Va. farmer creates wooden masterpieces to teach history lessons

Updated: Jun. 7, 2019 at 4:25 PM EDT
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BRUNSWICK COUNTY, Va. (WWBT) - Talk to any farmer and you’ll soon learn one of the main goals of the job is keeping crops alive and thriving.

For 88 years now, Henry Rice has done just that in Brunswick County. However, these days, he’s also keeping something else alive - history.

Behind this home on a farm in Brunswick County sits a trip down memory lane.

And with Rice’s sharp memory, it is quite a detailed trip.

"We had corn, wheat, soybeans, and all the crops like that. In this neighborhood here, tobacco was the chief crop," said Rice.

For this retired farmer, the journey began 88 years ago on his father’s tobacco farm.

"Right here in Brunswick County. In fact, two miles from where we are right now," said Rice.

You see, Rice is the type of person who remembers everything, and here in his workshop, he uses his memory to build something he doesn’t want to be forgotten.

It’s a piece of American farming history.

In fact, “Even more Black history than American history,” said Rice.

He makes replicas of flue-cured tobacco barns - barns that, for centuries, dotted Virginia’s landscape for miles.

Today, they are hard to find, and if you do spot one, it is typically rotting into disrepair.

These types of barns contained a chimney-like flue with a tinder box that allowed the tobacco to dry out slowly without exposure to smoke.

Rice spent hours in and out of a flue-cured tobacco barn while growing up on his father’s land.

"I spent a lot of hours all night long in here. Work all day. Pull tobacco all day, and then I had one or two of these barns to fire. You had to keep the heat at 140 degrees," said Rice.

This was his routine back then, which is why he does not need to measure or sketch anything today when creating these wooden pieces of history.

"I just start it from scratch, and I build it," said Rice.

He has no art background. He simply builds based on his memories.

"When I get in here, I'm like a pig. Time doesn't mean anything to me. I just go until I finish with it, you know," said Rice.

It doesn’t take too long for him to complete a replica.

"A good week. It'll take me a good week," said Rice.

In fact, he could build these very-detailed tiny barns and wooden horses with one hand, which he does.

"I've been a person all of my life that I never let anything stop me," said Rice.

These days, instead of crops, this farmer-turned-artist now sells his creations , not just to make a little money, but to teach lessons money cannot buy.

"I guess I would want them to learn what old people like myself and others, what they had to go through to get where they are at this time," said Rice.

His trip down memory lane inspires him to build the past to help build better futures.

He is enjoying the journey, and does not plan to end it any time soon.

“I won’t give up,” said Rice, who will be 89 years old in July.

He says after then, he will give it 11 more years before he officially gives up working as an artist.

If you would like to learn more about his artwork, or even buy a few pieces, email Iris Holliday at

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