If the walls of the soon-to-be toppled Farmers Tobacco Warehouse No. 1 could talk, their stories would fill volumes. Owner Jerry Rankin has heard most of them over the years.
“This has just been a special place,” Rankin said.
Rankin confirmed Tuesday that a deal with Centre College is being finalized that will sell the landmark that has stood on the corner of Russell and Hope streets since 1927. He declined to discuss the specifics of the sale until it is finalized, only saying Centre paid a fair price for the property. Demolition is set to begin early next week.
It will be the second piece of what served as the area’s agricultural hub to generations of farmers to go in a little over a month. Centre also recently purchased and demolished what had been the nearby Boyle County Stockyards.
It is also another blow to the traditional auction system and independent tobacco warehouses, the number of which Rankin said he could count on one hand last year. Despite the leveling of the historic building and the changing landscape, Rankin said the warehouse has sold 78 million pounds of tobacco since 2000 and he will still try to fill the need for a market.
Rankin, who also owns the smaller Farmers Tobacco Warehouse No. 2 located across the street, said the company will have the first sale of the year in that warehouse and hold others at another location that hasn't been determined.
As he walks the bare wooden floors, Rankin can hardly take a step without recalling some bit of history.
His father Tommy, who died in 2004, spent most of his life in both tobacco fields and at the warehouse, where he began working for owners, brothers John and R.H. Bright, while still in high school. Rankin said he still remembers his father using mules in the fields and to haul the crop.
Tommy Rankin became a partner in the warehouse in 1948, and Jerry, now 70, grew up at his heels before becoming a partner himself in 1980. Jerry Rankin learned lessons about work and what it meant to be a farmer from his father and the Brights from the time he was barely big enough to walk.
“They were extremely hard workers and extremely tough,” Rankin said. “They were full-time farmers and full-time warehouse men and great at both. Dad started out as a tenant farmer on about 1,000 acres, then became a sharecropper on the land for many years before he owned it.”
During that time, Rankin saw tobacco go from hand-tied and carted around the warehouse floor on hand-powered wooden “duckbills,” to bales weighing hundreds of pounds that took heavy machinery to move from place to place.
He can still picture the men and their entire families lined up out the door and down the street in horse and buggies.
In addition to a restaurant and some sleeping quarters, the basement of the building once housed rows of stalls for those who brought their crop to market by horse.
Rankin said people from around the region would stay in the warehouse, some fraternizing and playing dice well into the night, only intensifying the sense of community.
Outside, Rankin points to where Beatty Avenue was once lined with boarding houses to accommodate farmers from across the region overnight. Hot meals were served any time of day.
“We have always done so well here because farmers in this area had tremendous pride in their crop and were extremely knowledgeable,” Rankin said.
“You would see them come in with their wife and children, and the whole family would watch everything happening.”
Rankin said the warehouse, which regularly ranked among the top three in sales in the Burley Belt, also served as a location for a number of other events, ranging from 4-H cattle shows to dog obedience classes. The floor also was used by many farmers to dry wheat and bluegrass seed during the summer and for the city and schools to build parade floats.
With virtually everything removed from the massive empty space, Rankin marvels at the soundness of the building itself, which was rare for the amount of steel used to gird the concrete structures.
The main floor is 69,000 square feet of hardwood floors, with another 45,000 square feet in the basement and another 15,000 square foot area off of the basement.