You’ve probably never heard of Bartlett Snipes Durham, the doctor who gave his land and name to a small way-station on the North Carolina Railroad in eastern Orange County. And chances are you never would have heard of him or the town if Joe Johnston hadn’t stopped by.
Johnston’s 30,000 Confederate soldiers staggered past Durham’s Station in mid-April, 1865 — planting time — coming to rest near the Bennett place west of town. Word of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to U.S. Grant at Appomattox in Virginia had already reached the army. They also knew Lincoln was dead and that the South was in ruins. Johnston — weary, outnumbered, alone — eagerly surrendered to his pursuer, Gen. William T. War-is-hell-and-I’ll-prove-it Sherman, who was surprisingly generous in peace. So generous he threw out the first surrender agreement and substituted a more harsh one. Johnston dutifully surrendered again. The Civil War (except for a few diehards here and there) was over.
Without a war to keep them occupied, soldiers from both sides happily set about making themselves feel right at home around Durham. During the looting they ran off with, among other things, great quantities of smoking tobacco from John Ruffin Green’s tobacco factory near the railway station. Up until then, most Americans knew only dark, heavy-tasting tobaccos fit for chewing and cigars (as late as 1904, cigars accounted for 60% of all tobacco income). The soldiers found Green’s “Bright leaf” a revelation. Long after the armies disbanded and the soldiers returned to wherever they’d come from, orders kept pouring in for more of Green’s “Original Genuine Durham Smoking Tobacco.”
Meanwhile, out in the country north of town, a Confederate veteran and “yeoman farmer” named Washington Duke gathered all the smoking tobacco he could find, loaded it onto a wagon (which legend claims was drawn by two blind white mules) and peddled it to the nicotine-starved natives of eastern North Carolina. The tobacco sold quickly and Duke hustled home to produce more of the shredded leaf, creating his own brand which he called “Pro Bono Publico” (For the Good of the Public).
The rising lust for smoking tobacco made Durham and Duke. In 1870, a year after it was incorporated, the one-square mile village had a population of 256. There were 3,000 residents by 1884, 6,679 by 1900, and an estimated 18,000 by 1907. Durham at the turn of the century was one of the wealthiest towns in the state.
W. Duke, Sons and Company early on specialized in cigarettes, a new form of tobacco use in post-Civil War America. Their greatest success came after James B. Duke, who headed the firm, correctly foresaw the advantages of machine-rolled cigarettes despite early difficulties with the machines and a supposed public aversion to the mechanically-made smokes. By 1904 the Dukes controlled the vast American Tobacco Company, which was so large it controlled 80% of all tobacco products (except cigars) in the U.S. In 1911 the U.S. Supreme Court declared American Tobacco an illegal trust and saw to it that the company was broken up into more than a dozen smaller corporations, among them such present-day giants as Liggett Group (formerly Liggett and Myers), P. Lorillard, and American Tobacco. (The Dukes came out of the trustbusting in good shape. Besides, their attention was already shifting to a new enterprise — developing an electric power company to serve the Carolinas.)
Durham remained the center of the U.S. tobacco industry well into this century. The Dukes are still rich.
Durham’s is the story of an American boom town where fortunes were made and lost overnight. Companies came and went in a swirl, but through it all the cutthroat principles of American capitalism were triumphant.
Around the turn of the century Durham was like a bit of the old West, full of saloons and muddy streets, with livestock roaming free within the city limits and drinking water coming from open wells. (Visitors in summer were particularly susceptible to an endemic disease known as Durham fever.) The town boasted a red light district, and it was a simple matter to have liquor delivered right to your home.
In his book The Story of Tobacco in America, Joseph Clarke Robert writes:
The new town was fairly bursting with hustle, bustle, and energy. Durham was not ashamed to be known as the Chicago of the South. Passionately devoted to trade and enterprise, the village grew rapidly, perhaps too rapidly to consolidate on all fronts. Durham was self-made, thus self-confident. The old planter class had little or nothing to do with the miracle of Durham’s Station; yeoman and peddlers and little merchants did. Sedate Hillsboro and scholarly Chapel Hill looked down or held their aristocratic noses at the bumptious village whose golden calf was a Durham Bull, and this at a time when no lady and no gentleman in a lady’s presence would even use the word b-u-l-l. It was no place for those who wanted culture, said its critics, and when Durham offered $50,000 toward establishing the Baptist Female Seminary, the representatives of that body could not stomach the thought of exposing young ladies to the crudities of the town . . .
In examining Durham’s beginnings — a friend who’s lived here all her life says it’s just like “you uppity Northerners” to ‘examine’ a town’s history — other names besides Duke stand worthy of mention:
Bull Durham. A picture of a bull adorned Green’s smoking tobacco packages, said to be copied from the bull’s head on jars of Colman’s mustard made in Durham, England. William T. Blackwell, who joined Green as a partner and later bought out his interest in the factory, saw to it that “Bull Durham” became a common American household item. Pictures featuring the bull appeared throughout the world in magazines and newspapers, and on bridges, buildings, and anything else susceptible to being painted, including the Egyptian pyramids.
Blackwell’s Bull Durham factory became the largest smoking tobacco factory in the world — from a dozen employees in 1869 it grew to have 900 within 15 years. Bull Durham dominated the smoking tobacco industry for almost two decades; the Dukes’s early years in business were dominated by their competition with Blackwell’s firm. One writer of the times, not meaning to be facetious, called the Bull Durham factory “the shrine of all pilgrims to Durham.”
The success of Bull Durham tobacco attracted many other tobacco concerns eager to capitalize on the Durham name. Soon the town was overflowing with tobacco and tobacco products, the odor lingering, according to Robert’s account, “in every nook and cranny.”
Although she arrived on the scene after Durham’s most wide-open years as a “sporting town” and center of tobacco speculation, temperance leader Carrie Nation’s attacks on the town could have applied years before.
“The good woman’s husband doesn’t spit filthy tobacco juice all over creation,” she declared in a Durham speech, “nor smoke stenchant cigarettes, nor hang around the dispensary or the streets late at night. Think of a woman who has to kiss a man who defiles his mouth with the abominable weed. She might as well kiss a spittoon and be done with it.”
Using language which the Durham newspapers declared “no lady should use in the presence of men,” Nation went on to attack another Durham institution. “. . . They are building a memorial church now to the old man Duke,” she said. “I told the folks at Trinity College (the precursor of Duke University) what sort of memorial window they ought to have . . . They ought to have a big stained-glass panel with a Durham bull and a package of Duke’s Mixture on it.”
Not that everyone thought the pervasive presence of “the abominable weed” bad. Some writers referred to tobacco as “that bewitching vegetable” — one 1895 history of Durham asserted that “an atmosphere permeated with the odor of tobacco will ward off contagious diseases.” And of course for the merchants and manufacturers in town, tobacco’s favored presence meant more money.
If Bull Durham’s prominence as a smoking tobacco wasn’t enough to keep it in everyone’s mind, there was the Bull Durham steam whistle to blast it into their heads. Said to sound like the fierce bellow of a real bull, the factory whistle could be heard for 15 miles. (The Duke factory later added its own whistle which sounded like “an Indian war whoop.” When the University of North Carolina and Trinity College met in athletics, the bull sounded for Carolina wins and the war whoop went up for Trinity victories.) Vibrations from the bellowing bull were said to be so powerful they shook nearby buildings; the whistle was finally silenced for the benefit of a nearby hotel owned, not coincidentally, by one of the partners in Blackwell’s firm . . .
Julian Shakespeare Carr. Now there’s a forgotten name. Well, maybe not. Carrboro, that town next to Chapel Hill — well, Julian Carr owned two cotton mills there, so they named the town after him. Carr built the mills as part of his Durham Hosiery Mills complex, the largest cotton hosiery mill complex in the world by the 1920’s.
Carr got the money to build his mills from (where else?) tobacco. While his partner Blackwell was going bankrupt in the 1880’s, Carr diversified into the cotton mill industry and made another fortune.
General Carr (he served as commander-in-chief of the United Confederate Veterans) gave financial support to Josephus Daniels, who founded the Raleigh News and Observer, one of the state’s great Democratic and racist mouthpieces for many years. He owned Durham’s best hotel, the Carolina (get it?), which burned down in 1907. He was the mastermind behind the publicity blitz which catapulted the name “Bull Durham” into international prominence.
When Trinity College located in Durham in the 1890’s Washington Duke gave the money while Julian Carr gave the land. (The tract in west Durham was called Blackwell’s Park. It seems William Blackwell loved thoroughbred racing and had used that land to accommodate what was for many years the best racetrack in the state. The “Ark,” a white three-story building used for dance classes on what’s now Duke’s East Campus, was built in 1898 with wood from the grandstand at Blackwell’s racetrack.)
Why, Julian S. Carr was so big he received 13 votes for the vice presidential nomination at the 1900 Democratic National Convention!
Carr’s son, Julian Junior, added to the luster of the family name with several unusual “experiments.” Despite warnings that “the rhythms of the machines would put the darkies to sleep,” the younger Carr manned one of his Durham hosiery mills completely with black laborers as early as 1904. It was the first all-black factory work force in the nation.
The Durham Hosiery Mills also instituted a form of industrial democracy which survived from December, 1919 until early in 1921. According to the “Employee Representation Plan of the Durham Hosiery Mills,” a House of Representatives and a Senate were established at each mill to represent the workers, with a Cabinet composed of executive and supervisory personnel meeting at regular intervals to respond to the legislation proposed by those two bodies. Decisions of the Cabinet could be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the entire membership of both houses as long as the bills “would not radically affect the finances, the working hours, or the progressive policy of the Durham Hosiery Mills Corp.”
“It was a laboratory experiment to find the solution for the general problem of capital and labor,” explained the senior Carr. The ‘experiment’ worked well enough (no unions for the owners to contend with, better benefits for the workers), but when the company had to cut back work hours and then lay off employees the representatives as well as others were released and the plan fell apart.
There are other names that stand out from the early days of the town which, as Duke historian Robert Durden writes, “craved factories”:
The Laxo Company. As its name implies, the Laxo firm produced “a perfect remedy for a torpid and inactive liver.”
The Durham Daily Sun. Founded in 1889, the Sun was said to carry “sunshine and live local and spicy matter” and to be “a tower of strength to the better class of Durham people.”
Piedmont Air-Line. A railroad.
Fairntosh. A plantation north of town, built in 1802 and the site for one of America’s great early movies, “The Birth of a Nation.”
George Watts. A partner in W. Duke, Sons and Company, Watts established Durham’s first hospital in a group of four buildings on Watts Street, one of which is still standing. When the hospital outgrew its quarters, it moved to a campus near Broad Street and Club Boulevard, where it remained until last year when the entire operation shifted to Durham County General Hospital.
James Southgate. One of the earliest insurance salesmen in the state and a candidate for Vice President of the U.S. on the National Party ticket in 1896. (He lost.)
Durham Traction Company. The end of its 6.2 mile street car line was at 28-acre Lakewood Park (now Lakewood shopping center), which featured a casino, skating rink, bowling alleys, dance pavilion, pool, merry-go-round, and other amusements. The Durham Traction Company also manufactured ice.
Southern Conservatory of Music. One of the best music schools in the South. In 1898 it had 130 students. In those days Durham also had an opera house downtown, not too far from its one guano warehouse.