The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2007

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Tobacco Farming and Tobacco Barns

in Lindley, New York

1864 to 1949


Catherine M. Pierce

The Guidelines for the Local Historian published by the New York State Department of Education states “The Local Government Historian is both an advocate for historic preservation and a resource to his or her appointing authority on questions relating to history and preservation—to identify historic structures and districts.”10 As I read this after being appointed Lindley Historian in 2000, I thought of all the buildings –especially the barns and tobacco barns that were quickly becoming extinct in our community. Therefore, in the Spring of 2001, I started photographing the tobacco barns and older homes. When I do presentations to groups such as the Boy Scouts, I use these photos to illustrate the places important to our history and heritage.

For about 80 years from 1864 to 1948/49, tobacco was a major crop in the farming business of the river valleys in the Lindley area. As stated in the Chemung County Journal June 2003, 3 “Tobacco Was King.” In the same issue, there is an article, “Goodbye to an Icon–Tobacco Barns”. Although written about the tobacco farming in neighboring Chemung County, the information is related Lindley tobacco farming. It is interesting to note that a tobacco leaf is part of the town of Big Flats logo.3 In order to keep this report brief, I am eliminating the process of growing tobacco which was labor intensive and involved most members of the family from the spring planting until it was shipped to a customer in the late fall or early spring of the next year.

Tobacco Barn in Lindley, New York.  Photo by Catherine Pierce.
Photo of Tobacco Barn in Lindley, New York by author.

However, a brief history seems in order. In 1850, a Connecticut farmer moved to Big Flats, NewYork bringing with him tobacco seed from the Connecticut River Valley. Observing his success with the crop, other farmers in the area started growing tobacco as a “cash crop” on the fertile river soils. Most of a farmer’s crops at that time were returned back into the farm production. However, tobacco growing afforded the farmer a means of selling a crop to pay his taxes and to acquire a cash flow. Most farms raised beween 2 to 10 acres locally (1880 census). Some farmers had plantations, growing 40 to 50 acres at a season. 3 These were exceptions. An acre could produce 1200/1500 pounds. Prices varied over the years, ranging from 31/2 cents to 33 cents per pound. 8 Easy to see why farmers were tempted to engage in the strenuous job of growing tobacco.

Tobacco Barn in Lindley, New York.  Photo by Catherine Pierce.
Photo of Tobacco Barn in Lindley, New York by author.

A demand for tobacco was generated by the Civil War. Most of the tobacco grown in this area was used to manufacture cigars. By 1868, this had become a successful business enterprise. Cigar factories were located in Corning, Elmira, Big Flats, and even our Pennsylvania neighbor Lawrenceville. 3 13 Railroads were used to transport the crops to the factories and warehouses which provided employment for large numbers of people. The need for tobacco began to decline during WW I when cigarettes were introduced to the soldiers. In 1933, Congress enacted a law setting quotas for crops —including tobacco 3. Locally, the last straw came during WWII, when it was difficult to obtain labor19. A few Lindley farmers did continue to raise tobacco. In 1948, Earl Stermer who had raised a tobacco crop and another local farmer—my father—Clarence Brant (who had been born and raised on a tobacco growing farm in Big Flats) took the last load of tobacco to the nearest market in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. To them, it was the end of an era.

From about 1864 to the 1940’s, tobacco barns were found on most of the farms on the East and West banks of the Tioga River in Lindley. The Steuben County Directory of 1868/6916 shows 5000 pounds of tobacco grown in Lindley in 1864. The 1874/5- census lists 1 tobacco grower with 11,000 pounds produced for the 2 years and a second with 3000 pounds. M.F. Roberts in his Historical Gazetter of Steuben County (First Part) 189112 states “ Presho (known previously as Erwin Centre, a Town of Lindley hamlet) “formerly was a great lumbering point but now is the center of a great extensive tobacco growing and farming district.)” In his directory, 12 he names 20 farmers as tobacco growers. A catalog New York State and Northern Pennsylvania Leaf Tobacco Directory11 (about 1900) names 26 farmers as growing tobacco in Lindley. (I am able to determine a possible date for this because my great grandfather and great uncle who were tobacco farmers in Big Flats are listed with their acreage.) The New York State Office of National Statistcal Services quoted a figure of 361 acres for Steuben County in 1917 and a production of 365,776 pounds. Electronic-mail on 8/13/06 from Glenn Bronson who lived in Lindley in the 1930’s-1940’s, recalls at least 18 tobacco farmers and each of them had at least one tobacco barn. I quote these figures to show the extent of tobacco growing in the Lindley area. Not only had the demand for tobacco declined by the 1940’s but the number of large farms had, also, decreased. A May 22, 1970, Sunday Telegram article on Lindley lists only 11 large farms.19 Today, most of these are no longer in operation. Many of the tobacco barns have met their demise from windstorms, floods, and disrepair or being dismantled and used for other purposes. There are only 4 still standing in the town as of this date. Sad! Data was difficult to obtain because apparently, after the 1880 census, crop production was not always recorded.

In order to compile this report, I attempted to document information about tobacco barns—especially the one located on the Elmer/Young farm recently purchased by a Mr. Hawbaker for a proposed gravel pit. I checked various sources and made calls in relation to this. According to the Agricultural Report for the 1880 Census, a tobacco barn was usually 24x80 or 28x100 feet.and 20-24 foot high with tiers five foot apart for storing the tobacco. The average cost was $200 to 300. The barns had horizontal or vertical side vents for ventilation. Some had roof vents. Eric Sloan’s book, American Barns and Covered Bridges,14 indicates the vertical ventilators were New England origin. The Big Flats barns have vertical ventilators while Lindley barns have the horizontal type. Other books describe a Lancaster type barn.7

As near as I can determine, the tobacco barn on Elmer/Young/Hawbaker property would probably have been built about 1868/70 when the demand for cigar tobacco was the greatest. The Chemung Journal3 article states “ tobacco barns multiplied.during this period.” At one time, there were 200 tobacco barns in Big Flats alone. Today, it is difficult to find 6 to 8 and generally, they are in poor condition.3

Unfortunately, there seem to be few records showing how much tobacco was produced on the Elmer/Young farm. The Steuben County Co-Operative Extension does not this information available. However, a former resident, Durland Weale who grew up in Lindley in the 1930’s states that entire “flats” in that area were full of tobacco plants.

This barn involved in this report measures 32 x’s 128 feet with the horizontal venting system.21 It still has the ‘stripping room”-a vital building needed for the processing of tobacco. From my observations, this is the only stripping room remaining locally. The 1880 Agricultural Census Report states “a 28x 80 barn with 24 feet posts and five tiers would house 4 acres of 6000 plants-indicating that at least 4 acres were under tobacco cultivation at some time on the Elmer/Young farm. A well-built barn of these dimensions with a stripping shed would have cost approximately $600(1880 census report).

The 1900 census shows Fred Elmer and his parents living on the farm. In a 1940 Farm Directory, Fred is still there and has switched to a dairy and poultry farm. Mr. Weale told me that in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s, Mr. Elmer, an elderly gentleman sold the farm to the Young family and moved to Addison. The Young family had one of the largest dairy farms in the town. The former Elmer farm provided additional land for their dairy cattle and beef farming until they sold it to Mr. Hawbaker recently.

About the same time that tobacco growing began in Lindley, the National Grange was organizing and building their meeting places. The Steuben County Historian’s office recently requested photos of the old Lindley Grange Hall. The County Historian expressed concern because like the tobacco barns, these buildings are gradually disappearing. As historians, it is our duty to identify and to preserve as much history as we can about these buildings.

As a person going into her 77th year this fall and who grew up on a farm, one of the hardest things that I experience is watching the decline of farming and of the farm buildings in this region. Someone made the comment that “once these buildings are gone—they are gone for good.” To me, tobacco growing and tobacco barns are a part of our history and heritage that future generations will not know or appreciate unless we take steps now to preserve them

Catherine M. Pierce
Town of Lindley Historian
August 23, 2006


1. Personal Interviews with Carl Albers Co-operative Extension Bath,NY, Glenn Bronson (E-mail), Marian Connelly, Richard E. Pierce, Sally Stermer, Elaine Toby and Durland Weale.

2. Census Records, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1874/5, 1880 Agricultural Census Report, 1900, 1910, 1920

3. Chemung County Historical Journal June 2003, Chemung Co. Historical Society , Elmira,NY

4. Cigars and Cigar Boxes—1880-1920, Chemung Co. Hist. Soc.

5. Fink, Daniel, Barns of the Genessee Country 1790- 1915, James Brunner Publ. 1987 Geneseo, N.Y

6. Hakes, Landmarks of Steuben County, 1896

7. Historical Agricultural Resources of Pennsylvania 1700-1960, River Valleys Tobacco Culture 1870-1930

8.Lindley Heritage Days Committee, Looking Back 200 Years Lindley, NY 1790-1990

9. Munsell, History of Tioga County, Pennsylvania 1883 Chp. 8,

10. New York State Education Department Guidelines for the Local Historian, src.guidelineshtml 1/05/01

11. New York State and Northern Pennsylvania Leaf Tobacco Directory (Published about 1900, copies at Steuben and Chemung Co. Hist. Societies)

12. Roberts, Millard F,. Historical Gazeteer of Steuben County, NY, Syracuse, N.Y., 1891

13. Russell, Marian and Others, Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania 1831–2006, Multi Media Corning NY

14. Rural Surveys, Rural Register of Steuben County 1940, Ithaca, N.Y.

15. Sloan, Eric, American Barns and Covered Bridges, Reprint of Funk, Wagnall 1956 Dover Publ. Mineola ,N.Y.

16. Steuben County N.Y. Directory, 1868/69

17. Steuben County Directory, 1920

18. Stuart, William, Who’s Who –Steuben County , N.Y. 1935, Canisteo, N.Y.

19. Sunday Telegram May 22, 1970, Elmira, N.Y.

20. Wellsboro Agitator, Bradford Co. Tobacco Growers, Wellsboro, Penna., May 13, 1901

21. Wright, Ginny and Jerry, Elmer Tobacco Barn, Finger Lakes Chronicle V. iv #3 May 1967, Corning, N.Y

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