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Tobacco Barns: Stately Relics of a Bygone Era

Tobacco barns have a lot of open spaces, and you can tell when they're empty. But some, like this one in Kentucky's Bourbon County, have racks of golden crisp leaves hanging inside.
Noah Adams, NPR /
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Tobacco barns have a lot of open spaces, and you can tell when they're empty. But some, like this one in Kentucky's Bourbon County, have racks of golden crisp leaves hanging inside.

Around each curve in rural Kentucky, it seems, there's another tobacco barn. Many of them are like old gentlemen — still handsome but kind of falling in on themselves.

There was a time in Kentucky when November meant tobacco money. Burley tobacco for cigarettes, cash money for the farm. But now, many of the old warehouses are dark and cold. Auctioneers' chants are audio of the past. In the early 1990s, there were about 60,000 tobacco farmers in Kentucky. Last year, there were about 10,000.

Henry County along the Kentucky River is home to one of the remaining active barns. Smoke is in the air and Regina Sharp is hard at work stripping tobacco leaves. A visitor may find the smell to be lovely, but Sharp doesn't share that sentiment. When it's dry and the stove is going, your nose feels like it's on fire, she says.

Tobacco barns are finding new uses. For some people, they're a place to dry garlic.

Betty King lives in one. She bought the land and thought, why not fix up an apartment in the barn?

"Barns are so beautiful; I hate to see those disappear from the landscape," she says. "I don't get the tobacco smell, but I do look up at some of the rafters and see strays of tobacco from years past hanging down. I feel good because it is part of history, and I left as much as I could with the original beams showing. I'm not a smoker and I don't promote smoking, but I think there's part of that culture that I'm pleased to have preserved."

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Noah Adams, long-time co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, brings more than three decades of radio experience to his current job as a contributing correspondent for NPR's National Desk., focusing on the low-wage workforce, farm issues, and the Katrina aftermath. Now based in Ohio, he travels extensively for his reporting assignments, a position he's held since 2003.