The Tobacco Farm Life Museum is a unique, local attraction in Kenly, North Carolina, a small town just off of I-95. I’ve visited on a number of occasions, having grown up in the local area. The museum was founded in the 1980s originally as a farm tour program with a small lobby exhibit. Visitors would gather at the lobby and be taken to a local tobacco farm for a tour. The volunteer-led effort expanded and the main museum building opened in 1986. Agriculture at that time was changing due to advancements in technology and changes in the economy. Fewer people were growing up on farms and the volunteers who began the museum wanted to preserve and share the farming traditions they had grown up with. The museum now consists of a main building with a large gallery of exhibits, as well as several historic and reproduction buildings on the grounds. The grounds are lovely, with pine trees all around that help visitors to feel that they’ve stepped out of the busy modern world, even though Highway 301 runs in front of the museum.
Owing to its location near major highways, the museum sees tourists traveling up and down the eastern coast, many of which seem intrigued to learn more about agriculture and rural life they may not be familiar with. Locals enjoy the museum for bringing back memories or learning about community history through its interpretation of local history.
The museum preserves and presents the history of the rural farming community of North Carolina from 1880 to 1950, placing a special emphasis on small farming families, and the average, ordinary person from the time period. Tobacco farming was one of the biggest economic drivers during the time period interpreted, hence the name of the museum. However, the museum does not promote tobacco use and focuses on the daily life of farmers.
Upon arriving at the museum, guests are offered the chance to view a film that outlines the process of tobacco farming today. The film provides a basic timeline and understanding of the work that still goes into farming tobacco. The labor intensive process has changed relatively little considering technological advancements. Many aspects of tobacco farming still have to be performed by hand.
After watching the film, visitors can tour the exhibit gallery and outdoor buildings. The indoor gallery exhibits include information about the museum’s history, the historical tobacco farming method, tobacco warehouse auctions, other crops grown in NC and daily life on the farm. Highlights include an exhibit that shows how technology changed kitchens over the period—from wood burning to gas to electric—as well as exhibits about rural medicine, education, leisure activities, and community organizations. The warehouse exhibit is the most immersive, created to look and feel like standing inside a warehouse, though on a smaller scale, with an auctioneer video bringing the sounds of the auction to life.
After touring the exhibits, guests can walk a trail outside that takes them to several historic and reproduction buildings including a blacksmith shop, a pack house, several buildings that make up a homestead, a tobacco barn, and a one-room schoolhouse. The blacksmith shop features an exhibit entitled Forged in Fire: Rural Blacksmiths that explains the basics of blacksmithing, its importance for farmers’ ability to maintain the tools needed for their work, and the related trades of woodworkers, wheelwrights, and farriers that farmers also depended on. Farmers could either learn these skills themselves or find someone in the community to help. The shop includes a functioning forge as well as a line shaft which powers a metal lathe. The shop is used by demonstrators at special events.
The pack house provides insight into a working space of a farm and is where tobacco would have been graded after curing in preparation for sale at auction. Both the blacksmith shop and the pack house are reproductions.
The homestead, which was lived in by the Brown Family in the early 1900s, consists of the main house, a detached kitchen, a smokehouse, and a milk shed. These buildings are furnished as they would have been and provide background information on the Brown Family in particular and on domestic life in the early 1900s more generally. Walking through the house is my favorite part of the self-guided tour. The house includes furniture of the period and quilts. Being able to stand inside the house helps to bring to life what was learned in the exhibit gallery.
As visitors continue along the outdoor trail they can view a tobacco barn and one-room schoolhouse. The tobacco barn is a traditional wood and mortar building with beams inside from which tobacco was hung to dry and cure from the heat of a fire, which produced what is called flue-cured tobacco. While guests cannot go inside the barn, they can look through the front door and up at the beams.
The one-room schoolhouse is also original to the turn of the 20th century and was used nearby by rural students from grades 1 through 8. Visitors can step inside and view the space which is simple and consists of rows of desks, a wood-burning stove for heat, a raised platform for the teacher, and blackboards up front.
The museum’s gallery and grounds take at least an hour and a half to tour and see everything. The museum also has a gift shop which specializes in local and handmade goods.
Touring the museum provides an excellent overview of what rural life was like for North Carolinians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Location: 709 N Church Street, Kenly, NC 27542
Admission: Adults - $8, Seniors - $7, Students and children ages 2-12 - $6, Children under 2 – free
Open Tuesday –Saturday, 9:30am – 5:00pm
Learn more on the museum’s website: www.tobaccofarmlifemuseum.org
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Beth Nevarez is a public historian and museum professional. She currently works as an independent consultant for museums in Eastern North Carolina, working on collections projects, exhibits, and outreach. She has her master’s degree in public history from the University of North Carolina Wilmington.