One of the facts that we all learned in history class in school was that the colony of Virginia was founded because of the viability of harvesting the tobacco crop. When one thinks of tobacco you probably think about North Carolina as well. Did you know that Maryland was also founded because of the tobacco plant? Some of the first barns constructed in the New World were in the colony of Maryland and their tobacco barns have taken on a unique shape and appearance.
One of the main cash crops that made the New World viable was tobacco. Colonies sprung up near Jamestown, Roanoke Island in North Carolina and in St. Mary’s City in what is today Maryland. The colony was intended to be a Catholic refuge but was open to all and needing something to keep the colony solvent the colonists began growing tobacco.
Harvesting, drying and curing tobacco is a labor intensive process and was done by slave labor. Needing a place to store the tobacco a barn seemed to be the ideal location but with a few modifications. Vertical slats were added to allow the tobacco to be air-dried and these slats would face northeast, or the direction of the wind. The unique V-shaped roof allowed for maximum storage capacity. Inside are a dense network of tiers for hanging the tobacco.
The tobacco that comes from Southern Maryland was long sought after for its slow and even burn. It became known as Maryland-type tobacco or Type 32. Nearly every farm in this area (Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s Counties) had several acres of tobacco set aside from the normal crops of corn and wheat. It was a lucrative money maker and it paid the farmers bills for many years. Even up until 1997 it represented 44% of Calvert County’s agricultural sales and in 2001 more than 1,000 farmers grew tobacco.
Then the government got involved. The state of Maryland decided to use some of the money it received from its involvement in a lawsuit settlement against tobacco companies in 1998 dissuade farmers from growing tobacco. The state began paying farmers to grow other crops instead and within five years only about 150 farmers were still cultivating tobacco (thanks in part to demand from Philip Morris) and is confined mostly to Amish farmers in the area.
The result was that the tobacco barns were no longer needed. Some were gobbled up as the Washington DC suburbs expanded into Charles and Calvert counties. Some were neglected and have begun falling apart. Some though have been preserved thanks in no small part to a group called Preservation Maryland and the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission. Farmers are finding other uses for their barns and are being aided in restoring them to their former glory.
Some of the barns that were lost were some of the oldest in the United States, some dating even to the 17th century. A reconstructed tobacco barn was built in St. Mary’s City and is open to visitors to the park where you get to experience life in colonial Maryland.