The tobacco shed is a prime example of a purpose-built farm building. Unlike most barns, the tobacco shed was created with a single crop, and a single purpose, in mind. Everything about the building works toward the single goal of curing tobacco.
Tobacco is the cash crop of the Connecticut River Valley. The soil and the climate are perfect for the production of tobacco for use in cigars. But freshly harvested tobacco can’t be used -- or more importantly, sold -- in its raw state. It must first be gently dried or cured. This is where the tobacco shed comes in. It is, in the words of architectural historian James F. O’Gorman, a “machine for curing.”
Early tobacco cultivation was usually undertaken on a small scale, often growing just enough for domestic use. As a result of this, there was no need for specific structures to cure the product. Instead it would be hung in existing barns, outbuildings or out of the way in a house. (Figure 1 ) This type of arrangement would continue through the 19th century, either as adaptive re-use by farmers who were apparently unwilling or unable to make the capital commitment necessary to construct sheds (Figures 2 and 3) or as overflow storage for boom years on farms where sheds were in use. (Figure 4)
As early as the 1830s, however, farmers in the state began to make a commitment to growing tobacco on a large scale. This required a series of buildings specific to tobacco culture, chief among them the tobacco shed. After this point, the general design of the sheds remains remarkably consistent. They tend to be long, low windowless buildings with pitched roofs. They rely on ventilation to aid the curing of the tobacco. This is accomplished with one of four different systems: vertical siding with top-hinged vents and gable end doors (Figure 5), vertical siding with side-hinged vents and gable end doors (Figure 6), horizontal siding with top hinged vents and gable end doors, (Figure 7) or a series of large doors along one of the long sides of the building with the other sides of the building vented. (Figure 8) No matter what type of venting is used, the result is a barn with a very distinctive appearance.
On the interior, the sheds are usually composed of a series of similar frames arranged perpendicular to the ridge of the roof. Sheds usually rely on a module that is roughly 12-15 feet wide and 15 feet deep, with the corners of each module corresponding to a structural post. The barns are usually arranged so that they are two modules wide, roughly 24-30 feet across the gable, and multiples of 15 feet deep, i.e. along the ridge. (The exceptions to this are predominantly the large corporate producers who cultivate so much tobacco that they can fill giant tobacco sheds.) The width of the building is often described in bays while the depth is described in bents, with each bent corresponding to the space between a pair of frames. So, one might see a shed described as an 8 bent shed. It would be a 120 foot long building most likely two bays, or 24-30 feet, wide.
The interior structural framework served a second purpose in addition to supporting the walls and roof of the building, it provided a framework for the rails used to hang the tobacco as it was curing. After harvest the tobacco would be bound into bunches and these would be hung in the barns to gently dry. (Figure 9)
Remarkably, tobacco cultivation is one of the few segments of Connecticut agriculture that has thrived in the recent past. As a result of this, new sheds have constructed in the Valley. And they look just like their predecessors.