Southern Maryland Tobacco Barn

By Russo, Richard A. | Southeastern Geographer, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Southern Maryland Tobacco Barn


Russo, Richard A., Southeastern Geographer


The photograph on the cover of this issue of the Southeastern Geographer is of a vertical-planked tobacco barn located in the quiet Wallville area of Calvert County, Maryland. Other tobacco barns dot the landscape in Southern Maryland, but they stand as increasingly lonely sentinels watching over a cultural landscape and a rural culture in retreat. In 2004, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Southern Maryland tobacco barns among the top eleven endangered historic places in the United States (National Trust for Historic Preservation 2012).

The style of the barn indicates that it was built in the first half of the 20th-century. While the wood-frame structure is simple on the exterior (with hinged, vertical ventilation panels on the sides), the interior space is a dense network of hanging tiers for drying. Maryland's tobacco is a distinct variety (Type 32, Southern Maryland), appreciated for its slow, even burn. Maryland tobacco is air-cured, thus tobacco barns were often sited with ventilation and air flow as a top concern (Hart and Mather 1961). The pictured barn sits on the drainage divide between the Patuxent River and St. Leonard Creek, with one side of ventilation facing the breezy northwest and the other side facing the sunny southeast. The view to the west of the barn takes in the rolling slope down to the Patuxent River and the St. Mary's County shoreline beyond.

Tobacco is often referred to as "the money crop." This labor-intensive crop was never farmed in large acreages in Southern Maryland; most small farms set aside just a few acres for tobacco. While other parts of Maryland abandoned tobacco in the 1700s, Southern Maryland's well-drained soils were well-suited to its cultivation. The Maryland tobacco economy has been oriented to European markets since the beginning, from England during the colonial era to Swiss cigarette makers in the 20th-century (Center for Tobacco Grower Research 2008). As late at 1997, tobacco represented 44 percent of Calvert County's agricultural sales. Ten years later, and seven years into the buyout, tobacco represented about 3 percent of the county's agricultural sales (USDA 1997, 2007). Without the money crop, the tobacco barns of Calvert County serve no purpose other than as symbolic reminders of the past. As such, they have fallen victim to the relentless march of Washington D.C.'s suburbs from the north and the growth associated with the expansion of operations at the Patuxent River Naval Base in the southern end of the county.

Preserving the material culture of the tobacco past will require repurposing these barns for other uses. The Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, the entity established by the state to handle the tobacco buyout program, is eloquent but direct about the changes in the region's landscape.

   There was no doubt: tobacco was king,
   and the wooden barns that cured it
   were castles. But today, its reign has
   ended. Scenes of rich green leaves
   waving in the sun and the weathered
   barns propped open to the breeze are
   quietly disappearing as the region diversifies
   away from its tobacco-based
   economy . … 

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