Dukes, Durham and tobacco
The story of the Dukes is tied to the story of Durham, and the story of Durham is tied to the Dukes. And wrapped in tobacco leaves. So the first coffee table book about Duke Homestead, the state historic site at the tobacco farm that started it all, incorporates all three.
“Duke Homestead and the American Tobacco Company” was written by the Duke Homestead Historic Site manager, Jennifer Dawn Farley. A graduate of UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State University, she began working at Duke Homestead in Durham in 1997, left to manage another Durham County state historic site, Stagville, from 2003-07, then returned to Duke Homestead.
That’s 16 years of Durham County history she has studied and worked, so there weren’t any surprises in her research for “Duke Homestead and the American Tobacco Company.” She did, however, see a few Duke photos she hadn’t previously, during her searches at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University.
The book has quite a bit of text, in the form of extended captions with each photograph on each page. Arcadia Publishing, the publisher of thousands of local history books, contacted Farley with the idea of a large format book “on something so central to the history of Durham,” she said. That large format – horizontal coffee table size rather than the more frequent, smaller vertical size – meant more story could be shared.
The Duke fortune started with Washington Duke, whose first factory was not the large brick buildings repurposed downtown into apartments and restaurants, but a small wooden building about the size of someone’s backyard shed today. Duke Homestead, the house where the family lived in the mid-1800s, and those first tobacco factories comprise the historic site in Durham.
More than writing a book about the historic site, Farley wants readers to learn how interconnected the various businesses and people are in Durham. A simple story of a tobacco company can’t be told without also including banking, textiles and electricity, she said. The Dukes were more than just the university benefactor, she noted, mentioning their philanthropic work in education, orphanages and hospitals.
The book includes multiple black-and-white photographs of Duke family mansions in Durham, yet all the Duke homes are gone now, save for the modest wooden one at Duke Homestead. The cover of the book shows Washington Duke sitting on the porch of the house, tobacco leaves in his lap, in 1904.
The location of Brodie Duke’s house is now Durham School of the Arts and Benjamin Duke’s downtown house was where N.C. Mutual Insurance is today. The late heiress and philanthropist Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans was instrumental in the creation of Duke Homestead in the 1970s and supported it throughout her life, Farley said. Now the only connection between Duke descendants and Duke Homestead is through social media, by following the site’s Facebook page. At an auction of Semans’ estate last week, Duke Homestead was able to purchase a highchair from the era of the tobacco farm. Washington Duke and his family lived at Duke Homestead from 1852 to 1874. Duke family members lived in the house until the 1930s, then it was sold to Duke University, which in turn gave it to the state for a historic site, Farley said.
Duke Homestead was built with the expectation visitors would have knowledge of tobacco farming, but that knowledge is lost now, Farley said. So her first chapter takes readers through tobacco “from seed to sale” before she launches into the Duke family and Durham history.
One of Farley’s key sources was a textbook on the Duke family, “The Dukes of Durham: 1865-1929” by Robert F. Durden, which is used to train historic-site staff. That’s an in depth version of the Arcadia book, Farley said. “Duke Homestead and the American Tobacco Company” also shows several images of the present day American Tobacco Campus when it was still used as factories and warehouses. For details on those buildings, Farley went right to those who worked there – American Tobacco retirees.
Farley thinks that if Washington Duke were alive today, he would be thrilled and so proud of Duke University being what it is because education was so important to him, she said, even though he had just six months of formal education.
“The rejuvenation of downtown and reuse of tobacco buildings – they would be pleased, I think,” she said of the Dukes.
Farley said what strikes her most about the history is that “the area was prosperous during Reconstruction when the rest of the South was not, and that had a lot to do with tobacco.”