As you drive through the state of Kentucky, whether on dirt country roads or state highways, you’ll notice black-stained old “Tobacco Barns” peppering the farm country landscape. It’s no misnomer that the black is the chosen color as it absorbs heat from the sun to speed up the drying and curing process of the tobacco leaves. Inside, ‘tobacco sticks’ (also called ‘laths’) are hung with tobacco attached for drying and curing. Having lived in Kentucky prior to taking off on our RVing adventures, we got to see start to finish the tobacco farming culture.
Kentucky farmers have and still grow three types of tobacco; burley, dark fire-cured and dark air-cured. Burley tobacco, used primarily in cigarettes, comprises more than 90% of total production and is grown in all but 1 of the 120 counties in the state. There are only an estimated 4500 tobacco growers left in Kentucky and has been declining due to growing health concerns as well as the increasing number of outsourced overseas growers; both of which have devastated the state’s tobacco industry.
Tobacco is harvested in late summer in Kentucky. The plants are cut using a tobacco knife. Once cut, the plants are hung on ‘tobacco sticks’ (or laths) which are hauled on open wooden wagons towed by farm trucks to the black tobacco barns to cure. Later, the leaves are removed from the stalk and sold at market.
How tobacco sticks (laths) are made…
Decades and to even a century ago, after each harvest, while the tobacco dried and cured, large trees were harvested and logs were cut into five-foot lengths. Each log was split into thinner pieces with a froe; a wedge tool driven into a block of wood with a mallet and split into thinner sections until the lath was made. Typically, farmers could make upwards to 500 laths per day. Several thousand were needed for each farm however, most times, they made more than they needed to sell on the side to other less-ambitious farmers. Back then, the sticks sold for about three cents each. Today, they are worth much more…”if” you can find them.
Now, as years pass and tobacco farms folding, the tobacco barns are left to remind us of days gone by, torn down or burned.
Fast forward a generation or five…
Recently, we decided to take a field trip to Oldham County to learn a little Kentucky history and watch an amazing Craftsman create art that has that history attached to it.
We met up with Tobacco Barn Craftsman Matt Hartlage and his wife, Sara to learn about their amazing art pieces. When we arrived at their workshop, we were met with smiles, sweaty hugs and calloused handshakes. It was a typical scorching, late May day in Kentucky, but the heat didn’t pull this forty-something year old couple away from reclaiming tobacco’s past. As Matt was working on one of his pieces, Sara was busy building display racks for upcoming fairs and festival showings while their little boy played in the yard.
Chatting with them, we learned that Matt, is a truck driver by day and Craftsman by night and weekends. Some of Matt’s fondest memories were spent each summer working with his cousins on his grandparent’s farm (tobacco and other crops) in Ohio. In his teen years, Matt took interest in Woodworking in his high school shop classes. Years later in November 2016, his upbringing (farming) collaborated with his passion to create TBC. He procured a bundle of tobacco sticks to make homemade Christmas gifts for family and friends. His first design was the ‘Kentucky Snowflake’ that sparked so much interest that he began designing and crafting other interesting wall art.
Sara, mother to their 5 year old boy and a CRM Manager for a global insurance broker handles much of the administrative, PR and other planning for Tobacco Barn Craftsman.
As we were listening to their stories, we noticed stacks upon stacks of these ‘tobacco sticks’ (or laths), buckets of sheered off remnants, saws and tools of every kind, and a rather, beat up-looking Cowboy hat that hung on the wall behind his tool-cluttered bench. I wanted to ask “what’s up with the Cowboy hat?” but didn’t. I bet it made for a great story or two based on it’s not-so-delicate-wear. Off in the corner hung finished works of art waiting to be boxed up and sent as gifts across the Country. I can’t tell you how impressed we were with unique creativity and history reclaimed into magnificent wall art that breathes a story.
While we stood back and watched them design, sizing sticks, layouts, sawing and sanding, I thought to myself, THIS is America! This is the bread and butter on their walnut-stained tables they say their blessings at each meal. Matt and Sara were bringing back Kentucky History in their art to be put in homes all across America.
Without giving away their trade secrets of acquiring their lath supply (locally sourced in Kentucky), the design process or actual assembly, I can only show you what their end product looks like. Actually, I had planned on expounding on the building process and took several photos but respectfully, as a fellow artisan, I just couldn’t.
So after a few hours of watching them create of one of their wares, they gifted us with THIS piece…the United States.
Tears filled our eyes because this beautiful work of art spoke to our nomadic hearts.Though it was a piece of Kentucky, it said ‘you have many more to travel’. We were amazed that a pile of sticks and a few hours of skillful hands made THIS:
We just couldn’t put it down but we had to because it wasn’t quite finished. Matt’s final work was signing, numbering and placing their ‘Kentucky Proud’ sticker that he so boasts about earning. Oh, by the way, this particular piece is numbered #1 which means, we were gifted the prototype.
This beautiful piece forged a Kentucky friendship forever. It will hang proudly in Liberty, and when the roads we’ve traveled have lessened, we will proudly move it to our future home. Until then, it will remind us of the history and hard work that created it.
For more information and to visit Tobacco Barn Craftsman online store, we invite you to visit:
Facebook: Tobacco Barn Craftsman
Online Store: Tobacco Barn Craftsman
For special orders, please contact via Facebook, Email or Phone.
“Barn to Box’ orders take approximately 2-3 weeks. Special orders may take longer.