Agricultural Outbuildings: Tobacco Barns

One of the symbols of the Kentucky Bluegrass is the tall, black frame tobacco barn, long narrow windows on the side open and the distinctive golden brown tint of tobacco leaves hanging from the tier rails. Most historic tobacco barns in the Commonwealth date from the twentieth century, a time when the USDA was promoting a standardized barn design to aid the tobacco curing process.

Despite the push of science, however, tobacco barns in the state continued to be built in just about any way the farmer desired. When it became apparent that burley tobacco would become a staple for the agricultural economy, many existing stock barns were modified to accommodate the crop. It is rare to find a single purpose barn on most Kentucky farms, just as it is to find one that isn’t comprised of reused lumber and posts.

The tobacco barn is basically a variant on the transverse frame barn and has a very simple plan. They are usually longer than they are wide, with openings on the gable ends, either hinged double doors or sliding doors. The side walls have vents, long, narrow hinged opening. Clad with vertical boards (the boxing, as it is known), they have a gable roof, typically corrugated metal. The ridgeline may be dotted with small circular vents, or a raised gable vent (like a small monitor roof) may straddle most of the ridgeline. Inside, there is a central drive or aisle, and an aisle to either side. These may be left open, or often are divided into pens or stalls to house animals in the winter months and early spring.

Standardized measurements, following the USDA’s publications and guidelines, began to show up in tobacco barns in Kentucky in the 1930s. Barns were from 25 to 48 feet wide, the side walls 16 to 24 feet high with four to six tiers spaced four to five feet apart. The length of the barn depended on how much the farmer wanted to spend, as well as the size of his tobacco base.