In Kentucky, part of the 'cultural landscape' is in peril

ctruman@herald-leader.comMarch 8, 2014 

Kentucky has more old barns — those built before 1960 — per square mile than any other state.

Craig Potts, executive director of the Kentucky Heritage Council, said the number comes from a 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture census. Kentucky is ahead of Ohio, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

Many of those are tobacco barns, which Potts said are iconic.

"They are very, very important cultural landscape features," Potts said. "We do see them being lost at an alarming rate. They are like any historic outbuildings. ... If they're not maintained regularly, they're going to fall into disrepair."

A rural resource survey on the heritage council's website catalogs some of the rural structures throughout Central Kentucky.

The study found that, although rural houses were taken care of because they continued to be family homes, outbuildings were often left to decay.

It appears that there are no formalized statewide efforts to preserve Kentucky's barns. Saving them is left to individual owners.

Potts said he attended a concert in a re-purposed tobacco barn now being used for gathering at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Mercer County.

Such public uses for tobacco barns are not unusual, even when the barns were still being used in-season for tobacco, Potts said, because of their wide-open interior spaces.

"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.

In Indiana, two bills are making their way through the state legislature that would waive property taxes on some historical barns — a move that might encourage barn owners there to preserve the structures.

One of those bills, filed in the Indiana House of Representatives, would allow counties to adopt a 100 percent property tax deduction on "mortise and tenon" barns built before 1936. It also would require the state tourism office to promote historical barns. A Senate version of the bill passed unanimously in early February.

In Kentucky, state Rep. Jonathan Shell, R-Lancaster, is the latest in generations of tobacco farmers in his family to use dozens of barns of various vintages. In the off-season, those barns can be used for storage and are scrupulously maintained, he said.

Shell said, "The longer people are out of business, they're not going into the barns. They don't keep up with maintenance. It doesn't take a long time for a barn to get uninhabitable to use for tobacco."

Because of such neglect, Shell said, "you're going to have to put up new barns because a lot of the barns are deteriorating."

Hampton "Hoppy" Henton, a longtime tobacco farmer in Woodford County, said he has one barn that has been partially converted for horses, but "we're still on game, we're still raising tobacco" — about 30 acres of it a year.

The newest of four barns on his farm was built 15 years ago, Henton said. "In tobacco terminology, that's pretty new," he said.

He has seen numerous barns elsewhere converted for hay sheds or livestock.

"As it turns out, I'm putting a new roof on a tobacco barn this week," Henton said. "We do something on them all the time. They constantly need some attention."

Henton said the state's old tobacco barns have suffered because of the flight from growing the crop.

"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."

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service