The glory days of tobacco in Madison County are gone, but the relics of its success and the old tobacco barns, used for drying tobacco, still scatter the hillsides. Tobacco was once a way of life in Western North Carolina, and it was grown on our little stretch of bottom land for over 25 years. We once met a local lady who at the age of four had hung tobacco in our barn. Burley tobacco was the popular variety grown in this part of North Carolina. Like all tobacco, it must be air cured in a barn for four to six weeks before it's ready to sell. Burley tobacco is a light brown, aromatic variety that is commonly used in cigarettes and cigars. Tobacco is a very physical crop to raise, but tobacco brought money and money built barns.
Our barn, like many barns in the area, was assembled by the farmers using what they had close by to build the essential structure needed for tobacco production. When you look across the street from our property there is an area void of trees and overgrown with kudzu vines. The original owner's son once told me “that's where the barn came from.” Simply put, in the 70s, his family tore down all the pole pines in one large section and drug them downhill, across the road, and they built the barn where it now stands.
Three stories of pole pine rafters were built to hang and dry tobacco high up on hand carved hardwood tobacco or "backy sticks." The barn's facade was created with pine, poplar, oak and walnut. All of which had faded gray with the direct afternoon sun. When asked about their process, the former owner said 'oh heck, we just threw that darn thing up and filled her full!' A few years later, they added an addition to hang even more tobacco.
Before and After
Like our derelict property, the barn had also fallen into disrepair. The tall structure sits on our narrow piece of land high above the creek. Just last year, the barn was in no shape for guests. Over the years, the barn was filled almost two stories high with broken tools, rotting yarn, doors, windows, unmarked containers of oil and liquids, and anything else that could fill its corners. The workshop addition was spray painted with the words “She love us Mamaw” across the front. Along the way, boards were borrowed from its facade and gaping holes were filled with pieces of metal, plywood, window shutters or the holes were just left to the elements.
I have basic building skills, but knew I couldn't do it alone. So, I called my good friend Jon Taylor, a skilled woodworker and master cabinet builder who lives in Asheville, to see if he could help with the project. He came out one afternoon and the three of us stared longingly for an hour at the front of the barn planning our attack. It was a major undertaking that took two full weekends to disassemble and reassemble the front.We wanted to remove as few boards as possible. It would be a daunting task to cut individual boards to fill in the holes of various shapes and sizes. We decided to take them all off, reshuffle them and then nail them back up one by one from the top down. The first afternoon we spent taking off all the diagonal boards and placing them in the yard to see what we were working with. The wood was gray and weathered. On more than one occasion, Jon said he got a brief whiff of tobacco as the nail stripped from the wood. Years of drying leaves still left its lingering scent deep in the boards. Most boards were warped, cracked, split or bending in multiple directions from years in the direct sun. The ultimate game of Tetris. The next day we began the arduous process of putting it back together. We kept the diagonal corner design because it was mostly intact and started re-creating the design by placing the boards horizontally along the front.
Since so many boards were missing, there wasn't enough wood to make it to the ground. Our options were buying new wood (which can be expensive) or old weathered barn wood to match (which can be very expensive). So, instead I got permission to salvage old wood off of a barn scheduled to be demolished down the road. It was hard work, but we were able to get almost 300 board feet to add to the pile in the yard. This made the Tetris game a lot easier with more boards to choose from. We salvaged multiple 18+ inch boards and saved hundreds of tobacco sticks for the raised flower boxes that would be in front of the finished barn. Wide boards like that are not easy or cheap to come by these days and make horizontal rows fill in quickly. These boards were much straighter than the ones originally from our barn. They spent their life as a back wall hidden in shade instead of baking for forty years in the sun. Foot by foot the front filled in and the new design fell into place.
We also reinforced the back wall and saved completely losing the barn addition. Our neighbor helped us dig cement footers and reinforce the back wall. We pulled the whole wall forward a few inches with his truck and put it in place with large screws attached to new pressure treated footers.
The finishing touches really tied our artistic vision together. I hand painted and mounted a barn quilt square (another Madison County legacy) to the front of the barn and designed and built raised flower boxes with the salvaged tobacco sticks.
We utilized an original board with a unique hole in it, installed plexiglass and turned it into a look out window that views our driveway and house while we work inside.
All finished. A barn dream come true.
Today, the barn is a huge part of our small organic farm operation. We use the barn every day for washing and drying vegetables, storing tools, and when we need shelter from the Summer heat and afternoon rain storms that frequent our mountainous county. We also now use it as the backdrop for our Summer Farm to Table Dinner Series held on the farm. The barn is now fondly called 'The Garlic Pearl'. In its second life curing garlic hangs high up in the rafters instead of tobacco. We currently grow 13 varieties of garlic and planted 7000+ bulbs this fall. Garlic is just one of the many root crops that we grow at Root Bottom Farm. We also grow perennial crops, fruit, five types of berries, 24 types of vegetables and over 200 varieties of flowers. Today, the Garlic Pearl looks better than ever as it looks out onto the next chapter of this farm's story and the Madison County barn and tobacco legacy.