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GUEST HOUSE PACKS HERITAGE CASWELL COUNTY MAN'S PROJECT PRESERVES TOBACCO'S HISTORY

GUEST HOUSE PACKS HERITAGE CASWELL COUNTY MAN'S PROJECT PRESERVES TOBACCO'S HISTORY

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When the decaying pack barn finally tumbled off its crumbling rock foundation, Eldridge Vernon, 61, knew he had to preserve it.

``The logs were too good to go to waste,' he says.But the state of the pine logs wasn't the real reason El Vernon wanted to preserve the 18-by-38-foot pack barn that for years stored the family's cured tobacco.

The barn was part of his roots. It's now a guest house and part of his children's roots, too.

As a lad of six, Vernon had watched his father, the late Clay Vernon, a supervisor for a tobacco company, build the barn on the family farm in Caswell County near the Virginia line.

Vernon recalls the ``terrible ice storm' the winter of 1935-1936 that prompted the building of the pack barn as well as five tobacco barns. All but two of the tobacco barns have burned.

``All the logs were from trees that had the tops broken out in the ice storm,' he said. ``The next spring my father built the barns.'

Vernon was born on the farm in tobacco country that boomed after discovery of a bright-leaf curing process. From 1820 until the Civil War, the community boasted of 12 tobacco factories.

He met his wife, Jean Hines of Danville, Va., when she was working with the Vernon family in the tobacco.

They began married life in a log house a mile up Yarborough Mill Road from their present home.

Through inheritance and five buyouts from his brothers, Vernon and his wife now own the 470-acre family farm. The land extends as far as one can see in any direction, Jean Vernon says.

Because of a couple of devastating hail storms and Hurricane Hazel, Vernon gave up farming to become a tobacco buyer for Universal Leaf of Richmond, Va.

The Vernons' tobacco heritage is still prominent in their lives, as their barn-turned-guest house stands witness.

Jean Vernon describes it as being ``like a community center, where about anyone who wants to can use it.'

The barn, which overlooks a catfish pond, is a sometime-home for Bruce Vernon, one of the family's six children. El Vernon's nephew, Gerry Vernon, and his family of the nearby Blanch community lived in the restored house a year after their home burned as a result of lightning.

With the foundation gone and the basement caved in, Eldridge Vernon decided to take the pack barn down piece by numbered piece and move it across the dirt road to a more picturesque location. The original tin roof was also sound enough to move.

Vernon started his preservation project in July 1981. With volunteer help of family and friends, he finished construction the next October. The more he worked on it, the better he liked it, he says. ``I didn't want to stop.'

He didn't stop until he had landscaped with big boxwood and a velvety stand of grass. The interior design that makes the former one-roomer livable was Vernon's, too. The guest house has a great room, kitchen, bath and bedroom lofts at each end.

Replacing pine boards with vinyl flooring in the kitchen freed the pine to go into loft privacy petitions. The loft floors are of wood that originally was under the tin roof. Vernon used plywood to replace the pine. He says the log beams were originally racks that held the tobacco.

Altogether, Vernon spent about $22,000 restoring his treasure, he says.

He sandblasted the logs twice and treated them for termites. He fortified the chinking with metal and insulation. The custom pine kitchen cabinets came from Danville.

During his busy time of year, Vernon hired a couple of carpenters. ``We worked at night, and if I didn't like something, we'd change it that day.'

The new foundation and added chimney are brick, the work of Larry Karley of Mebane, brother-in-law of the Vernons' son David. El Vernon decided on a wood stove and an auxiliary gas heating unit instead of a fireplace.

When Vernon completed the barn, he wasn't pleased with its look, so he added porches on the front and back

Because of the large outside openings on each end, custom doors were necessary. Vernon says he kept the barn's tin bonnet or hood that diverts rain away from the foundation, updated with fire-engine red paint.

Jean Vernon has assembled many keepsakes from the farm to decorate the home. Among wall decor in the kitchen are a blue flowered bonnet El Vernon's mother always wore outdoors and her bone-handled eating utensils displayed attached to a woven tray. A collectible ``Call for Philip Morris' tin sign Vernon found in a Hartsville, Tenn., warehouse also gives a vintage accent, as do the family dough board and rolling pin.

Among the family mementos in the great room is a left-over log turned into a shelf; a framed 50-year-old flour sack with the mill imprinted; a churn, hoe and other farm implements including a foot adz used for hewing the original logs; a broom the late Ella Norman made of straw; a tobacco stick on which the tobacco was strung for curing; and a ``tobacco' stool.

The draperies began as tobacco sheets, a burlap fabric used to cover tobacco for selling. The rods are tobacco sticks.

Craftsman Steve Smith of Yanceyville wove the basket shade for a loft ceiling light. The bathroom mirror was once a washboard belonging to Vernon's mother. He replaced the metal ridges with mirror.

``My dream is to do it like a bed and breakfast,' says Jean Vernon, who is writing a cook book. ``Honeymooners could use it. They could fish and bicycle, too.'

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