June 23, 2005
Atkinson County--- A South Georgia man takes a bold step by re-cycling, giving new life to an old, abandoned tobacco barn that was on the verge of falling down.
Neal Gillis couldn't let that happen, and found a creative way to save his family's curing barn where he worked for 35 years picking, stringing and curing big green leaves of tobacco to a golden color.
A short piece down the dirt road from the barn sits a small saw mill that makes the rescue operation possible. Rarely, if ever, do we get to operate the exact equipment our ancestors used. "It brings back good memories," says Gillis, after the starts a field tractor parked under a shed.
His memories, decades old, remain fresh in his mind as if the events happened yesterday. "I'm gonna saw, operate a mill," says Gills with big smile. Little has changed at the his family's saw mill in a long time, "Probably a hundred years," says Gillis, as he moves a lever that starts a log on its date with a whirling saw blade.
The only visible exception is the field tractor powers the saw these days, his only concession to progress.
Neal Gillis cuts boards like his father use to with those boards going to help save his family's old tobacco barn. He supports the same philosophy his ancestors held for generations: waste not, want not, including the saving of his family's old tobacco curing barn from a lingering collapse. "This one was built in the 1950s," says Gillis standing under what was the barn's shed.
The stick tobacco barns met their demise when the price of energy shot up, and farmers could no longer afford to operate the terribly energy inefficient structures and left them for Nature to deal with. Most rotted down. Some looked as if big, hungry views tried to eat them.
But it had been drilled into Neal Gillis not to give up so easily. "I really enjoy taking something of no good and making it work," says Gillis. His neighbor and carpenter Ron Daniels finds himself helping to save a family heirloom. "It's a place of enjoyment instead of tearing down the past," says Daniels who says he has torn down many a barn in his day.
Neal Gillis' idea of converting the barn stated small. "My wife wanted it for storage," says Gillis. The barn sits across a dirt road from their home. Like most construction projects, it grew much bigger with time. "My imagination started running away," says Gillis.
The old barn became a townhouse in the country, a salvage operation two years in the making. A living room-like downstairs with satellite TV, and checker board, and several comfortable chairs greet visitors. A small refrigerator and coffee pot sit in the corner with two stools under the shelf.
Look at the ceiling and you see the poles that once held sticks of tobacco, but now hold the floor of the upstairs bedroom. Four beds occupy the upstairs with the third floor designated as Mrs. Gillis' storage area.
Neal Gillis kept a family tradition from collapsing, "I get a thrill out of that," says Gillis as he sits in a rocking chair inside a big screen in porch. "Probably won't ever get through with it," says Gillis, who plans to add another big screened in porch on the other side.
The Gillis family already uses the old tobacco barn to entertain friends and family, with plans to add even more space.