A couple of months ago,The News & Observer ran a feature on an Onslow County man named Bob Rivera who takes photos of tobacco barns. Rivera worked in tobacco as a young man, the piece says, and now he hopes to photograph the old curing barns before they disappear. His photos showed barns in various poses of decay: weather-beaten and bristly with climbing vines, leaning against the weight of time. The captions were folksily anecdotal and said things like, "There's an old country store [across from the barn], a Pepsi and Nabs kind of store. Bunch of old guys there."
I might not have paid much attention to the feature but for the fact that, that same week, I saw a real-estate ad for "Quaint Country Acreage" featuring a "Cute Old-Timey Tobacco Barn." Or if, traveling through eastern North Carolina earlier in the month, I hadn't stopped for gas in Wilson County and come across a flyer advertising materials salvaged from tobacco barns. "Authentic Restored Wood Planks (The Real Thing!)," the flyer read. "Build a Little History Into Your New Home--Buy 'Bacca Boards!" Suddenly, it seemed, tobacco barns were resurfacing everywhere--not as the snaky old sheds many of us grew up with, but as prized cultural artifacts, tin-roofed heirlooms.
Now. I am as enchanted as the next person by the quaint and old-timey, and my enchantment endures despite the commercial assault on all things distressed and rural and farmsteadish. It endures despite Martha Stewart and her chipped enamel water pitchers; despite the extravagant flea-market bounty placed on vintage chiffarobes and rusted spittoons.
But this tobacco barn thing puzzles me. I can't figure where on the country-kitsch-Grandma-Moses spectrum it fits. Or how the ignominy of the barns' purpose has been so thoroughly eclipsed by nostalgia. It is true that some of them have grown beautiful with age--stoically battered by the elements or decked out with trumpet vine. There's a barn near Oxford covered with intricate, ochre-colored fungal blooms that cover the side boards like calico. Just off the highway in Pitt County, kudzu has lifted another barn clean off its foundation; it hovers now, above a sea of green, an ascension vision of sorts.
So, yes, there are these exceptions, but at its heart the tobacco barn is a homely structure, without the romance of a covered bridge or the sleepy history of a covered porch. There is no particular architectural or aesthetic distinction either--the lines of a grain silo, the colors of a Dutch barn.
Certainly these barns have not always enjoyed their current celebrity. I remember, some years ago, pulling over to get directions from a woman in Granville County. She was standing at the mailbox in her house dress, a rat terrier tucked up under one arm. She pointed down the road toward a tobacco barn that leaned heavily on its northern foundation. "See that no-count barn up there?" she said. "Take a left."
A picture-taking friend of mine named Robert says he tried to take photos of old barns once and grew bored. As an example of "bucolicism" (Robert's word), he said, the barns just seemed trite--he'd seen too many of them, ablaze with Red Man advertisements, on postcards. Plus which, he got run off an old tobacco farm once by a man brandishing a pick axe.
Robert says I shouldn't try to account for cultural obsessions, and he's right. Look at feng shui. Still, I'm going to try to account for this one because, to me, there's a poignancy in our fascination with the tobacco barns, something as sad and no-count as the barns themselves.
As an example of "bucolicism," tobacco barns had their heyday between 1930 and 1950, when, according to the state Historic Preservation Office, as many as a half million of the structures served tobacco farms across North Carolina. The barns were plain, no-nonsense affairs, windowless, built to hold and heat--or cure--tobacco leaves. In the early 1800s, before much was known about the curing process, leaves were dried with open-floor fires. One night, the story goes, a Caswell County slave fell asleep while tending the fire. When he woke up and discovered the fire had gone out, he rushed to bring in hot coals, which raised the temperature significantly and gave the leaves the prettiest cure anyone had seen.
That discovery, says state architectural research historian Michael Southern, was the beginning of flue-cured tobacco. Soon, barns were outfitted with hollow tubes connected to wood furnaces. Those tubes would slowly heat the inside of the barns to roughly 200 degrees, parching the moisture out of the leaves and curing them in roughly a week's time.
Flue-curing in wooden barns proved superior to open-fire cures, but repeatedly heating the structures presented some problems. Temperature regulation was compromised by the leaky planks and fires were common. In the second half of the century, metal barns--energy-efficient and fire-resistant--began to replace wooden ones. Today, says Southern, there may be as few as 100,000 of the old wooden barns left, and these are disappearing daily.
That fact alone accounts for a lot of the attention being paid to tobacco barns. "As any object gets rarer, it gets more attention," Southern says. "There's a need to document the object before it disappears." And, of course, there has always been an interest in the way old buildings "reflect human experience and life and values."
That interest intensifies as experiences and values grow more transient. I remember a friend of mine who was distraught after her daughter butchered a family album with a pair of scissors and a box of crayons. The mutilated pages contained photos and portraits of great aunts and uncles, a generation of relatives my friend barely knew. Still, the destruction of the album amounted to a loss, and her description of that loss was interesting. It felt, she said, like losing her credentials, vital evidence of her own identity.
Living as we do in a landscape of suburbs and superstores, it's painful to admit that the physical features of that landscape still reflect experiences and values--that, as in the past, they amount to self-portrait. Is it any surprise that we feel a longing for the old pages of the album: the farm houses and fields and covered bridges of our past?
In a book of photographs called Out on the Porch, Reynolds Price describes a covered porch in summer; the porch features a hanging swing that will seat "one drowsy adult and a much-loved child, stroked by the merest trace of a breeze and engaged in a soft-voiced dialogue of no great moment as to subject or theme, though deeply rewarding to heart and mind through a whole life's memory."
Imagine, in this day and time, indulging in a dialogue "of no great moment as to subject or theme"? No wonder we've grown sentimental, obsessing on memories. No wonder we mourn the loss of things rural and farmsteadish, even the homely tobacco barns.
I once interviewed an elderly man who had grown up in the English countryside, working on a nearby sheep ranch. Everything ran along smoothly, he said, until a wealthy businessman bought the ranch and cleared out all the sheep. That changed everything. What happened to the ranch? I asked. What happened, he said, shaking his head at the astonishment of it all, what happened was, they brought in cows.
In these parts, the pace of change has been rather more frantic. The death throes of the rural South, in those places where "progress" has struck hardest, have always struck me as grisly in the manner of road kill: hurried, blasted, not much left behind that anybody could recognize. This too, plays into the nature of the interest in tobacco barns which have shifted from functional to iconic before their function has been forgotten, before the scent of the last harvest has lifted.
At that Wilson County gas station--the one with the advertisement for Authentic Planks salvaged from tobacco barns--an attendant walked through the door just as I finished paying for my gas. He'd been out mowing a strip of crabgrass between the station and the highway, and he saw that I'd picked up the flyer. He grinned and tipped his cap back off his forehead to catch the cool of the air conditioning. A patch on his shirt read "Phil."
"Isn't that something?" Phil asked, pointing at the flyer. "Lo-ord! I worked in one of them barns for 12 years and I ain't that old. Now they're out there selling pieces of 'em for antiques! Do I look like a relic to you?" He flashed another grin and settled his cap. "It wasn't that long ago, most everybody around here saw the inside of one of them barns at some time or another in their lives. Now it's like they're the pyramids. It's like they're antiquity."
They say the soul, separated too quickly from the body, lingers on earth, restless and unsure of itself. I'm too conventional to assign souls to inanimate objects (certainly to tobacco barns), but it strikes me that when a culture is separated too quickly from the objects that define it, there is a similar wrenching, and a sad (or outraged) lingering. "I'd be hard pressed to find a day or week when I didn't think about it," photographer Bob Rivera said of the loss of the barns he worked in as a young man. "It disturbs me greatly. ... This is our culture here. It's going away."
Rivera's sadness--and Phil's comic indignation--aren't just about the death of a culture; they are about the burden of witnessing that death and the living ghosts it leaves behind. They are about being some of those ghosts.
Of course, not everyone gives up so easily. My friend Robert (of "bucolicism") tells the story of jumping a fence to photograph an old tractor he found in a farmyard near Lumberton. The tractor, which had once been painted mild blue, was pocked with rust and blasted by years of sandhills heat--a phantom in the misty summer morning. As Robert began to shoot, a man walked out of a nearby farmhouse, cranked up the tractor and rolled off into a field.
"He didn't say a word," Robert said. "He just cocked his eyebrow and pushed on the gears, and it was like, 'Hey, son, don't write us off yet.'"