My Old Kentucky Home is known for several notorious icons; Corvettes and Colonel Sanders, Bluegrass and Bourbon. Kentucky is also recollected for a huge cash crop; tobacco. However, there’s something else inside those black-tarred tobacco barns that’s smokin’ hot!
There’s more than just tobacco in those barns…
As you drive throughout Kentucky, it’s hard not to notice old, black tobacco barns peppering the pristine bluegrass landscapes. Black, being the chosen color, absorbs heat from the sun to speed up the drying and curing process of the tobacco leaves.
Inside the black barns, tobacco sticks (also called ‘laths’) are hung with long, bunched tobacco leaves attached for drying and curing.
Kentucky farmers 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, the increasing number of outsourced overseas growers have devastated the state’s tobacco industry.
Tobacco is harvested in late summer in Kentucky. The plants are cut using a tobacco knife. They are then hauled on open wooden wagons to the black tobacco barns to cure. The long leaves are hung on tobacco sticks and secured from the rafters in the barn. After the leaves have dried, they are removed from the stalk and sold at market.
How tobacco sticks (laths) are made…
Even up to a century ago, while the farmers waited for the leaves to dry and cure, they focused their time on making their tobacco sticks. They would harvest large trees; cutting the long trunks 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, they made more than they needed for their own barns, so they would sell them to less-ambitious tobacco farmers. Back then, the sticks sold for about three cents each. Today, they are worth much more if you can find them.
Now, as decades pass and tobacco farms folding, the tobacco barns are left to fall, be torn down or burned. But before then, one hot commodity is rescued; those tobacco sticks!
Seed it. Set it. Top it. Cut It. House it. Strip it. Enjoy it.
While we were in Kentucky, we decided to visit a couple friends in Oldham County. We also were going to learn about a new-age art made from old Kentucky history.
We met up with our friends, Matt and Sara Hartlage, to learn about their amazing art pieces. When we arrived at their workshop, we were met with their usual beaming smiles, sweaty hugs and calloused handshakes. It was a typical scorching late Spring day, but the heat didn’t pull this forty-something year old couple away from reclaiming tobacco barns’ past. As Matt, known as the Tobacco Barn Craftsman, was crafting one of his newer pieces in his workshop, Sara was in their backyard building display racks for upcoming festivals while their little boy played in the yard next to her.
Matt is a professional truck driver by day and Craftsman by night and weekends. He tells us his fondest memories were when he spent summers working with his cousins on his grandparent’s farm (tobacco and farming) in Ohio.
When summers were over, Matt took a great interest in woodworking in his high school shop classes.
Now, several years later, his farm-hand upbringing collaborated with his woodworking passion to create Tobacco Barn Craftsman, also known as TBC. What started out as making Christmas gifts blossomed into a great Craftsman business. Matt’s first design, the ‘Kentucky Snowflake’, sparked so much interest that he began taking orders. Soon, Matt started designing other interesting wall art pieces.
Sara, a CRM Manager for a global insurance broker handles much of the administrative, PR and communications for the business side of Tobacco Barn Craftsman.
Breathing new life into old history…
We noticed large stacks of tobacco sticks, buckets of sheered lath remnants, saws and tools of every kind, and a weather-worn Cowboy hat that hung on the wall behind his bench. I wanted to ask “what’s up with the Cowboy hat?” but I figured we’ll save that for another day. Off in the corner hung several of his finished products waiting to be packaged and shipped out.
While we stood watching Matt design, size sticks, sawing, sanding and nailing, I thought to myself, THIS is America! Matt and Sarah are crafting old history into new art.
Before we packed up to leave, they gifted us with this amazing piece that Matt constructed while we were there. It was the lower 48 United States. How incredibly awesome of them to gift us such a symbolic piece,
However, it wasn’t quite finished though. Matt’s final touch was signing, numbering and placing their ‘Kentucky Proud’ seal of approval. Oh, by the way, you’ll notice this particular piece is numbered #1 which means, we were gifted the prototype.
This beautiful piece of historic new art forged our Kentucky friendship forever. It will hang proudly in Liberty, and when the roads we’ve traveled have shortened, we will relocate it to wherever our new home hails us.
Visit Tobacco Barn Craftsman online store:
Email: TobaccoBarnCraftsman@gmail.comFor special orders, please contact via Facebook, Email or Phone.
Shipping info: “Barn to Box” orders take approximately 2-3 weeks. Special orders may take longer.