Glimpse of the agricultural past

Kenly museum details eastern North Carolina farm life

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The Tobacco Farm Life Museum might be in Johnston County, but there is a lot of Wilson in it.

Located on the outskirts of Kenly, the museum just celebrated its 35th anniversary.

The repository has artifacts that will be familiar to residents all eastern North Carolina locales.

“Everything we have here in the gallery and in the museum was donated from the local community,” said executive director Melody Worthington.

“We do have a lot of Wilson County items. We are located actually on the Wilson-Johnston county line. We get a lot of support from the Wilson community as well as the Johnston community.”

The museum was started 35 years ago with on-farm tours to local farms and has grown since then. The main gallery building was opened in 1986 with funding from Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds.

“Our mission is to preserve and present the history and heritage of the rural farming community in North Carolina and we focus between 1880 and 1950,” said Worthington, who has worked at the museum for the last decade.

Visitors will notice that it’s not all about tobacco at the Tobacco Farm Life Museum.

“I think we really wanted to tell the story of the farming community and those farmers’ lifestyles,” Worthington said. “Tobacco was the most labor-intensive and time-consuming crop that they had. It was also their smallest crop. I think in accurately depicting their lives, we had to do more than just tobacco. We don’t focus so much on the tobacco industry as the farming family.”

Exhibits on schools, stores, churches and doctors are shown alongside agricultural items.

Clothing for doing chores and for going to church is displayed.

“It really shows that community aspect,” Worthington said.

“It used to be that almost everyone in the state lived or worked on a farm at some point in their life and now it’s only 2 percent of the population who either live or work on a farm, so at some point, North Carolinians have that connection to what we have here on-site at the museum,” Worthington said. “Also, the population has grown, so about half of our population now is people who have moved into North Carolina. I think they have a significant impact as well coming here and seeing how North Carolina developed and where we came from and why we hold onto those traditional values. I definitely think we have something here for everyone.”

Among the items with Wilson connections are receipts from the sale of bales of tobacco from the Centre Brick Warehouse, a full-page newspaper advertisement and photograph from the Smith Warehouse, a tobacco ticket from the Banner Warehouse, a T-shirt from the Growers Cooperative Warehouse, a worker’s apron from the New Planters Warehouse and a dolly from the Farmers Warehouse.

But what may be the largest item from Wilson is an original wagon made by the Hackney Wagon Co., which began operation in 1854. At the turn of the century, it was the second-largest producer of wagons and buggies in the United States.

Outside the gallery, the museum has seven ancillary structures that are mini-museums unto themselves.

They include a blacksmith shop, a packhouse, a tobacco barn, a one-room schoolhouse and the homestead of the Iredell Brown family with a separate kitchen and the smokehouse.

Old farm implements, farm tools and general trappings of farm life are neatly and thoughtfully arranged with plenty of interpretive panels to explain the history and use of every item.

Farm families may find it particularly appealing. In fact, the site is frequently used for family reunions.

“We just started really promoting that in the last couple of years and it has been on the increase,” Worthington said. “We certainly hope to increase the numbers of family reunions, birthday parties, weddings that we can host here on site.”

The museum is a private nonprofit and gets limited state funding on an occasional basis.

“It’s mostly through grants and then fundraising,” Worthington said. “Our biggest support group is the farming community and the agricultural community, which is the largest industry in North Carolina, so we have a large group of supporters, which is unusual for such a small museum. We are thankful for our supporters, but as a nonprofit, we rely on those rentals to keep programing going.”

Worthington said the museum has lots of opportunities to attend events and programs. Today, there will be a tobacco tying and stringing demonstration beginning at 10 a.m.

About 6,000 people visit the museum annually.

Cost is $25 an hour for a family to rent the space for an event. For individuals, admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and $6 for students. Group tours and guided tours are $9.

The museum, located at 709 N. Church St. in Kenly, is open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. For more information, call 919-284-3431.


Located 16 miles southwest of Wilson on U.S. 301

Mayor is Bonnie Williamson

Population is 1,500

Incorporated in 1887