Tobacco’s Tools

Bundles of dried tobacco plants hang from a wooden tobacco stick.

The eighteenth-century tobacco barn on the National Colonial Farm is filled with dry tobacco. Cut and bundled in the fall, the once-green plants hang down from hand-split tobacco sticks, now brown and weathered. A 1770 spring would have found colonists preparing their tobacco fields for planting. Last season’s dried plants would have already been stripped and “prized” (or pressed) into hogsheads (or large wooden barrels) for shipment across the sea to England.

But now that tobacco is no longer this region’s cash crop, our tobacco barns—so essential in curing tobacco and so central to our landscape—have fallen out of use. The National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2004 listed Southern Maryland’s tobacco barns among the 11 most endangered historic places in the nation. Southern Maryland preservationists have worked to refurbish these unique vestiges of our past when possible.

The eighteenth-century tobacco barn at the National Colonial Farm.

And as for the tobacco sticks? Not worth much, these sticks are now seemingly without use. But the educators at the Accokeek Foundation have discovered a carver in Tennessee who has re-purposed the once-vital tools, turning decades-old Oak and Hickory tobacco sticks into walking sticks. The incredible (and useful!) walking sticks are reminiscent of this region’s history, so closely tied to the land and the tobacco that grew from it. The sticks can be purchased in our remodeled Visitor Center Gift Shop, which will reopen on Saturday, March 5.

Decades-old tobacco sticks-turned-walking sticks, for sale at our Visitor Center Gift Shop.

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Missive from the Reading Room of the American Antiquarian Society

by Lisa Hayes, Director of Public Programs and Education

In December I learned that I had been selected for a four-week Creative and Performing Artists and Writers Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, to do research for the Accokeek Foundation’s museum theater program. With our busy schedule at the farm, the only time I could come was January. So now it’s the day after a blizzard, and I’m sitting at my wooden table in the beautiful Reading Room at the AAS. Two tables over, I see James and Lois Horton, distinguished scholars here to do research for a major new work on African American history. Looking down at me is a portrait of Isaiah Thomas, the New England publisher who started the Society in 1812 with his personal collection of 8,000 books. The AAS is now home to over three million books, pamphlets, newspapers, periodicals, graphic arts materials, and manuscripts that document the history of the United States. While my main focus has been on crime and punishment (the theme for our 2011 Museum Theater Internship Program), I have also been searching for materials related to what we interpret at the National Colonial Farm, from foodways to plants and animals. Today’s “digging” turned up an article on making cider and two articles from the January 1787 edition of The American Museum, one on an “Experiment for raising Indian corn in poor land” and the other about the “culture of carrots.”  Time to get back to “digging”!