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The Barn

Raised in a Family of Florida Shade Tobacco Farmers, the Author Fights To Save a Piece of That Past
Kay Davis Lay
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

(continued from page 1)

Should we call it quits? Even Mr. T.W. said shade tobacco was passé. He himself had shifted to developing and landscaping aesthetic subdivisions in nearby Tallahassee, with his sons.

About that time, south Florida Sunday magazines began running color spreads showing Gadsden County's ramshackle landscape--montages of rusty-roofed shacks, rakish shadeposts, weeds and kudzu taking over our county, which had once been so neat and prideful. One spread was called "Dead End on a Tobacco Road." It hurt.

Well, the mule spirit that made tobacco last so long in our area, withstanding so many assaults, from war and Reconstruction to black shank disease, took hold of me. Mr. T.W.'s "Whoa!" was like a briar under my tail. Bob's, too. It turned into a mulish obsession of ours that history 100 years hence will have recorded our story--not a revisionist fabrication.

All my life, the view of Forrest on his tractor (framed against the backdrop of the family barn that my dad built) has shaped my perception of the Southern farmer, and the American farmer as well.

Tobacco isn't all that the barn represents to me. It symbolizes a slowly vanishing "something" about this country--our rural heritage. Saving it took Bob, guiding Nathaniel and John through all the stages, pitting their carpentry skills against all kinds of obstacles (doing things I thought only a crane could do); it took my mother, then in her 80s, dishing out Saturday lunches for us (we estimate maybe 2,000 hot, buttered "Grandma Olean" biscuits went into the project). It took the reluctant, modest help of Forrest and that of his son, Jeff, in downsizing the barn to about 100 feet to make it feasible to re-roof and restore.

Before that, it had taken the skills of a master house mover to jack and lift the barn back on its foundation after Hurricane Kate, in 1985, swerved our partly restored barn off its pillars. When all was done, it took the son of an old-time Gadsden County barn painter to help with the "finishing touch," a quality stain sprayed from high ladders. To finance all that, it took (beyond our savings) my taking a night typesetting job. For me it was perhaps the hardest part of all, because working there, typing under extreme deadline pressure, I was often compelled to "sit quiet" and hear misconceptions from my much younger co-workers about the South and a way of life I revered enough to be undergoing this kind of torture for. Fortunately, Bob and our cat, Tora, waited patiently at home in Tallahassee with supper at midnight and words of comfort and cheer.

Came the day in November 1989 when all was complete. After a day of interviews with other shade tobacco farmers, building on our oral history effort, Bob and I returned to the barn at sunset. The sheet metal roof gleamed over what was left of the 40,000 original wood shingles (a standard practice used by farmers with old barns); the stain dried with warm, reddish tones. We found the setting sun poised exactly behind it--throwing sprawling shades and a sort of russet glory. We thought of the Angelus, when the church bells rang and farmers in our ancestors' fields stopped nightly and bowed their heads in the evening hush. We two stood that glorious moment and bowed our heads.

Many misty people and scenes bombarded my mind--my dad in his old khakis leaning on a pole, watching us string the tobacco leaves; a boy, Sonny Johnson, bringing in the horse-drawn barge loaded with fresh-primed leaves; his sister, Iris, "loving" every new baby the mothers brought to lay beside them on their table as they worked; my sisters, Saradee and Betty, saving the barn when it was struck by lightning on a Sunday evening as they relayed buckets of water up all those tierpoles (the rafters where the tobacco sticks hung) to Claude Ward, who'd spotted the fire when it happened; women and girls (like me and a cute, little freckled blonde friend named Nada Merle Hamilton), racing to string more sticks than anybody else, especially when we went "modern" and got electric stringing machines; and of course, my mother--the unsung hero of the whole place.

I remembered two of the workers tying up tobacco (a process we did after it was cured and brought down to be "bulked" in the center hallway). They were arguing about where California was--if only I'd had a tape recorder!

In the spring, when the new tobacco plants were just planted, they made a graceful sight, looped to overhead wires by cotton twine out under the hand-sewn billowing shades. I thought of them as angels' harp strings. I would slosh barefooted down the irrigated furrows. How any childhood could be complete without that joy, I didn't know.

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