The Tobacco Farm Life Museum in Kenly has a 6,000 square foot gallery of artifacts and demonstrations that aims to preserve the history and cultural heritage of Eastern North Carolina farm life.



Tobacco Farm Life Visited In North Carolina

NC Is The Largest Producer Of This Cash Crop In The U.S., And The Tobacco Museum in Kenly Educates People On The Farmers That Dedicated Their Lives To Growing & Selling The Plant

Tractor used in crop farming at the tobacco museum [Photo Credit: Tobacco Farm Life Museum]

Tobacco money still accounts for a large portion of income in North Carolina. A few years ago, tobacco made up $14 billion worth of the state's income alone. It's safe to say that tobacco played a big role in how North Carolina grew as a state, said Tobacco Farm Life Museum's Curator Melody Worthington.

The 6,000 square foot gallery aims to preserve the history and cultural heritage of Eastern North Carolina farm life, complete with eight historic buildings on site. The museum acts as a step back in time, with permanent and rotating exhibits on farm life, medicine, rural social life and artifacts.

The museum, which was started by a group of local families “who had pride in their past” and didn't want to see their family’s way of life become obsolete, is not about the tobacco crop itself, but the farmers that dedicated their lives to growing and selling the crop.

With a smoke house, a workshop, a school house, an outhouse and a tobacco barn, the museum and its property pays homage to the farmers' way of life with artifacts and demonstrations. It's one of the more unique things to do when visiting North Carolina in order to educate oneself on the several factors considered for tobacco production.

“Tobacco has been an important crop since the colonists arrived,” explained Worthington. “It was the first product that was desirable for England to trade. It really stabilized the colonies. It was definitely a backbone of the financial standing of the farmers in the area. But it was not only a cash crop, but the most time consuming and laborous produce they produced.”

It's that labor intensive process that's become the focus of the museum's exhibits. On display are not only artifacts, but proof of the dedication, hard work and strong will of the community.

With so many intricate steps involved in the process and such a finicky product, it was often not only the family, but the town, that worked together to make the community successful. And it wasn't only helping each other with the crops themselves...

Scarecrow and the hog's head used for transport in the back [Photo Credit: Tobacco Farm Life Museum]
Garden inside the farm at Kenly, North Carolina [Photo Credit: Tobacco Farm Life Museum]

“How involved these farmers were is what really stands out to me,” said Worthington. “Even in the creation of early schoolhouses – they were built by farmers for their children. The farmers would actually hire the teachers. I think that surprised me the most.”

One of Worthington's favorite artifacts at the museum is a “huge barrel” known as a hog's head. It's what was used to transport the tobacco to the ports for trade.

“It's not like anything used today,” she said. “They would pull it behind their buggies headed to the ports. Sometimes the farmers would get caught putting leaves or twigs or other things in the barrel with the tobacco. The British, when they were checking, if they found such they would just burn the tobacco. That was all the farmers’ hard work for the year. It's just an interesting story and dynamic, on how the farmer tried to make the most out of what they had.”

While the museum has many artifacts that represent the struggle and passion of the farmers between 1880 and 1950, the Tobacco Farm Life Museum also highlights and supports North Carolina's present-day farming community. The community that passionately worked on creating the museum in the first place.

The two main ladies that were involved in “getting the museum started” and “rallying the community” were Suzanne Bailey and Grethel Boyette. Said Worthington: “They wanted to preserve history and heritage of the farming community. During that time period – around 35 years ago - technology was coming into play. And farmers were getting a lot of pressure from the media.”

Since tobacco is not the healthiest product, the goal of the museum's initial existence was to show the positive impact these hard-working farmers had on society. 

The farm is a 6,000 square foot museum featuring both permanent and rotating exhibits on farm life, southern medicine, domestic skills, etc. [Photo Credit: Tobacco Farm Life Museum]
Tobacco Farm Life Museum Front Porch with rocking chairs [Photo Credit: Tobacco Farm Life Museum]

“I really enjoy working with this community,” gushed Worthington.

It still continues to be a tight-knit community that works together and supports one another. She likes telling their story, their history of hard work and determination and sacrifice.

The museum is very involved with local farmers and farming organizations. They even do a fundraiser with the commissioner of agriculture each year. The farmers are also heavily involved with the museum's agriculture summer camp and various programs held throughout the year. Staying “plugged in” with the farmers allows them to give visitors accurate and up-to-date information.

Worthington has been working at the nonprofit organization for the past nine years. With a history degree from East Carolina University, she's fascinated by people's life choices and how it affects the overall picture. She also is interested in how the Bible has impacted people throughout history.

It's this interest in how communities make choices throughout their existence that has kept Worthington passionate about the Tobacco Farm Life Museum. And it's not hard for the rest of the state to feel that same passion. Not only is tobacco still their largest source of income, but the farmers' hard work is what made the state what it is today. And while not everyone in the country can relate to farming or feels positively about tobacco use, they can relate to the community's dedication to supporting their family and community.

“In the end, it's a story of hard work. It's about making a way of life,” says Worthington.  

Olivia Richman

A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.

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