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Memories preserved as tobacco barn remade into winery
By ROCKY WOMACK
CHATHAM, Va. — Pittsylvania County farmer Joe Williams remembers those fond family memories in tobacco barns.
When he was a young boy of about six years old, he helped his dad take down barnfulls of cured leaf.
His father would first climb up toward the top of the barn to let down the wooden sticks filled with brown tobacco. Then he would climb down and tell his son to ease onto the bottom tier pole so he could hand the tobacco to his father on the ground of the barn floor. They were doing what is known as “laying down or packing down” tobacco to keep the moisture in the leaves so they won’t dry out.
“I couldn’t straddle the poles, of course, so I had to sit there with one leg wrapped around one pole,” Williams recalled. “I’d wrap my leg around the pole and hand it down to him. Good times. Didn’t have a care in the world.”
To help preserve some family tobacco barns on an adjoining farm and enhance his grape operation, Williams found an alternative use for the structures — a winery building. He moved two old barns from a cousin’s place to his farm outside of Chatham where he and his family operate The Homeplace Vineyard.
“Tobacco is my heritage,” he says. “I was born and raised on a tobacco farm, my dad, my grandparents and my great-grandparents. We were looking for something maybe a little bit out of the ordinary for what most of the time you think a winery having, but at the same time we were looking for something that we could associate with this part of the country. We just settled on trying to build it out of log barns and making it comfortable where people could come, sat down, drink a glass of wine and feel comfortable.”
It took Williams and his family two years to rebuild the barns, which originally belonged to his great-grandfather who probably built, or had them built, and cured tobacco in them.
He estimates the barns were built in the early 1900s since his cousin is now in her 80s. In the early stages after, the structure included flues or fire boxes, which were chucked with wood slabs to cure what most growers called flue-cured tobacco. Later in years for curing, the barns were converted to oil and gas burners.
Williams remodeled the interior of the barns with wooden floors and ceilings, a stone-mantle fireplace and a wraparound porch to help preserve the cracking logs from the weather elements.
He said most of the old wooden barns standing today have some damage to the logs caused by water.
“All you need is one piece of tin to blow off where the water runs down on the logs, and it won’t be long before it’ll be gone,” he said. “That was one reason I wanted this porch all around here. A whole lot of them are cracked up here, and when the water gets in it, it doesn’t dry.
“That’s one reason I wanted the porch all the way around it, just for the protection of the logs.”