Simsbury plans to preserve some of the decades-old tobacco barns that stand on its newly acquired Meadowood property, but already one has partially collapsed.
For many residents, the gray wooden barns along Firetown Road add deeply to the visual appeal of Meadowood, nearly 290 acres of former tobacco field and woodlands.
Preserving some for historic purposes and others for potential future agricultural use is part of the town’s plan for the property. But several of the 15 barns are so badly deteriorated that they can’t be salvaged, according to the town.
“Most of the barns are shade sheds — they’re not really barns as a lot of people are used to thinking about barns with big timbers,” Building Official Henry Miga said Tuesday. “They’re relatively lightweight. On most of them, the roofs have failed.”
Two weeks ago, one of the most deteriorated barns partly collapsed. Because it was directly along Firetown Road and also near power lines, police closed part of the street to traffic until a demolition crew could bring down the rest of the structure.
There was so much concern from residents that First Selectman Eric Wellman wrote a detailed Facebook post to explain what had happened.
“It is certainly understandable how concerned people are about the remaining barns,” he wrote. “Residents live near tobacco barns or see them on their daily commute, run, errands, walk, or school bus ride.
“Painters paint them, photographers — amateur and professional — take photos in all seasons, all light, and all times of the day,” he said.
Town Manager Maria Capriola said Tuesday that shortly before the sale closed this fall, the property owner removed one of the 15 barns because collapse was imminent. Soon after the sale, one just alongside Firetown Road shifted and buckled.
“We had a structural engineer review it. Part of it was the wet weather we had — the structure shifted, and it wasn’t safe,” she said. “We had it demolished. They removed it on Oct. 8; the debris that was still remaining was removed the following Monday.”
Some of the barns date to the 1920s and ’30s, but the newest was erected in the 1970s, she said. The plan is to examine each one to decide which can be salvaged economically.
“Based on our assessment before the sale, we knew some of them were in sufficient condition to continue in agricultural use. And we’re working to save some for historic purposes,” she said. “The next part of the process is to work with the Trust for Public Land and the (state) office of historic preservation.”
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The state has provided a $400,000 grant to be used for the work, and other public agencies and private donors may be solicited.
“How much we do will depend on available funds,” she said.
Miga said the previous property owner put tarps over some of the barns this year to preserve the roofs, and those are the ones in the best condition. A few, however, are so badly deteriorated that they’ll probably have to be taken down, he said.
The plan is to use some for a historical center illustrating life in the 1940s, when a young Martin Luther King Jr. worked briefly in Farmington Valley tobacco fields.
King and other teenagers worked in the area in the summer of 1944, and he returned three years later for a second summer.
Wellman and Capriola said residents and historic preservation groups will get to offer ideas before the town adopts a specific plan.
“The shingled gray sentinels of the tobacco age are certainly meaningful to so many residents. Current and former worked the fields as teenagers, up at dawn, tying off the shade tobacco covering by snapping string in blistered hands,” Wellman wrote residents.