While riding around the Pioneer Valley here in western Massachusetts, it struck me that the tobacco barn, also known as a drying shed, is one of the few, if only, types of architecture in the area that possesses a distinctly regional style. Yes, we’ve got the usual litany of housing and outbuilding stock that dates from over three centuries, but the variations and nuances are subtle in comparison to those found to the east in Boston or south into New York. There’s very little architecture here that’s distinctly local and would draw the attention of all but the most practiced eye. (Yes, I know Historic Deerfield is a gem, but I’m discussing broad regional variations in form and not the caliber of examples from any given period.)
However, in this region (which is known as the Tobacco Valley and stretches along the Connecticut River from Hartford, CT, to well north of Springfield, MA), tobacco barns are unlike those found in other areas of the country. Theirs are taller and can have more complex exteriors, such as awnings, pent roofs and broad overhanging eaves. Ours are spartan, with almost a Shaker aesthetic, and are often left to weather austerely to brown or gray. It seems a rarity to find one that has been freshly painted; truly, they receive minimal maintenance, except to patch the roof or replace a rotted louver.
These structures are simple post-and-beam affairs that may be sited on masonry piers and invariably have dirt floors. They were not meant to be winterized or even all that suitable for livestock, for they are drafty and best meant for machinery, as our severe winter winds howl through them. Disproportionately long and featuring front-facing gables, these sheds are now typically roofed with corrugated steel. The walls are vertical planks, with every third one hinged so that it swings open horizontally to act as a louver, allowing the breezes to cure the harvested leaves, which are hung, upside-down, in bunches. (Our tobacco is known as shade tobacco; it is grown under tents and used for wrappers of high-caliber cigars.)
The barns are ubiquitous and immediately and distinctly discernible from other farm outbuildings in this agrarian area. When seen from the air, especially at low altitudes, one observes just how prevalent this type of structure is; they dot the countryside. This being New England, their layout lacks the efficient, grid-like organization found in the sprawling farmland of the Midwest; instead, they lie scattered about our compact topography as if they were oversized pick-up sticks.
Subtly iconic, the form of our tobacco barn has been emulated by architects in the design of contemporary buildings in such locations as the Hampshire College campus, which often honors its bucolic locale. Although many barns are still used for their original purpose, others have been converted into workshops, offices and housing, all while maintaining their geographic roots.