Duke Homestead, tobacco history


A stop at the Duke Homestead offered a fascinating look into both the Civil War time period and tobacco history.  It was Washington Duke that farmed the ground before being conscripted to join the Civil War along with his 18 year-old son Brody.  After losing his oldest son and two wives, Washington Duke set about changing from growing tobacco to manufacturing it.  He sold his farm equipment before he left for the war and upon his return, he and his children worked together to start what would eventually become at one time, the largest company in the world, the American Tobacco Company.

Rose Hammitt and I loved this stop during our North Carolina trip.  It was fascinating learning about the tobacco curing process which requires a stone furnace in the center of the barn burning continuously during the curing period. They offer a self-guided as well as a guided tour and we were able to jump on to a tour just starting when we arrived.  Our guide told us about the family and the Dukes.  We saw the tobacco curing barn, the tobacco pack house and at the first tobacco factory, our guide even demonstrated how Washington Duke and his children started their business.  Pipe tobacco required beating the dry tobacco with sassafras flails to break the leaves, then sifting it through a fine metal sieve and packing it into muslin sacks.

This was very labor intensive, but also lucrative. W. Duke and Sons was the name of the company and their first product was Pro Bono Publico. The company grew quickly, and Washington soon built a second factory (which is no longer there) and in 1869, a third factory.  One source shared that by 1873 the Dukes were producing 125,000 pounds of smoking tobacco. 

The third factory at the Duke Homestead was used until 1874 when they moved to what is now downtown Durham.  The guide at the Duke Homestead wrapped up the continuation of the family business which grew to new heights through the efforts of Buck Duke.  Buck Duke introduced cigarettes into the tobacco mix, first hiring European rollers, then investing in a machine that he patented.  Eventually the company was broken up by anti-trust laws, but the Dukes impact on the area is still felt today in the Southern Power Company Buck Duke started and the donation to what was Trinity College and now is known as Duke University. 

Part of the fun of this tour for me was seeing the barns and the machinery like the tobacco sled and basically learning about a crop I know little about.  The home was also very cool and this visit reinforced the impact of the Civil War.  Another interesting fact that connected my recent travel is that near the end of the war, Washington Duke was captured and sent to a Union prison. They released him near Bern NC, not far from Kinston where I had toured before heading to the Durham area. Washington Duke walked the 138 miles from New Bern to his farm.

For me, history brings places alive and this was one stop I was really glad we made. Admission is free although donations are accepted and appreciated.  Located at 2828 Duke Homestead Road, Durham, North Carolina log onto www.nchistoricsites.org/duke/. 


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