Tobacco barns in jeopardy

Shiloh looks for way to save pieces of history

aramos@newsobserver.comFebruary 25, 2012 

— At N.C. 540 near the Shiloh Crossing shopping center, two 1940s tobacco barns are the last ties to the property's African-American roots. They now face demolition.

The barns built and owned by Shiloh community leader Luther Green, are to be torn down at the end of March to make room for commercial and retail businesses.

Duke Realty approached the town in January and has offered $15,000 toward moving them to a donated site at Perimeter Park. But if the town chooses another location, the developer will pay only $500 to $1,000, said Planning Director Ben Hitchings.

Another possible home for the barns, built of hand-hewn timber, is Shiloh Park, which already houses the Luther Green Community Center, which he built.

Staff is researching the viability of each location and cost for moving and maintaining the structures. Other options include moving the barns to a temporary site, disassembling them for storage, or selling off the lumber.

There was support on the council for attempting to save the barns, but questions remain about whether to fund the project.

The issue is expected to come before the council again Tuesday.

A second chance

Efforts to save the barns began two years ago, said Esther Dunnegan, of nonprofit Morrisville Education and Community Services Enterprise. Dunnegan is also the co-author of "Shilodean Memorabilia."

The nonprofit group started fundraising in 2010, but efforts stalled because of the economy, Dunnegan said. Once development started at the shopping center, Dunnegan feared the barns would be lost forever.

"Those things that make Shiloh unique are disappearing," Dunnegan said. "And, pretty soon they become nonexistent, and then it becomes a memory. And I feel like it should be more than a memory. You are talking about a community that has been here since the 1820s."

Over the past few decades, new subdivisions have encroached on Shiloh, and few of the original homes remain.

The nonprofit group would like to see the barns used as a museum highlighting African-American tobacco farming and would contribute to the restoration or volunteer to run the facility, Dunnegan said.

Dunnegan said there is no museum dedicated to African-American farming techniques in North Carolina. Shiloh was unique because freed slaves worked the land, used hand-held tools and were self-sufficient. Shiloh residents ran their own cornmeal mills, produced their own syrup and ran a co-operative store, she said.

Disappearing barns

The number of historic tobacco barns still in existence in North Carolina is unknown, said Michael Southern, senior architectural historian with the N.C. State Historic Preservation Office.

"All we can say is that there are fewer today than there were yesterday," Southern said. "At the height of traditional tobacco production around 1950, there may have been 400,000 or more flue cure tobacco barns in use in the state."

He estimates there could still be a few thousand.

A place must be at least 50 years old for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, but age is only one factor, Southern said.

Other factors include rarity of the building type or style of construction compared to other existing structures.

So far, no tobacco barns have been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places as individual structures. They are usually a part of a more significant farmstead, he said.

"Tobacco has been of tremendous importance to our state's history, and in time more people will come to appreciate the significance of the dwindling number of tobacco barns that remain," Southern said.

Ramos: 919-460-2609

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