Preserving our heritage: Historic barn restoration in West Granby

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The old tobacco shed at the south end of the Holcomb Farm under restoration. Submitted photo.

If you have driven down Simsbury Road in West Granby lately, you may have noticed a lot of new lumber leaning against an old tobacco shed at the south end of the Holcomb Farm. And more recently the roof has been stripped of its shingles. What’s going on there?

What’s going on is an attempt to save an important historical artifact, and that effort is part of a larger project to tell the story of a New England village. Yes, this ratty old barn that was about to fall over for a couple of years can help us learn our history.
Last spring the Salmon Brook Historical Society agreed to administer a project I called “The West Granby Public History Project.” The goal of this is to make use of historical resources on town property within the West Granby Historic District to let the general public know about the district’s interesting story.

The south tobacco shed at the Holcomb Farm is one of those important historical resources. It is the only structure on the farm that still represents siblings Tudor and Laura Holcomb’s shade tobacco business. Of the seven other sheds they once used for curing tobacco, one, the CSA barn, has been transformed considerably since its days as a tobacco shed, three are now in private hands, and three have either fallen down or been demolished. If this last shed were allowed to fall into ruin, we would lose a big piece of our past.
In 1991 the Holcombs’ Broad Hill Farm (now known as the Holcomb Farm) was placed on the Connecticut Register of Historic Places, and two years later it was incorporated into the National Register along with over fifty other historic structures in West Granby. The state and national registers recognize the Holcomb Farm first because of the five-generation tenure of the Holcomb family stretching back to the mid-eighteenth century. Second, the innovative practices of Tudor and Laura Holcomb in both dairy and shade tobacco farming were important to agriculture in the region. Finally, Tudor and Laura were leaders, business people and philanthropists in our community and the state. The south shed is a unique and powerful reminder of who these people were, what they achieved and how they shaped our history.

When Tudor and Laura were growing up on Broad Hill Farm at the end of the nineteenth century, family farms all across America were in trouble. Farm prices had been declining since the end of the Civil War owing to a number of factors. Railroads were being monopolized and could pretty much name their price for the goods they shipped, resulting in low prices for farmers, high prices for consumers and big profits for railroad barons. Mechanization on the farm led to huge surpluses, further driving prices down. In addition, a tight monetary policy based on the gold standard meant that loans farmers took out to purchase the new technology of the day were not easily paid off.

Tudor Holcomb, and his sister Laura, were innovators in both farming and tobacco farming. Submitted photo.

Tudor and Laura’s parents, “S.F.” and Lizzie Holcomb, experienced these challenges as much as everyone else. S.F. did his best with his dairy business and his cider mill, but even the intermittent emergence of farmers’ cooperatives was not enough to pay the mortgage. There were times when their farm seemed headed for the auction block.
When Tudor and Laura took over management of the farm in the early 1900s they were determined to develop efficient and economical ways to turn the business around. Developing ingenious irrigation and fertilization systems, they did just that. And in 1911, when they heard of the Connecticut Agricultural School’s extension service’s success in growing tobacco under tents that recreated the humid conditions that produced the special flavor of tobacco grown in the East Indies, they did not hesitate to experiment with their own crop.

Combining careful cultivation techniques with shrewd business practices, they transformed a struggling family farm into a highly profitable business that employed dozens of their neighbors and even migrant workers. They were an inspiration to other farmers in the area, who did the same (a few miles from Broad Hill Farm, one tobacco grower unknowingly employed a college student who would make quite a name for himself: Martin Luther King, Jr.). When their fortune was made, they shared it with charitable organizations and the town of Granby itself. Tudor once said to me that he spent his life trying “to make things right” in Granby. They built our town hall, among many other projects and donations, and ultimately, they gave us their farm, hoping, as Tudor was fond of saying, that we would realize that the family farm is still “the backbone of this nation.”

With all that in mind, it seems but a small undertaking, despite the expense it will require, to save the one structure that can stand as a symbol of some grand ambitions and achievements. So far, volunteers Gary Maulucci and Ted Riggott have built braces on the east side of the shed to halt its slow but steady tilt toward the ground. Maulucci has also supervised the removal of the old, now useless shingles (among them were wooden shingles dating to before 1920). This roof-stripping will lighten the load on a frame that has suffered a good deal (for some reason bracing members were removed over the past 15 years to use as lumber for other projects on the farm). Interior support and jacking in order to right the structure is slated for the coming months. Rita Law has volunteered her artistic talents to create a colorful sign to let passersby know what’s going on.

The plan, once that restoration is done, is to create weatherproof historic markers with information about the farm’s and the village’s history. Repair and restoration is also being done at the West Granby Cemetery. Nearly twenty truckloads of brush have been removed to reveal a number of grave markers previously lost in the undergrowth, and the fence has been repaired (thanks to volunteer Kent Matlack) and painted. More historical markers will be placed there discussing the village’s industrial past. Much of this work has been done with support from a grant I applied for from the Pomeroy-Brace fund at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. Extensive funding will still be needed to complete the restoration of the tobacco shed. Donations to the project are welcome and should be sent to Salmon Brook Historical Society, marked “Save the Barn,” Box 840, Granby, CT 06035.