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"Birthplace of J. B. and B. N. Duke, tobacco and hydroelectric magnates, philanthropists (Duke University, the Duke Endowment), is 1 mi. S.W." In 1852 a young farmer named Washington Duke built a two-story frame house for his wife and two sons on a farm on the outskirts of what is now Durham. The house was the birthplace of Duke’s only daughter, Mary Elizabeth, and his sons James Buchanan Duke and Benjamin Newton Duke, who forever changed tobacco, electric power, religion, education, and philanthropy in North Carolina. At that time Washington Duke could not have imagined that his 300-acre farm would also be the birthplace of a major American tobacco company, W. Duke, Sons and Company.
Although a Unionist, Washington Duke was drafted into the Confederate army. Upon returning home he found that Union soldiers had raided his home. The only commodity Union soldiers had overlooked was a small amount of brightleaf tobacco. Before it could be sold the tobacco had to be processed into a form for smoking. Duke and his sons did this by hand in a small log barn that was the first of the three “factories” on the farm. After processing and packing the tobacco, they labeled it “Pro Bono Publico” (For Public Good) and set out to sell it across the state. Union soldiers who had smoked the bright leaf tobacco while in the South began placing orders for the Duke tobacco. By 1873 the Dukes were producing around 125,000 pounds of smoking tobacco a year. After acquiring the Bonsack cigarette-processing machine in 1884, W. Duke, Sons and Company became one of the leading cigarette producers in the country. Washington’s son, James, laid out a plan for the Duke company to merge with its four largest competitors to become the American Tobacco Company. At the head of this trust the Duke family accumulated great wealth, which they used for many worthy projects including transforming Trinity College into Duke University.
In 1874 the Duke tobacco manufacturing moved from the homestead into Durham to be near the railroad. After changing hands at least three times, by the 1920s the house and grounds were near ruin. In 1931 Duke University purchased the homestead and restored it to its original condition. The National Park Service designated Duke Homestead a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Since 1974, it has operated as a North Carolina State Historic Site under the Department of Cultural Resources. Today visitors to the site may explore the restored Duke Homestead as well as the Tobacco History Museum in Durham, North Carolina.
Robert F. Durden, The Dukes of Durham, 1869-1925 (1975)
Duke Homestead website: http://www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/sections/hs/duke/duke.htm
Jean Bradley Anderson, Durham County: A History of Durham County, North Carolina (1990)
Linda Funk, The Duke Homestead Guidebook (1978)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, II, 116-118—sketches by Robert F. Durden
Related Themes: C.S.A., Confederate States of America, Confederacy
North Carolina Civil War Historical Markers.