The agricultural complex at Historic St. Mary’s City, which served as the central area of tobacco barns and granaries since the late 18th-century, have also undergone significant changes since Historic St. Mary’s City began interpreting the site of the 18th century city. Architectural studies have been conducted of both the granary and tobacco barn, indicating that they were constructed in 1758 and 1785, respectively. The granary was dismantled in the 1990s due to its poor state: the parts are currently in storage. The tobacco barn, known as the Mackall Barn, has been restored and repurposed as an exhibit dedicated to understanding the role of agriculture in Maryland from the 17th century through the 20th century. It highlights components of barn construction, how barns were modified to correspond to the changing needs of agriculture, and the role of slavery in agricultural production.
The picture here was taken in the early 1970s and shows the center of the Brome plantation agricultural complex. From left to right, the four main structures are as follows:
The John Mackall Barn
This is the oldest standing structure at the museum. Originally constructed as a granary in 1785, it had a long and varied history. In the early 1800s, the structure was converted into a tobacco barn. But in the 1840s, when John Broom took over the plantation, it was restored as a granary. In the years after emancipation, it again became a tobacco barn. By the 1940s, its sheds needed to be rebuilt and the building served as a livestock barn for prize cattle. After the museum acquired the structure in 1980, a full study of it was conducted by Research Director Garry Wheeler Stone, with tree-ring dating undertaken during a project supported by the Maryland Historical Trust. This analysis revealed the 1785 date of its construction, meaning it was erected for John Mackall soon after the end of the American Revolution. While we do not know who the artisans were, it is possible they were enslaved African Americans on MacKall’s plantation. They built it using ten feet bay intervals and with a tilted false plate, an architectural innovation dating back to the 17th-century in the Chesapeake. Also, its walls were covered with four feet long oak clapboards, as had early colonial buildings. But unlike 17th-century structures supported by wooden posts in the ground, it rested on large stone cobbles. Later, bricks salvaged from earlier buildings were used to create a more solid foundation, perhaps to help keep out rodents. The enslaved laborers would have spent much time in and around this building.
The core of this structure is original. Not only are the main timbers and rafters of 1785 date, but one wall is still partially covered with the fragile clapboards fastened with handmade wrought nails. Given the poor condition of the attached sheds, and the need to preserve the core, the museum obtained funding from private sources and rebuilt the two sheds in 2010. This allowed the barn to take on the 6th role it has had over its long 227 year history – a museum exhibit.
The second structure that was demolished in the late 1970s. It was probably built in the first half of the 19th century and was both a tobacco and livestock barn
William Hicks Granary
This red barn is actually the oldest of the structures in this picture. It was originally constructed as a granary by William Hicks and is tree-ring dated to 1758. In the mid-1970s, the granary was in poor condition and one wall collapsed. Rather than destroy it, HSMC archaeologist Garry Stone obtained permission from the owner to record and carefully dismantle the structure. Its timbers were then stored in a nearby barn so that it could one day be reconstructed. The Hicks granary remained a vital element of the Mackall and Brome Plantations and seems to have remained a place for grain storage over much of its active life.
The final building and shed was a corn crib and storage building dating to the 1800s. At the time this picture was taken, it served as an office for a descendant of Dr. Brome. Due to extensive termite damage, the complex was demolished in 2000.
These agricultural buildings were the working core of the plantation, where grain was threshed and stored, tobacco hung, dried, and the leaves placed into casks for shipment, livestock cared for, and farm equipment stored and maintained. It is around these structures that the enslaved workers of Dr. Brome, and the tenant farmers who worked for him after slavery, would have spent considerable time, and it is quite possible that they even constructed, and quite likely repaired and maintained, these agrarian buildings.
As with the homes in which enslaved people once lived, the buildings they worked in on plantations and farms also rarely survive. That this complex at St. Mary’s Manor remained standing until the last quarter of the 20th century is remarkable. The second oldest component of the group is now preserved as a museum exhibit and oldest building is still in storage, hopefully to be resurrected some day. The other two structures only survive in photographs and architectural documentation. But as representatives of the working side of the plantation, they are all perhaps as significant for understanding the sites history and the experiences of African Americans as are domestic structures.