But for their immediate tangible presence today, they have become muted figures like apparitions in the landscape.
The vernacular architecture of the rural South was not just a curing barn for tobacco but a testimony to a way of life - a microcosmic culture that varied itself even from one county to another. For about three centuries, a new human culture in America’s Middle South evolved with the use of the flue-cure tobacco barn. North Carolina became the single largest producer of tobacco in the United States, and although that fact remains today, modern industrial curing methods replaced the need for the tobacco barn as we knew it about mid-way through the 20th century.
What's left today, reveals vignettes of a livelihood that has all but faded into the timelessness of the region’s dusty fields. In this time, these barns have become an iconic residual fragment layered within a changed landscape. To many travelers, the first sight of a tobacco barn, whether standing alone or clustered among a grove of pecan trees, announces their arrival in the American South. Today, that imaginary line starts somewhere just south of Richmond and keeps going until you get to south Georgia. As a child of the region, I never fully grasped the meaning of these barns. To me they existed as ruins, shadows, or silhouettes, having served their final intended purpose over a half-century prior. Usually leaning to one side or the other in the tangle hold of wild vines like Kudzu or Yellow Jasmine, they sat casually on the landscape merging seamlessly with the ground, yet making a salient edge against the sky.
They were the places we children played inside of, climbed around in, and leaned against to shade the summer sun. Through memories, their story lives.
On Origin, a New American Architecture
The tobacco curing-barn type found in central and Eastern North Carolina is distinct from those found in the other tobacco producing regions. In the eighteenth century, tobacco in North Carolina was cured by making small open fires on the dirt floor of the barn. Paralleling the development of Bright-Leaf Tobacco, the flue-cure method was introduced around 1820 for more efficient heating. This created the need for a single large open
volume, which served as a kind of kiln room to cure the tobacco once it was primed. The typical form of a flue-cure barn consists of a spare exterior, which encloses a single cubic volume of space, and serves a single function. There are few openings in the building envelope, other than a small central door on one of the four enclosing walls and vents placed either at gable ends or at the roof ridge . Although the materials vary regionally from eastern North Carolina to the north-central border counties, the form and size usually remains the same. There is little doubt that the barn’s participant in the role of tobacco production would have influenced its form, but we could also consider the possibility that its form may embody a larger sociocultural ideal. There must be a reason why the
cubic form evolved exclusively in North Carolina and South-side Virginia, while rectangular forms evolved in other tobacco producing regions like Pennsylvania, Maryland, Kentucky, and the Shenandoah Valley. There is no doubt that other curing methods, would have influenced this difference, however this could also be attributed to who was actually building these barns. Asking the question of authorship is critical to any attempt to investigate variations on a building type of such a highly specific function as curing tobacco. This has always been a crucial question to architectural historians like Henry Glassie who investigated variations among dwelling types in the same region.
The ethnic variation among early European settlers in the Mid-Atlantic ensured that many different formal ideals were brought with them to North America. Each of these groups imported building traditions from their home countries that were most familiar to them. Having migrated southward from Virginia, the people of central North Carolina were primarily of English origin, while the people of Pennsylvania and the Appalachian mountain valleys for example were German or Scotch-Irish. The building types they would have been most familiar with would be vernacular dwellings. Could the people in eastern and central North Carolina have borrowed and adapted the form and size of familiar Anglo-Virginia dwellings to serve the function of curing tobacco? Using archival historical data on tobacco production, and research on English and Anglo-Virginian domestic building traditions and plan types, it can be argued that the form and plan of the Carolina tobacco curing-barn could have evolved from the one-room prototypical dwelling unit most commonly used by the early English colonists in seventeenth-century Virginia.
The first tobacco seeds in North America were imported to the Jamestown colony in 1611 from the Spanish-Americans by John Rolfe [husband of Pocahontas], but it would take two years before a decent crop would be harvested for shipment back to England.1 One may assume, that if the English dwelling unit were to evolve into a new building type for curing tobacco, it would have begun in Jamestown. This however, was not the case. Before beginning an analysis of the curing-barn specifically, a consideration of the social climate in England that first led to the arrival of the English to North America may better validate such analysis.
Henry Glassie has noted that in Virginia, there were contrasting populations who settled at Jamestown in the early seventeenth century. In England at this time, the traditional open-field village structure was quickly being replaced by a system of “enclosure”, whereby open fertile land was surveyed and consolidated into separate farmsteads by the wealthy and powerful landlords, such that the power of the village people was weakened severely.2 Having dominated the landscape for thousands of years, open-field villages were being completely dissolved despite the resistance of the people who actually managed to preserve a few of them. A surviving example Glassie shows us, is the village of Braunton in Devonshire, England. According to Glassie, this was the most revolutionary change in English landscape structure since the Neolithic period.3 A shift in the social order from the collective to the familial, marked a distinct change in the structure of the English landscape. The family dwelling was no longer a participant of the urban composition of the village, and now stood objectively as a symbol of individual endeavors on the separate farmstead.4 In fact, Jamestown was settled as a village in the early seventeenth century as the colonists sought to recreate the social ordering system that was taken from them in England. As they were already familiar with the village system, it was the first choice for a domestic social structure in the new colony, but as aspirations for creating wealth grew, they quickly realized that their coveted open-field village must be abandoned for the “enclosure system”- the very thing they had sought absolution from in England. Jamestown was abandoned and Virginia became the first “impeccably capitalistic” colony.5 As early Virginians began to survey and claim land holdings for their individual families, they were presented with a unique opportunity to redefine the entire domestic structure known to them. No longer would families live communally in an urban village pattern. The single-family house type was the choice they made, and now was the time to select a form.
In the early 1620s, Virginia families needed an appropriate architectural solution to accommodate this new function of dwelling separately from one another on enclosed plots of land. Importing timber-building traditions from medieval England, the square single-room dwelling unit would be dispersed throughout Anglo-Virginia, to become the archetype of the Virginia house.6 The Virginia house type was planned around a simple [usually] square volume of sixteen by sixteen feet, which was also the typical English building module. Historians have suggested many reasons for this unit size, including perhaps that this was the amount of space comfortable for housing oxen in medieval England. Henry Glassie suggests other reasons that seem to better validate this choice of size for the Virginia house specifically. He writes in regards to the frequency of its use “its persistence would seem to owe a debt to the comfort [that] a carrier of Anglo-American culture feels within a square space [of] about sixteen feet on a side...it could be the optimum size for efficient heating with a single fireplace, and a depth of sixteen feet might be the ideal span for a single wooden beam.”7 Going even further back into history, the square English house shape is said to have evolved from the circular huts which were usually sixteen feet in diameter, and used by early prehistoric nomads across Britain and also by tribes in West Africa.8 It seems to me that a circular space would have been the ideal shape for retaining even heat distribution from a single centrally located internal heat source such as a fire on a dirt floor. As people eventually shifted away from the hunter/gatherer type to become the farmer, they became less nomadic and desired a larger more permanent dwelling space. Geometrically, the square could have been transcribed about a circle of sixteen feet in diameter, to yield a cubic form of the same exact width, yet with a larger interior floor area. Having established an ideal dwelling module, the English now had a form that allowed many permutations. Glassie writes, “All things save that shape are variable, and the simplest house consists of only this unsplittable atom.”9 Yielding a multiple range of dwelling sizes, this unit could be combined with other units based on a four foot planning grid. Although the square of most early houses in Anglo-Virginia was sixteen by sixteen feet, many one-room houses or the later two room “hall and parlor” houses still varied within a range of eight by twelve, twelve by sixteen, sixteen by twenty, and slightly larger. In Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, Glassie writes the following:
The geometric idea, in short, was given precedence over the psyche’s comfort. The squared volume was probably comfortably familiar [in Anglo-Virginia], but it cannot be said that the designer was striving foremost to meet the needs of personal space; clearly his major directive was to adhere to an intellectual model that demanded a specific geometric image. In resolving the opposition of intellect and emotion, the house is an expression of a cultural idea that valued the intellectual model over emotional need. It is not that the spaces provided by the house for human action were dysfunctional, but that the people were willing to endure chilly corners or rooms that may have felt a bit spacious or cramped in order to live in a house that was a perfect representation of an idea...The mediation of behavior and idea has a measurable tolerance—the square can be four feet less or three feet more than sixteen feet on each side—but there was no compromise at all with the mind’s geometry. The space was square.10
The Virginia house, wood framed with gable-end chimneys became the first uniquely native archetype of domestic form in the English colonies.11 As the desire for privacy increased, and symbolic hierarchy was assigned to certain spaces for functional separation, the hall and parlor style was used to accommodate this change. Even these additions to the square conformed to the established fractional module. “The plan was fractured along its internal partitions to create houses that were conceptually parts of houses.” 12 When the colonists built these houses, they were supplied with an abundance of a single material—wood. While much of England had been deforested at the time of colonial settlement, abundant forests covered the Virginia landscape, and beneath this great canopy lay arable land. Furrows rapidly replaced forests, and the harvested timber became the material for constructing the single-pen Virginia house. Unique to Virginia construction, the mark of the craftsman was incredibly evident in the final product. Unlike in England, where framing members “followed the natural taper or curve of the tree as it grew,” the builders in Virginia first turned wood into lumber, then into houses. “The sticks in the Middle Virginia frame,” Glassie writes,“are sharply straight, and they were taken as far from the natural shape as the traditional technology would allow. The framing members were hewn square, then pit-sawed into halves or thirds so that the posts at the corners and the large braces that were framed in between the posts and sills were all, in
section, rectangular to about a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio. The result was a delicate wall... large portions of the bulk of the members being chopped away and wasted in order to maintain this effect.”13 For interior and exterior wall surfaces, lumber was often hewn into thin clapboard to cover the skeletal frame, while hewn wooden shingles covered the roof.14 Framing members were so altered from their original natural state by Virginia builders, that any clue to their origin as a tree was removed. In Virginia, nature was made to submit to exploitation by man. The two were at once at odds with each other. The moment the first Europeans made footprints on the bank of the river in Jamestown, the landscape was forever altered. The forests were cleared to make room for man’s great vision of an agricultural economy. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, tobacco dominated the social, political, and economic life of the Chesapeake. After growing tobacco on the same land for successive generations, the land there had to be left fallow for some twenty years before farming it again. Many farmers moved inland and began to grow a mixed crop of corn, wheat and tobacco on land still rich in nutrients. The most profitable cash crop however was still tobacco, and it was that which sent pioneers south to a wild and virgin landscape that became North Carolina.
Over three hundred years ago Anglo-Virginians from the largely settled Chesapeake Bay region moved southward into north central and eastern North Carolina to seek open land. Many settled north of the Albemarle Sound region beginning as early as the 1660s, but it would be about 1750 before the Piedmont region along the “fall line” would be thoroughly settled. Today, this is about the location of a line extending from north of Durham to the South Carolina border. Just as colonists in Virginia adapted English dwelling ideals to their domestic needs, the early Carolinian who descended from Virginia, imported their one-room square house type to central and eastern North Carolina, built them from sawn lumber,
and placed the chimney at the gable-end. 15 As in Virginia, the entrance was most often placed in the center of one of the walls adjacent to the gable-end, and various transformations of the single-pen unit would accommodate changes in functional need. As the Georgian form evolved in Virginia from aggregations of the original square unit, the saddlebag, dogtrot, and double-pen achieved the same purpose for North Carolina dwellings. As families claimed land and built their houses, they were also planting tobacco along a swath of land below the Virginia border between the Albemarle Sound and the Piedmont region. With the rise of a new tobacco culture in North Carolina, came the need for a building type to cure the crop after priming. What would the builders of such a type consider, and what would inspire them? The answers to this are not so easy, but North Carolina architectural historian Catherine Bishir poignantly considers how a new building type is made in the vernacular method. She writes, “The individuals who plan each building begin with an understood tradition and a set of rules that defines both a specific vocabulary of forms and techniques and an accepted syntax or structure for combining them. Change is accommodated as the [vernacular] designer solves new design problems through old ways of problem solving. Within this framework, many variations and new possibilities may develop to accommodate individual needs, new elements of technology or style, and other challenges.”16 We see in North Carolina that the curing of tobacco presented a particular design problem to the farmer who needed a specific kind of architectural solution. This new and specific need would be accommodated through variations within the established framework that the Anglo-Virginia one-room square building unit so effectively allowed, and I believe this was a very conscious choice.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, curing tobacco involved the setting of several small and controlled open fires on the dirt floor of the barn. The fires were covered with wet sawdust to prevent the crop or the barn itself from catching on fire. In the early nineteenth century, this process was replaced by the flue-cure method in which fires were kindled in masonry furnaces in the perimeter wall of the barn.17 Heat was transferred into flues extending perpendicularly across the interior floor of the barn. The flues were typically trenches cut into the dirt floor and covered with sheet iron through which heat would radiate into the surrounding air. As the hot air was drawn upward by a ridge vent in the roof, it passed evenly through the hanging tobacco leaves tied in bundles on four-foot sticks that were perched on tiered crossbeams. In either case, whether open-fires or flues were used, the single most critical variable in the curing process was to have controlled and even heating throughout the interior of the barn. In fact the barn was to the farmer, what the kiln is to a potter. Any smallest amount of inconsistency in the curing process would ruin the craft of both. I use the word craft here because as one 19th century farmer said it best, “John Rolfe and Capt. John Smith never dreamed that this [process] could be so marvelously transformed into a thing of beauty as it is now done by the system of flue-curing.”18 From the incredible resource they had available to them in the vocation of Anglo-Virginia building tradition, the sixteen or twenty foot square cubic form may have been deliberately referenced as the ideal archetype for North Carolina curing barns.
Such a utilitarian thing as heating may be readily argued as the logical source of inspiration since as was said earlier, the origin of the Virginia square building unit seems rooted in round hut dwellings of primitive Britain in fact designed for efficient heating. Even as we consider the thoroughly utilitarian nature of the object, we should also remember the social meaning conveyed by the tightly framed Virginia house for example. Man’s great vision in Colonial Virginia after abandoning Jamestown, was to tame the untamed, regulate the irregular, and not simply to admit the tendencies of nature. Henry Glassie comments on this dichotomy writing, “This culture inevitably resolves [the] opposition between the artificial and the natural in favor of artificiality: geometry dominates need, the man-made dominates nature. These two structures are further bound tangentially by the opposition of geometry and nature—an opposition resolved wholly in the direction of geometry.”19 Unlike in the German tradition where buildings were absolutely site-specific referencing context, and even becoming part of the ground—or the ground becoming part of the building as in Pennsylvania bank barns, the English had a formal ideal that did not compromise with nature. In some ways this introduced technical complexity for them, but in many ways their purposeful use of “conceptual simplification” allowed them to experiment variably within a single type,20 and again as we learned from Catherine Bishir, “solve new design problems through old ways of problem solving.” The form then was at once complete at the start of a new design problem, and the details of construction would be determined locally through the nuances and tendencies of the craftsman. This is why we see such plurality in construction methods and materials employed, within the singular conceptual form of the North Carolina curing-barn.
North Carolina’s primary tobacco growing region is contained in the north-central and eastern one-half of the state, an area that can be subdivided further into three sub-regions of local building traditions [above]. At two hundred years old, North Carolina’s oldest remaining flue-cure tobacco barns are located in the north-central bright-leaf tobacco region. Its curing barns are always square, and although the smaller size is far more common, they can range in size from the traditional sixteen by sixteen up to as large as twenty-four feet on each side. A very interesting fact about this region is that its barns are built of hewn logs, rather than the typical Anglo-Virginia timber frame. This seems to suggest that something other than Anglo tradition began to influence their construction techniques, while the form remained loyal to the conceptual ideal designed by the early Virginians. The English who lacked a significant log building tradition built square houses out of sawn lumber, at a typical sixteen feet on a side.21 Log construction however, was also used for the one-room dwellings in this same region of North Carolina, but these began to be more rectangular at sixteen by twenty-two or twenty-four feet. This was likely due to the migration of Scotch-Irish settlers who brought the hall and parlor plan to this region of North Carolina between 1750 and 1800.22 Not suprisingly the main room of the house still conformed to the Virginia ideal–a sixteen-foot square with a gable end chimney stack. The parlor “addition” was simply a modular permutation accommodated brilliantly by their predetermined, “conceptually simplistic” framework. As farmers built curing-barns here, we see the use of sheds on one or more sides of the barns in the same manor as was done to the house, where the addition was a multiple of the original module. As needs changed the architecture accommodated those needs. So formally, the house and the barn were the same; functionally they were different. To explain the log construction in this region, since the English probably had little or no part in its appearance; the Scotch-Irish had come from Pennsylvania where the Germans first introduced log construction to America, and along with the Scotch-Irish came the Germans to north-central North Carolina in the last half of the eighteenth century.23 So here, in an area of land along the northern strip of central North Carolina, the confluence of three distinct groups produced an English building form with Scotch-Irish additions, built with German construction—and the Anglo-Carolinian didn’t even have to comprise their cubic ideal. In fact, they were about to benefit greatly from their learned craft of log building. Nothing was inherently wrong with their vernacular timber frame construction method— it worked very well for dwellings, but there was always the problem of too much heat escaping through the thin wood frame walls of their barns. With the transition from open fire curing to flue curing, came an opportunity to greatly improve the efficiency of the curing-barn. Keeping the plan square, the flue-cure barns in this part of North Carolina were from then on built with hewn logs. In log construction, the walls were self-insulating, more durable, and less able to catch on fire due to the inherent thickness of the logs. The critical element of log construction is the corner notching used to join the four walls together structurally. The Germans introduced several types including the half-dovetail, v-notch, and saddle. Once the English had learned this technique from their German friends, they actually developed a few of there own—the diamond, and the square are found in many of the barns in this region.24
Moving eastward from here, there is an area of transition between the log constructed barns and the frame barns of the same square type. The area is quite accurately defined on its western edge by the geographical “fall line” between the piedmont and the coastal plain. The “Triangle” area of Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill mark the center of this relatively thin region, where a mixture of both log and frame traditions occur. There was little eastward migration of the Germans once they entered North Carolina, but the Scotch-Irish did in fact spread further east and taught the log methods to the Anglo-Carolinians. In this middle region though, I know from my late grandfather who succeeded several generations of tobacco farmers; that the most productive area was the land from Durham stretching northeastward to the Virginia border through the Tar River Basin. This area contains a fusion of both the frame and the log construction techniques. In fact both techniques can be found in the same county just miles away from each other. In 1880, editor J.B. Hunter of the Oxford, NC based Torch-Light newspaper, interviewed fifty of the most successful tobacco farmers in Granville County: "A certain Mr. F. Cannady of Wilton describes his barns as eighteen feet square, eighteen feet tall, timber frame, with tiers all the way up starting ten feet from the ground so as to give enough room for packing. Mr. J. W. Currin of Oxford cures log barns with return heat flues, and comments on the proper distance between the flue and the logs so as to prevent fire." 25 Living just west of Oxford while growing up, I remember seeing both log and frame barns along the back roads through Granville county. This being the area of confluence, I now understand why.
The last part of North Carolina to adopt the flue-curing method was the coastal plain which might suggest that farmers here were still curing with open fires well beyond the time that Piedmont farmers began using flues. Or perhaps it suggests that tobacco was simply not grown in eastern North Carolina as early as it was in the inland Piedmont counties along the Virginia border. My research leads me to believe that the latter is true because when the first group of settler’s from Virginia arrived in this area in the 1660’s, what they found was a vast swampland—an extension of Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp. It was known that swamplands were naturally more fertile than inland soils because of the decay of layers of organic material. In 1763, after the settling of the Piedmont region, George Washington formed a company of five investors to drain 40,000 acres of swampland. A canal was dug, and by 1812 the port of Norfolk was connected with the coastal sounds of North Carolina.26 It would have therefore been impossible to have grown tobacco in northeastern North Carolina prior to this time. Whatever may be, log construction only gained moderate acceptance in this region—a region that culturally extends further South to include the border counties of South Carolina. Log barns were built here, but wood framed construction dominated considerably. Everything established as the Anglo-Virginia ideal prevailed. The barns are tightly square, tightly framed, and tightly clad in wooden planks. Doors are mostly centered and flues return air through stacks on the gable end, as does a chimney in the typical early dwelling. The problems with heat retention that frame barns had, still required additional means of insulation. It became very common to wrap the outside of frame barns in a tar paper covering, sheets of tin metal, or extra layers of wooden planks. The most distinct feature of the coastal plain curing barns is the presence of broad perimeter sheds, to shade the workers from the intense summer sun.
North Carolina’s Bright-Leaf tobacco region became a place of decidedly Anglo-Virginia formal tradition, one that celebrated the willingness of its farmers to learn and to share, and to accommodate the constructional modes of other traditions. This was possible through an idealized formal framework that allowed for technical variation within a single archetype. Beneath this veil of experimentation remains a tightly cubic wooden container and placed as an object on the landscape—the same way here, as in the middle, in the Piedmont, and in Virginia—they are all place makers, existing today as memories in the mind or silhouetted shadowy figures along the uncommon path. To the stranger, they are the South—to the native they are home.
Images by author or from the Library of Congress Archive as noted in the titles within the slide show by call number.
Additional Links and Information:Tobacco Farm Life Museum, Kenly, NCDuke Homestead, Tobacco Farm Museum, Durham NCnorthcarolinatobaccobarns.comArticle in Virginia Living MagazinePreservation VirginiaPreservation Virginia Project BlogNews Story on WDBJ7Richmond Times Dispatch
SourcesBishir, Catherine W., “Good and Sufficient Language for Building” in Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture IV, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991
Glassie, Henry, Vernacular Architecture, Philadelphia: Material Culture, 2000
Glassie, Henry, Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1975
Hunter, J.B., “Useful Information Concerning Yellow Tobacco and Other Crops as Told by Fifty of the Most Successful Farmers in Granville County, NC”, Oxford NC: The Torch-Light newspaper, 1880
Lounsbury, Carl, “The Development of Domestic Architecture in the Albemarle Region” in Carolina Dwelling, Raleigh: The Student Publication of North Carolina State University, 1978
Scism, Laura, “Carolina Tobacco Barns” in Carolina Dwelling, Raleigh: The Student Publication of North Carolina State University, 1978
Swaim, Doug, “North Carolina Folk Housing” in Carolina Dwelling, Raleigh: The Student Publication of North Carolina State University, 1978
Walker, Lester, A Little House of My Own, New York: Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, 19871. Scism, “Carolina Tobacco Barns” in Carolina Dwelling, p. 119
02. Glassie, Vernacular Architecture, p. 96
03. Glassie, Vernacular Architecture, p. 96
04. Glassie, Vernacular Architecture, p. 105
05. Glassie, Vernacular Architecture, p. 112
06. Walker, A Little House of My Own, p. 21
07. Glassie, Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, p. 118
08. Glassie, Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, p. 118
09. Glassie, Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, p. 117-18
10. Glassie, Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, p. 119
11. Lounsbury, “The Development of Domestic Architecture in the Albemarle Region” in Carolina Dwelling, p. 46
12. Glassie, Vernacular Architecture, p. 126
13. Glassie, Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, p. 125
14. Glassie, Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, p. 130
15. Swaim, “North Carolina Folk Housing” in Carolina Dwelling, p. 30
16. Bishir, “Good and Sufficient Language for Building” in Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, IV, p. 45-6
17. Scism, “Carolina Tobacco Barns” in Carolina Dwelling, p. 123
18. Hunter, “Useful Information Concerning Yellow Tobacco and Other Crops as Told by Fifty of the Most Successful Farmers in Granville County, NC” an article in The Torch-Light newspaper, Oxford, NC, 1880
19. Glassie, Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, p. 134
20. Glassie, Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, p. 134
21. Swaim, “North Carolina Folk Housing” in Carolina Dwelling, p. 30
22. Swaim, “North Carolina Folk Housing” in Carolina Dwelling, p. 33
23. Swaim, “North Carolina Folk Housing” in Carolina Dwelling, p. 34
24. Swaim, “North Carolina Folk Housing” in Carolina Dwelling, p. 31
25. Hunter, “Useful Information Concerning Yellow Tobacco and Other Crops as Told by Fifty of the Most Successful Farmers in Granville County, NC” an article in The Torch-Light newspaper, Oxford, NC, 1880
26. North Carolina Department of Agriculture, www. agr.state.nc.us/stats/history/history.html