HUNTINGTOWN – Driving in his red pickup truck, Larry Wilson points to a housing development along state Route 263 in Calvert County.
“I remember that being an open field, and where these houses are, I used to plant tobacco,” said Wilson, 54. “When I was a young teenager . . . I helped my father, and I helped other farmers, and that’s how I made money to buy my school clothes and my first car.”
Wilson’s family grew tobacco for four generations, beginning with his grandfather and ending with his 30-year-old son.
Remnants of those tobacco days lay inside the dusty grey barn behind Wilson’s three-story house in Huntingtown. The barn that his grandfather built in 1928 hasn’t been used to hang and dry tobacco since Wilson stopped growing the crop three years ago when it became unprofitable. Today, the barn holds the machines and tools he once used for planting and harvesting.
Tobacco farming is a dying way of life in Southern Maryland. But thousands of abandoned or deteriorating barns stand as proof of a once-booming business. Now two groups are aiming to save those vestiges as reminders of bygone days.
Save America’s Treasures, a national nonprofit that preserves historic sites is providing $200,000 to Maryland barn owners to help save them.
The Maryland Historical Trust added $30,000 to restore barns owned by nonprofits, said Preservation Maryland spokeswoman Connie Anderton.
Preservation Maryland, a nonprofit historic preservation group, will administer both grants.
The funds are expected to be doled out over three years, with more than $75,000 awarded this year, Anderton said. The money was earmarked after the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Southern Maryland’s tobacco barns on its 2004 list of 11 Most Endangered Places.
A nine-member selection committee expects to soon announce the 10 to 15 Maryland barns that will receive funds, said Teresa Wilson, a historic preservation planner in St. Mary’s County who is on the selection committee.
Fifty-five barn owners from five counties – Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, St. Mary’s and Prince George’s – applied for grants of up to $10,000 each for renovations. Five nonprofit tourist sites, including Greenwell State Park and Summerseat Farm in St. Mary’s County, applied for money to restore barns.
Winners must match grants with their own money.
“The tobacco barns are really the most evocative representation of the agricultural heritage in Southern Maryland and certainly represented the tobacco industry — which was dominant in Maryland for centuries,” said Joshua Phillips, director of preservation services at Preservation Maryland.
Barns from each of the counties will most likely be selected if they are visible to the public, are still being used and were built in the 18th century, Phillips said.
Greenwell State Park along the Patuxent River applied for $10,000 to restore what is the oldest barn in St. Mary’s County, said Kendall Sorenson-Clark, executive director of the park.
“It’s a pretty unusual structure,” Clark said. The initial structure was built around 1785, but three additions were built around it, all in different time periods, she said.
Larry Wilson said he hopes to restore the siding and frame on his barn in Calvert County if he gets the $2,100 grant he applied for. The barn serves mostly as a storage space. The building is in fairly good condition, he said.
“Old tobacco barns I think are an integral part of the scenery in Southern Maryland, especially in Calvert County,” he said. “What Calvert County and all of Maryland was built on was the production of tobacco.”
For more than 300 years, Southern Maryland farmers have been commercially growing tobacco. But production of the crop has sharply declined since the state initiated a “buyout” program in 1999 that pays farmers to replace tobacco with alternative crops.
“A lot of people just aren’t willing to, just don’t want to work for themselves, which is what a farmer does, and just don’t see the value of putting in the sweat and labor of your own hands,” Larry Wilson said.
Still a farmer, he now grows pumpkins, tomatoes, corn and various produce and sells them at a stand outside his home.
On a drive through any of the five counties, tobacco barns can be spotted from the roadside. There are six types of tobacco barns, and each has a different shape, Teresa Wilson said.
“They’re sort of like different birds; there are different profiles that you can recognize,” she said.
She added that the effort to preserve tobacco barns goes hand in hand with the movement to protect farmland.
“It’s pretty key that to save agricultural buildings you have to save agricultural land,” she said.
Politicians have joined the movement to preserve Maryland barns. The Maryland Legislature passed a bill this session that would establish a $300,000 Maryland Barn Preservation Fund to save historic agricultural buildings, said Delegate Paul S. Stull, R-Frederick, lead sponsor of the measure. The bill is waiting to be signed by the governor.
Additionally, at least 14 states run barn preservation programs, including New York, Maine and Vermont, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.