Brooklyn Tobacco Factory

Brooklyn Tobacco FactoryThe Brooklyn Tobacco Factory may be the best preserved example of an Antebellum tobacco factory yet identified in Virginia, and is one of the few buildings of its type preserved nationally. The building's architectural distinction is the quality of its brickwork. The two-story, rose-colored brick factory was built by Dabney Cosby, Jr. beginning in 1847, for partners Joshua Hightower and Beverly Barksdale II.

The brick made from red clay on the property by slave laborers covers the exterior walls in five-course American bond with penciled mortar joints. Projecting above each end of the metal sheathed gable roof are brick chimney flues. The gabled front and rear of the building each feature a pair of windows above an entrance with double doors. The sides have a row of seven windows on each floor with nine-over-six sashes.

The firm of Hightower & Barksdale began manufacturing plug chewing tobacco in 1855. The workforce was originally composed of slaves either belonging to the factory owners or hired from local planters. Hightower & Barksdale closed its operations in 1860, later to be briefly reopened in the early 1880's by Beverly Barksdale III and William Haymes.

Brooklyn Tobacco Factory before renovationIn 1994 Virginia "Ginger" Gentry acquired the long-abandoned factory and with her husband Mack set about saving the factory from further deterioration. They have carefully preserved the graffiti and stenciling as a record of the factory's fascinating history.

The Brooklyn Factory is one of the last - and largest - rural tobacco factories to survive in the region. It reopened its doors for public viewing during Halifax County's 250th celebration. The factory is listed in the Virginia Landmarks Register and in the National Register of Historic Places.

Factory Operations

The production of tobacco products began with hoisting the leaf to the second floor using a hand operated lift located inside the front entry. The wooden pulleys and iron hardware of the lift are still in place. The tobacco was hung from ceiling racks so that the brittle cured leaves would absorb moisture from the air.

Once the leaves had been brought into "order" and were supple enough, workers (stemmers) stripped them of their tough central stems. The leaves were flavored and hung to dry. Flavoring and drying probably took place in a partitioned-off room. Dark stains on one wall of this room show a syrupy residue and stove flues indicate the room was heated. Small battens nailed over spaces between the ceiling boards made the room airtight, more evidence of a drying operation.

tobacco plug from Brooklyn Tobacco FactoryNext the leaves were molded, still pliable from the application of flavoring, into a rectangular cake which was measured, trimmed, and weighed. Workers would encase the molded cake into a stemmed unflavored wrapping leaf. The raw plugs were sorted by weight and dropped through trap doors into a compartmentalized bin on the first floor. The ghost impression of this sorting bin is visible on the wall of the first floor prizing room.

Hand-operated screw presses formerly lined the east wall of the prizing room, their positions indicated by bored holes and a few surviving iron spikes where the press frames were secured to ceiling joists. To withstand the weight of heavy iron presses, the prizing room floor was constructed with a double cribbing of stout log sleepers.

The last stops in the process were packing and shipment. The plugs were placed in wooden boxes stenciled with the name of the factory and brand. Stenciled labels and graffiti covering the walls of the front first-floor room suggest it served as the factory carpentry shop.

The final packing was supervised from the office. A peephole allowed management to watch the prizing room and the words "keep out" scrawled on the office door helped prevent unscheduled drop-ins. Another rule is chalked on most of the building's doors - "No Smoking." This was not in anticipation of the Surgeon General's warning, but a measure to protect the building, its occupants, and its highly flammable contents.

It is something of a mystery why a large, fully-equipped factory representing a considerable capital investment would be allowed to lapse into idleness during a period of expansion in tobacco manufacturing. As Virginia recovered from the Civil War, tobacco manufacturers abandoned rural locations in favor of the superior shipping facilities and labor markets of emergent urban centers. Many factory owners installed newly developed machinery that increased production, improved the quality of products, and decreased the reliance on manpower. Had the owners modernized the factory, traces of its earlier hand-powered operation would have been erased and one of the nation's best preserved examples of pre-mechanized tobacco manufacturing would have been compromised.

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