Preserving a heritage
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The Tobacco Farm Life Museum takes visitors back in time, recreating farm family life from the late 19th century to the present.
In Kenly, North Carolina, there’s a smoke house that has existed since the late 1880s and is still in use today. Peek inside, and you will find a country ham that’s been hanging in the dark since January. The ham came from a hog-processing demonstration, one conducted each winter on Hog Killing Day at the Tobacco Farm Life Museum in Kenly. The hog-killing and the preservation of the ham are just one of the many traditional farm life activities that live on within the confines of the museum, while farming outside the museum walls continues to change.
In October, museum volunteers will gather to sample thin slices of the ham on fresh-baked biscuits, a small reward in exchange for a year of hard work preserving the history of Eastern North Carolina farm life.
Since its inception in 1983, the museum has grown from a small exhibit created by a group of local families who wanted to preserve the cultural heritage of the tobacco farm family for future generations. The museum is a combination of 6,000 square feet of indoor exhibit facilities and a restored early 20th-century farmstead situated on five wooded acres.
Museum Director Lynn Wagner says the theme of the museum reflects farm life in the area from the 1880s, when the first tobacco market came to the area in Wilson, N.C. “It was then that farm life changed to revolve around tobacco,” Wagner says. “Prior to this, most farmers in the area were sustenance farmers.”
As Wagner leads a tour, visitors are immediately struck by the expanse and detail of the museum’s exhibits.
The tour begins with a short video introducing visitors to tobacco farming. After the movie, visitors tour the 4,000-square-foot gallery that holds a variety of exhibits concerning Eastern Carolina farm life and the communities that thrived from growing the golden leaf. The exhibit space features both permanent and rotating exhibits.
Exhibits include a mock warehouse, where a recording preserves the traditional auction chant. Other exhibits display wagons from the Hackney wagon company in Wilson, an old hand-crank Allis Chalmers tractor and a gravity gas pump.
One of the more interesting pieces is a cast-iron tobacco sprayer. The two-row sprayer is believed to have been ordered from Sears, Roebuck and Co. in 1925, Wagner says. The sprayer, used to kill tobacco worms, looks like it weighs at least 300 pounds. Even with a mule to pull the sprayer, it must have been back-breaking work to steer it through a field. Children had the only slightly less onerous task of picking off the worms by hand and crushing them with their feet before the farmer sprayed the field.
Another exhibit provides examples of how daily domestic life was conducted. As might be expected, many farm families had little extra money to spend—a typical farm family at the time had 10 acres of tobacco and had to support family and often extended family on the profits from that tobacco, Wagner says. Visitors may be surprised to learn that Eastern Carolina farm families rarely made their own fabric after 1850 and relied on inexpensive textiles made locally or recycled fabric like empty seed and fertilizer sacks to make their clothing.
Behind the museum is a restored turn-of-the-century homestead, including a farm house and detached kitchen, smokehouse and log tobacco barn, all dating from the 1880s or early 1900s. A replica of a packhouse typical of the era completes the homestead.
The kitchen, house, smokehouse, and milk shed all came from a farm originally built by Iredell Brown in Micro, N.C. In 1982, Iredell’s great-grandson donated the buildings to the museum. They were relocated to the Kenly site and now hold artifacts depicting rural Carolina farm life during the Depression era. Wagner shows off the “kiddy coop,” a small crib enclosed in mesh to protect infants from insects and other vermin while the parents worked in the fields.
The log tobacco curing barn came from another farm and is one of the best preserved in the state. The barn was originally built by Ephram Atkinson in 1900. The logs are hand-hewn from long-leaf pines. The barn originally was wood-burning and was upgraded to oil around 1920. Visitors can look up into the rafters to see how the tobacco sticks were hung, view the wood furnace, and inspect the authentic wheeled and sled mule-drawn tobacco carts.
The packhouse is the newest addition to the farmstead. It is a reproduction of the general-purpose style buildings found throughout North Carolina’s countryside used as a farm’s general work and storage facility. One room is set up to show how newly cured tobacco was graded and prepared for auction. A small cot in the corner would be where farmers would sleep during curing, maintaining a close watch day and night over the curing process. “Many of the older farmers who come in here call this our million-dollar packhouse,” says Wagner. “Most packhouses in those days were much smaller, but we had to build it bigger to have room for storage and a classroom.”
The extra room in the packhouse is where the museum hosts classes often frequented by school tour groups. A butter-churning demonstration pro-
vides participants the opportunity to churn butter the old-fashioned way, with samples to take home. “Many younger children are amazed that it used to take all day to make butter, and you couldn’t run to the store and buy it in a plastic tub,” Wagner says.
Other activities that groups can participate in include candle-dipping demonstrations, where participants make their own hand-dipped wax candles with pieces of tobacco sticks.
Wagner has big plans for the museum. The museum will add a blacksmith shop with demonstrations by a resident blacksmith and an authentic one-room schoolhouse from the period. They also hope to soon recruit a farmer to grow rows of tobacco and cotton, so that visitors can see how cotton was picked and tobacco was cured.
In a nod to modern farming, the museum now also offers off-site farm tours. Wagner says visitors from as far away as Canada and Germany have come to on-farm tours with a local tobacco farmer as a guide.