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Aging barns getting a new life after tobacco

AFP Correspondent

(April 18, 2017) A barn is perhaps the most iconic image that represents agriculture.
Of course, a barn can be many things, but for most farmers it’s a functional building.
When a barn loses its purpose, though, it can be at risk for neglect.
That’s the reality in Southern Maryland.
Virtually overnight, the tobacco buyout of the 1990s changed the landscape of agriculture in the five Southern Maryland counties: Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s.
As you drive around, you’ll see tobacco barns, dotting the landscape among housing developments and fields that once grew tobacco.
But many of those barns are falling apart, turned into sheds and storage buildings, no longer needed for its intended purpose.
“As an organization, we probably get a call a week about trying to get funding to save tobacco barns,” said Nicholas Redding, executive director of Preservation Maryland. “Tobacco barns are one of the most iconic pieces of Maryland agriculture we have. As they lose their economic purpose, though, they become harder and harder to save.”
For over 350 years, these buildings were used to cure tobacco. The architecture of Southern Maryland tobacco barns is unique from other tobacco growing states. In Maryland, tobacco was air-cured as opposed to being flue-cured like in Virginia and the Carolinas. Hinged, vertical panels on the sides of the barn could open and close to control airflow and humidity.
Southern Maryland farmers will tell you how big their barn is by the number of “rooms” it has. Tobacco barns are long and the interior structure is compartmentalized.
There will be a single or double aisle down the center with a series of 4 to 5-foot bays along the sides. Tobacco was hung to the full height of the barn, impaled on stakes across rows of rafters.
Preservationists estimate that there are thousands of tobacco barns in the region. A majority of those still standing are from the 19th and 20th centuries. But some, are from the 1800s. These can be identified by their asymmetrical roof line.
Lucille Walker has one such barn on her property in Prince George’s County. She said the History Channel has filmed it before.
“They couldn’t find another one like it from that time period or this area,” said Walker, who is also the executive director of the Southern Maryland Heritage Area Consortium. “A key to tourism is the identity of a region. Tobacco barns are intricately involved in the foundation story of Southern Maryland, which is the birthplace of Maryland.”
In 2004, the National Historic Trust named Tobacco Barns of Southern Maryland to their list of most endangered places. For a period of time, there was grant funding available to help landowners restore barns. But Walker and Redding said that money has run out.
There was new hope in 2006, when the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation to create an agricultural structure preservation program.
But it was never funded.
“It’s just not a priority right now,” said Grace Brady, the Historic Preservation Planner for St. Mary’s County. “I certainly think [tobacco barn preservation] is a worthwhile project, but [legislators] have to worry about basics like school and infrastructure.”
The key to saving these historic structures, preservationists say, is finding a new use for the barn.
“As farmers have transitioned into new agricultural endeavors, many have repurposed tobacco barns to become the focal point of their new farm business, like wineries, distilleries, and agritourism,” said Shelby Watson Hampton, director of the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, which administered the state tobacco buyout program.
Walker said grant money is available for some projects, but there are limitations.
“For our organization, it has to be part of a heritage tourism plan,” Walker said. “We are looking for viable projects that will preserve tobacco barns in a way that allows them to continue into the future.”
Not all tobacco barns will get a second chance at life, though. And for some, it’s a race against the clock.
Terry Quinn figured he has just weeks, possibly even days, before a barn he holds dear may perish.
It won’t be a result of neglect, though. Rather, development.
“I know we won’t be able to raise the money we need in time,” said Quinn. “At this point, we’re looking for someone who has the means and a big heart to help us facilitate the move.”
For the better part of a year, Quinn has been trying to raise money to relocate a tobacco barn, commonly known as the “Route 4 Barn.” The side of the barn was painted with an American flag by a high school student in the early 1990s during the First Gulf War.
“It’s easily one of the most recognizable barns in the area, located in Owings along Calvert County’s main corridor.
The surrounding property, once a tobacco farm, has been developed. The site where the barn sits will soon be developed, too.
“To me, it’s more about the troops’ pride in our Veterans. The preservation part is just icing on the cake,” said Quinn, who is himself a Veteran of foreign wars and owner of an art gallery in Solomons.
Quinn said they need about $64,000 to relocate the barn from its current location to a farm across the road. To date, he’s raised just over $6,000.
“I’m befuddled as to why we haven’t been able to raise this money. Everybody has an ownership of it, but very few have done what they could to participate financially,” Quinn said.
Redding said finding funding for private property owners to repair barns is a challenge. There is a federal income tax credit for rehabilitating historic buildings, like tobacco barns, with qualified expenses of greater than $5,000. But projects like Quinn’s have to rely on community fundraising efforts.
“We don’t want to lose these places, but preservation isn’t just putting things on a shelf,” said Walker. “Tobacco barns are part of our heritage and culture in Southern Maryland, but they can also be part of our future.”