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Consider the New England Tobacco Barn

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 architobacco-barn-007tecture 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.

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  1. Martha McDonald
    June 9th, 2010 at 18:40 | #1

    Barns, a really interesting and comprehensive book by John Michale Vlach, (W.W. Norton, 2003)includes information on New England tobacco barns. It was drawn from the Library of Congress and also includes a CD.

  2. Martha McDonald
    June 10th, 2010 at 19:53 | #2

    Your readers might be interested in the upcoming Barn Tour, June 12, sponsored by the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance. For more information, http://www.preservationworks.org/pdf/BarnTourPoster2010.pdf.

  3. Deb Martin
    June 22nd, 2010 at 17:46 | #3

    I am a Pioneer Valley native, and entered the culture of the shade tobacco farm at the age of 14 in Southwick, Mass., where production was the realm of only two dynastic families. Barns and bent poles are often the only artifacts left to tell the tale which included inter-family rivalries, plantation-like labor system, gender-based assignments, as well as opportunities for cameraderie, fun, practical jokes and danger (the perils of open machinery and climbing barn collars and trusses). As a girl, when field tasks were done I was assigned to “sewing” tasks in the barn and was thankful for the earth floor and the coolness. I do recall being selected for a special draft-proofing task, where we would staple seed bags to the sill, and bury the lower edge in the dirt. This closed otherwise uncontrollable ground-level drafts and prepared the barn for the ring-type gas burners that dried the leaves when the barn was fully loaded. I alternately loved and hated working tobacco, but will always have an affection for the remaining barns. Thanks, Dan.

  4. Linda Franklin
    June 23rd, 2010 at 20:56 | #4

    Thought you’d like this.

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