January 9, 2012

Pink Barns

Flowering tobacco in my garden - Nicotiana alata

When you think of tobacco plantations you think of Virginia or North Carolina.  You don't think of tobacco as a New England crop.

What comes to mind in New England are images of apples and pumpkins and maple syrup and colonial herb gardens, but not agri-business crops like tobacco.  But in the years I was growing up in north central Connecticut, tobacco farming was a big industry.

Tobacco plantations covered a lot of land in the Connecticut River valley, and the landscape of my childhood in the 1950s and 60s was dotted with long drying sheds that had hinged siding which could be opened outward to allow the air to circulate as the harvested leaves were dried.
Tobacco sheds have historic preservation status now in Connecticut

The sheds on one local farm have been re-purposed and painted a lovely (?) shade of pink.  Every time I drive by, I am amused. The sign says "Rose Farm" but I don't think they are raising hybrid teas.  I think the farm is named for the color of its outbuildings.
On a farm in Suffield, CT a dozen former tobacco sheds have been updated, upgraded, and painted pink

When I was a teenager, the local summer employment was working tobacco, and it was hot, dirty, awful work, but almost the only wages available to unskilled kids.  Girls and boys both, although the girls got to work in the sheds rather than in the fields.
Copyright information The Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford

It was that kind of work that brought earlier generations up from the south to work on the Connecticut tobacco farms.

"During the summers of 1944 and 1947, Martin Luther King, Jr. spent time harvesting tobacco in Connecticut. He was one of many African American men recruited by summer work programs administered through southern colleges and high schools, which were designed to ease the dearth of labor brought about by World War II.  King's recently published letters reveal the impact his time in Connecticut had on his life.  For the first time, he experienced a society in which he could worship, eat, and travel in the company of whites as an equal. King later wrote that beginning in that summer, 'I felt an inescapable urge to serve society... a sense of responsibility which I could not escape.' "  
     --- from Cora Murray and Mary Donohue, Connecticut Historic Preservation and Museum Division

Density of tobacco farms in 1942

Native populations were growing tobacco - Nicotiana tabacum - when the first settlers arrived in the Connecticut River valley in the 1630s.  By 1700 it was being exported to Europe, and in the 1800s the valley was growing cigar wrapper leaf to compete with Sumatran exports.   By the 1900s there were huge consolidated plantations being run as petty dynasties, with migrant labor issues, competitive tensions and enough grist for a Claudette Colbert movie (see the classic "Parrish".  Really, you must rent it.)

Growers discovered that the labor intensive process of growing the plant in shade, under yards and yards of cheesecloth, produced a high quality leaf that was prized for the outside wrappers of cigars.  An early photo shows how the white shade netting appeared as big lakes from afar.

Copyright information The Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford
From my childhood I remember the billowy netting, suspended from a forest of poles that held up acres of cloth to shade the plants below. Shade tents were everywhere, becoming just so much background around our towns and neighborhoods.
Poles and netting, early in the season

By summer the cloth bulged with 9 foot plants straining against the cloth

In high school my best friend's Dad was a tobacco executive for Consolidated Cigar and he was cool.  We were filled with the romance and intrigue of "Parrish" (Really, you must rent this classic movie right now).  What would we think of him now?  You sell tobacco??

My own Dad was cool --- he was a pilot for an aircraft engine company.  He came from the midwest, and told stories of being disoriented when he began flying in Connecticut, because the shade cloth that stretched over miles of fields below looked like rippling water.  He thought he was flying over lakes that he could not locate on his charts.  Can you imagine what google earth would have shown back then?

Those miles of shade tobacco tents are long gone.  There are only 2,000 acres left in cultivation here now, just a smidgen of the tobacco plantations of 50 years ago. 

For years I resisted planting flowering tobacco in my garden, because it sounded like growing soybeans.  It was an agricultural crop in my experience, not an ornamental flower.

I'm glad I finally did plant it, for the delicate flowers and the heavenly sweet scent.  And for the associations.

My garden plant is Nicotiana alata and not N. tabacum, and my garden is a former cow pasture, not an old tobacco farm. But the leaves of my flowering tobacco are so reminiscent of those big monster cigar wrapper plants pushing their stalks up against their cloth ceilings.  I never smoked, and I certainly never smoked cigars, but the sight of a tobacco plant brings on such memories.

It is one of those garden plants that evokes associations and reminiscence.  It is planted around my patio, where I can smell its fragrance up close at night, when I am most likely to be remembering things.

The sight of an aging shed falling in on itself in the distance brings on memories too. 

Even the ones now spiffed up and painted pink.


  1. Laurrie, I have fond memories of the tobacco barns up around Bradley Airport and along the CT river in South Glastonbury - I think CT is still the number one producer of tobacco leaf wrappers for cigars. And it's still a tough summer job for kids in Glastonbury. You got a great crop of nicotiana - I always struggled with floppiness. Love this post :)

  2. As a Nutmegger for a mere 10 years, knowing little more than what I've seen flying in and out of BDL, I really appreciate your fine and evocative recollections and images, Laurrie.

    How I wish I could get some of those leaves now; I've heard they repel volemoles.

  3. I didn't know that CT was ever a big tobacco state. Here in NC farmers must just grow tobacco for the inside of cigarettes and cigars, because I've never seen any tobacco shaded by netting. In any case a lot of local farmers have switched to growing sweet potatoes, soybeans and cotton.

    I love the fragrance of flowering tobacco too. It's a reseeding annual in one of the beds.

    I like those sheds painted pink.

  4. I so enjoy hearing tales of plant-induced memories and I love your tale ... my memory fondly connects hollyhocks and my Gram ... but I can do without pink barns, and I'll bet my Gram would say the same!

  5. I never remember seeing a tobacco barn before. They are pretty neat looking structures, like the B&W image in the beginning of your post. Painting them pick was a fine idea. I too love growing flowering tobacco. Such a great garden plant. I enjoyed your stories too. I never smoked either. I never met anyone before that said they never smoked at least once.

  6. Cyndy, I'm surprised kids are still working tobacco in Glastonbury! I didn't realize there was still enough around for employment.

    Lee, I'm glad you enjoyed this, its something most newer residents and visitors don't know about the state.

    Sweetbay, I thought all tobacco was grown under shade nets. Didn't realize the non-wrapper stuff is open filed grown down south.

    Joene, I'm not sure if I like the pink barns or not. They get my nod for restoring and preserving old landmarks, but pink?

    Donna, I'm glad to know another true non-smoker. I never did, not even once. I do love the plant though!

  7. What an interesting post Laurrie. I can remember some kids in my class getting out of school at certain times to work in their parents tobacco farms. I thought that unfair and wished I could get out of school to do this. Of course now I know it was hard work. I can't imagine those huge fields covered with cloth. So labor intensive.

    I would almost have to stop and ask why the pink paint for those barns. Makes you wonder if they just got a good deal on paint or if they are starting a business enterprise that those pink barns are going to be a part of.

  8. This was so interesting, Laurrie! I had no idea that Connecticut grew tobacco, nor did I know that MLK spent some time working there. I can understand your reluctance to plant nicotania; I've had the same feeling about certain plants that are considered weeds in soybean fields--my summer job as a teenager was walking those beanfields and pulling the weeds. But I planted nicotania for the first time this summer, and I agree it's such a lovely fragrant plant.

    Not sure how I feel about those pink barns, though:)

  9. post brought back many memories,n ot sure what was wrong with the red colored barns

  10. Our country has such a rich history that is undiscovered by so many. Thanks for sharing this. I've always lived in the South so had absolutely NO idea that these crops were grown in the north. The flowering plant is beautiful. I can't say I feel the same about the pink barns...

  11. Lisa, I have to think the Rose Farm people deliberately chose pink paint to make a statement or catch attention, but I don't know.

    Rose, What a summer job, pulling weeds from soybean fields. I'm glad you found nicotiana, it's a really nice addition to the garden.

    Anonymous, I'm happy this post brought back memories for you.

    Cat, You are not alone in wondering whether the pink barns are a good thing or not!

  12. Hi Laurrie, Where I come from (the east coast of Canada) houses are painted all manor of colors. My childhood home was pink, when we moved in. I have never seen a pink barn before though. I wonder if there was a clearance sale on pink paint or if the color was an intentional decision.
    The history of growing tobacco in your area made for an interesting read. I have never grown flowering tobacco, but a neighbour up the street had some and the fragrance was wonderful.

  13. Great story here about the tobacco industry. I too never would have thought it was grown so far north. I've read about flowering tobacco plants on a number of occasions and how delightful they smell. One of these days I'll try this plant yet.

  14. I love the tall Nicotiana and the odd flowering form. I honestly never knew tobacco grew in Connecticut.
    The kids here detassle the corn, I would imagine it is similar to the work you did...

  15. Jennifer, growing up in a pink house, that's cool! I do think the barns were deliberately painted rose pink, and the farm is named Rose Farm for it.

    Marguerite and Sissy, I'm glad I got to educate people about our state and its history growing this crop.

  16. What a cool post! I never would have connected CT and tobacco. Ive never seen tobacco grown under shade cloth, though. It's still grown here in open fields. I'm adding flowering tobacco to my container garden this summer. Yay! :o) When I was a kid in CA the cool job was to be a lfeguard.

  17. Tammy, You'll enjoy having flowering tobacco in your garden, but it does self seed, so watch where the containers go!

  18. This is fascinating! I love the history--I remember the barns with their wonderful open slats. I never knew MLK worked there. And I've never seen a pink barn!

  19. Lynn, I am so glad you and others enjoyed learning something new in this post.

  20. I love this story of these beautiful tobacco sheds. Wasn't Paul Newman in a movie about tobacco growing in CT? Hmmm....

  21. Ha! Not Paul Newman, but Troy Donahue, a blonde hunk from the 1960s. That's who you are thinking of, he was the male lead in Parrish, the movie about Connecticut tobacco barons.

  22. Hey this is so cool cuz that tabacco farm was my grandfathers farm my dad grew up on that farm ! Rose is are last name my grand fathers name was curtis rose! Those barns have always been pink for as long as I can remember!

  23. I've seen many barns in various shades of "pink" but most of them were really just faded red! Never before seen any like those above. Personally, I like red barns better than pink ones, but on the other hand I like pink roses better than red ones, so I'm good with the Rose family's choice for the color of their outbuildings!

    1. Lynne, these are not faded barns, they really are rosy pink, and a "statement" by the Rose family, who own the farm. I can always orient myself when flying in to our airport when I see the pink barns below.

  24. Laurrie - I am trying to locate a contact for this pink barn farm. Any idea? I'd love to do a photo shoot there :) My contact is info@brookeallisonphoto.com if you know how to reach them! I can't find it on google. thanks!


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