Tobacco curing barns have helped to define the Pee Dee landscape since the 1880s. Unlike the ventilated air-drying sheds used in Burley regions like Kentucky, South Carolina's Bright Leaf tobacco was “flue-cured” by artificial heat. Thus, curing barns were tightly constructed to maintain high temperatures during the four to five day curing process. A brick furnace circulated heat through a network of stove pipes (“flues”) that ran parallel to and a few inches above the floor. Tobacco leaves were strung on wooden sticks and hung overhead on rows of tier poles. Early tobacco barns were generally sixteen feet square and twenty feet high with four “rooms” of tier poles. As crop yields increased in the 1940s and 1950s, twenty-foot square, five room barns became the norm. Typically, the outside walls were skirted by a shed roof that sheltered handing and stringing.
Curing barn architecture evolved slowly. Until the 1940s, most farmers built their barns from homegrown materials: stout logs chinked with clay and roofed with hand-hewn shingles. Tier poles were fashioned from slender pine saplings. Later, farmers purchased dressed lumber and covered it with store-bought asphalt sheathing. Handmade shingles bowed to tin roofing. In the 1950s and 1960s, a few farmers invested in cement block construction. Curing fuels and technologies also evolved. At first, tobacco growers fueled their brick furnaces with firewood cut from their own forests. By the 1950s, however, kerosene and propane gas burners were commonplace in the Pee Dee.
As tobacco culture mechanized in the late 1960s, all-metal, rectangular “bulk” barns began replacing traditional barns. Bulk curing eliminated several labor intensive tasks and cured more leaf with less fuel. Automated controls greatly simplified curing. By 1990, essentially all of the state's tobacco crop was bulk cured. At century's end, a few examples of wooden tobacco barns were being preserved as heritage assets in the Pee Dee.
Eldred E. Prince Jr.