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Duke Homestead

Bonsack Machine and operator, c. 1880's

[General Negative Collection, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, NC]

I wrote last night about our arrival yesterday in Chapel Hill. This morning we drove over to Durham to see the Duke Homestead State Historic Site and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

We arrived at the Duke Homestead at 10:30. From the website, I knew there’s a 15-minute video shown every half hour and a tour of the grounds once an hour. Plus, there are people on the grounds in period dress, whether to demonstrate the workings of a tobacco farm or to answer questions, I wasn’t sure. That all may be, but not today. We arrived to an empty building. After a minute, a woman appeared from somewhere and, after a long pause during which she figured out that we didn’t know the routine, asked if we were first-time visitors. I said yes, and said that if I understood from the sign, we were in time for a 10:45 am showing of the video and an 11:15 tour. Well, yes, she explained that would be true if she weren’t the only person working there today, but with her alone, there would be no tours. However, we could have the self-guided tour pamphlet and walk the grounds on our own. The only thing we would miss was a tour of the inside of the Washington Duke home.

No tour. No Duke home. No people in period dress. That was disappointing. But admission is free.

We proceeded past the building’s entry into the tobacco museum and began to view the exhibits. Soon it was time to sit in the auditorium for the video.

The video turns out to be something of a tease. It introduces and races past a sequence of enticing topics. Tobacco and Indians. Tobacco and colonists. Tobacco and World War I. Tobacco and the history of advertising. Tobacco and Washington Duke, Civil War POW returning to his old property to start a farm, only to adopt a new cigarette rolling machine and build the greatest tobacco company in the world. The Duke family and the start of a university. Tobacco and auctions. Tobacco as the heart of the Durham economy. Tobacco, the 1964 surgeon-general’s report, and a changing industry. Declining tobacco and Durham, city of medicine. Declined tobacco and Durham revitalized with factories and warehouses converted to condos and stores. The End.

Wow! What a story! A 500-page book could hardly do it justice. A 15-minute video? More please.

The museum awaited, and filled in some of the gaps. A little space was set up like a 1950’s American living room, complete with old TV and a 1957 McCall’s Magazine. Push a button and cigarette ads start playing on the TV. Lucky Strike, with the message pounding away that Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco, or LSMFT. Winston: Tastes good like a cigarette should. Marlboro: horses, the Marlboro Man, and Marlboro Country. Despicable products, but those sure were fantastic ads.

What made Washington Duke a success was the adoption his son urged upon him of James Bonsall’s automated cigarette rolling machine, and the museum doesn’t disappoint: it has one on display. Plus several other machines. And more buttons to push to have old-time cigarette industry workers tell their stories. The museum space is small, yet full of excellent displays. But the outdoors beckoned.

We headed out, walked about 100 yards, and came to a row of buildings briefly described in our pamphlet. The curing barn, circa 1870. The packhorse. The first factory, a reconstruction. The third factory, used from 1869 to 1874, at which point Duke moved to what became downtown Durham. The house, built in 1852 and expanded in 1860. The smokehouse. The 1860 well house. The grape arbor, which looked fairly new The ash hopper.

The pamphlet explained that when the Dukes moved in 1874, they sold the house, but in 1931, Washington Duke’s granddaughter Mary Duke Biddle bought it back She donated it to Duke University, which gave it to the state in 1974, thereby allowing us to visit today.

Categories: History, Museums
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