barn Siding

Tobacco barns in the south, particularly Kentucky, have been called “disappearing American Icons”  and “Sentinels of Memory.” Indeed, the barn has come to represent a way of life – and a style of close-to-the land living – that is rapidly disappearing.

Reclaimed wood, you could say, comes from a reclaimed American economic landscape where farmers –and tobacco farmers especially—once flourished.

But still, hardy Gray Kentucky Tobacco siding speaks of the hardiness of early America – of economic opportunity, cheap land, dense forests, and industrious early American Farmer.  

In fact, you could write a whole book on barn architecture, folklore and history: Eric Sloane has done just that.

In what follows, let’s take a closer look at how early American Barns – especially in the tobacco farming counties of Kentucky – reveal some of the realities and enchantments of early American life.

Reclimed Tobacco Barn Siding – Milled and ready for resale

The first American barns, built in the 1600s, mimicked the style and structure of old European barns: steep roofs for thatching, low walls (hay was still stacked outside), horizontal siding, and curved “Ship’s Knee” braces.  

In the 1700s, barns became more compact, with higher walls and less slanted roofs to be able to contain whatever the farmer needed to protect from the elements.

Appalachian barns, for example, were first used as gear sheds and corn cribs – showing an old-fashioned American ingenuity and pragmatism.  Tobacco barns were some of the very first functional barns to be built in America, since tobacco needs a particular environment for drying – one that accommodated both heat and ventilation. Tobacco barns in the south were usually left unpainted, where the hardwood siding stood up to the elements well enough.

In the 1800s, American farmers flourished and more and more barns were raised.  During and after the Civil War, which damaged the economic infrastructure of the Virginias, tobacco farming in Kentucky boomed.

Barn-raising, quite beautifully, was a full-on community endeavor.  Everyone’s neighbors came to put up the framing – men came with their own pikes (long sticks with hooks on the end) and other tools. If corrections in the framing were needed during the raising, no one protested too much – libations and entertainment were usually part and parcel of the barn raising process.  The owner then finished the more time-intensive siding and roofing.

Culturally, with the rise of transcendentalism in the late 1800s, farmers in particular were seen as embodying the great American ideals of self-reliance interwoven with the mysteries of nature. Thoreau published Walden in 1854, itself a clear portrait of the Romantic ideals of self-sufficiency of everyday work, close to the rhythms and harmony of the seasons.  

We know the joy of working with our hands, of working with great wood.  Barns in the mountains of the American south embodied the ideals of craftsmanship, too: hand-chiseled dovetail joints, flared barn posts, and hand-hewn beams are just a few of the now-dissapearing woodworking techniques common in early barn construction.  

Today, reclaimed wood siding has new opportunities for creative craftsmanship.  These grey hardwoods are usually heavier than softwoods, and have smooth-to-the touch distinctive grooves. Years of weathering brings out wavy grain patterns and natural spirals. Colors can range from silver and light grey to very dark grey or even faded black.

No two boards are the same – but each speaks of a long line of history and humanity.  

For more on American barns, see Eric Sloane’s beautiful An Age of Barns (1967) and The Old Barn Book: A Field Guide to North American Barns and Other Farm Structures (1995) by Allen G Noble and Richard K. Cleek.  

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