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On Saturday, for our enrichment activity, we took a trip downtown to the Durham Farmers Market. This weekly gathering is attended by Durhamites and Duke students alike and boasts stalls of fresh local produce as well as a plethora of artists selling their craft. This particular Saturday was special, there was an adoption fair for shelter dogs held in the central field. The puppies were very popular. However, we were not there only for the good food and folk music. We had a tour scheduled that would show us the Durham area, focusing specifically on the Tobacco industry as it arose in the late 19th century.

We left at 10am from the center of the farmer’s market with a friendly guide who took us just a block up the street to begin our tour. At our first stop, we were shown a fairly modern looking apartment building. As our guide explained that its modernity was deceiving she pointed out a back wall that was part of an old tobacco auction house and that most of the tobacco plant form the southeast was taken to Durham in a pilgrimage of sorts to be sold at auction. The farmers from the near southeast and often their families would come to Durham once a year to sell their tobacco and gather for festivals and entertainment. This practice made Durham a hub for the agricultural lifestyle of many southern farmers. As we took a turn and meandered down a hill we faced a older set of buildings. These, as the guide told us, were tobacco processing buildings built by a son of Washington Duke, who had started out as a farmer not unlike those who ended up selling their tobacco to him. We learned about the history of the Duke family and how their fortune came, originally, from the Tobacco business. More specifically, the Duke fortune came from the cigarette industry that boomed after the mechanization of cigarette rolling. This advancement came after the endorsement of a patent for such a machine by the Duke family that propelled them to the top of the tobacco industry in Durham. Within Durham, the Dukes were not alone as the top of the industry’s food chain. Their competition with other families was fierce and cutthroat and presented itself in many ways, one of which was the naming of a series of streets “Washington,” “Duke,” “Hated,” “Watts.” Today, “Hated” has been changed to Gregson.

Our tour continued while we walked through the cathedrals of brick that were the old tobacco storehouses and processing plants. They were created to outdo the other companies in the area and reminded me of Renaissance Venice, with competing families trying to outdo each other with artistic patronage. For the Dukes; however, this competition with tobacco ended before 1900 when they diverted their investments into power. Promptly after the consolidation of their company and other tobacco industries post 1900 the trust busting of the 1900s came in and split up the formerly named “American Tobacco Company” into smaller (though still huge) brands that are recognizable today. As the 20th century rolled on the tobacco and cigarette industry in Durham continued to boom until the 60s when government and public health outcry began to reveal the truth about the danger of smoking. This spelled the end for large tobacco manufacturing in Durham and the industry up and left or went extinct in the city. We ended our tour at the Durham bull near the Parlour and took a photo. The bull, which was originally a brand of tobacco, now symbolizes Durham’s resilience in the face of economic change.


Our picture by the Durham Bull