Many of those of us who are old enough to remember traveling on two-lane highways have fond memories of the role barns played in keeping us informed. By reading advertisements painted on roadside barns, we learned about Mail Pouch chewing tobacco and Rock City and Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Even today, there are dozens of barns throughout the state with attractive quilt patterns painted on them, and Elliott County even encourages visitors to drive through the county just to see the quilts painted on barns. In neighboring Ohio. there are still a few barns beautifully painted to advertize the state’s bicentennial in 2003. The bicentennial celebration ended 11 years ago, but the barns still stand promoting the Buckeye State.
We mention all this only to say that Craig Potts, director of the Kentucky Heritage Council, has sounded the alarm that barns in the state are being demolished at “an alarming rate.”
In 2007, Kentucky had more pre-1960 barns per square mile than any other state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture census in that year. However, so many barns have been torn down in Kentucky in the last seven years that Potts said the state may no longer have that distinction.
The demise of tobacco as the state’s number one cash crop is a major reason for a decline in the number of barns in the state. That’s because it is not easy to convert a tobacco barn into other uses, and landowners who no longer raise tobacco are choosing to tear down their tobacco barns instead of going to the expense of converting them to other uses.
Some of the old tobacco barns are being used for gatherings, such as one at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Mercer County, Potts said, who attended a concert in that old barn. The practice was common decades ago.
“In rural communities where a large space under one roof was not available all the time, they would use tobacco barns as gathering spaces,” Potts said.
Hampton “Hoppy” Henton, a longtime tobacco farmer in Woodford County, says the old barns have fallen into disrepair because so many farmers have moved away from growing the crop and don’t see the need to reinvest in them as they are.
He said he still has one tobacco barn that has been partially converted for horses. Henton says he still grows the crop, but he has seen other farmers convert barns into hay sheds or use them for livestock.
“We don’t have a long-term perspective,” he says of Kentucky agriculture. “We say, nobody’s going to smoke anymore. People are going to smoke e-cigarettes. We all have a pessimistic view of the future. We all think it’s our last crop, so we don’t re-capitalize,” Henton said.
What Henton calls pessimistic, we would call realistic. Tobacco will never again be the cash crop it once was in Kentucky. Farmers know that and are tearing down the barns they no longer have a use for.
While those of us who love old barns lament their demise, if a farmer wants to demolish an unused barn, there is little anyone can do to prevent him from doing so. Of course, the Boyd County Community Center was once a horse barn, but few governments or individuals have the financial means for converting an old barn into a new use. Even most of the barns advertising Mail Pouch have disappeared and Rock City has found other ways to advertise its attraction besides barns near highways less traveled than they once were.