I live in a historical district of Durham, the Warehouse District. Given that my roommate and I rented the place without a) seeing it or b) knowing anything about the area, I’m thrilled with my location. Living in a converted factory is a new experience for me, and one weekend I decided it was time to immerse myself, at least for an hour, in Durham and Duke University’s history.
So to Duke Homestead we drove. Parking behind the visitor center, my fiancé and I swung through the doors and into the air-conditioned museum. For a small visitor’s center it’s a very well done museum, oscillating between the history of tobacco farming and production with that of the Duke family, whose large donation has earned their name a place in perpetuity at Duke University.
Despite being a little freaked out by a moving and talking mannequin (this is why I don’t go to scary movies), I learned two things crucial to my life that no one had bothered to explain to me before my fated visit to Duke Homestead. Who knew baseball cards originated in cigarette packages when the Duke family was forced to remove the “lascivious” photos of scantily clad women? Who knew the term “bullpen” came from the giant bull sign perched above the outfield of the Durham Bulls baseball team, where the relief pitchers would warm up?
Okay, so I can get through an entire day without thinking about either baseball cards or bullpens (depending on the season), but it’s still quite impressive that the Duke family’s tobacco franchise influenced our country today on such a ubiquitous scale. Furthermore, to house his growing business Duke built large factory buildings in downtown Durham, jumpstarting the city’s economy. These factory buildings now make up the Warehouse District, and have given me a place to call home. I find myself squarely within the historical boundaries built over a century ago.
Ready to re-enter the sunshine, we left the museum and headed out to the homestead itself. It’s a beautiful spot, with an open field partially planted with tobacco leading up to the house. The tobacco factory (which looks like a big barn) and the other small buildings made up the life of Washington Duke, who began his tobacco business from the back of a wagon and grew it into an empire.
We went from building to building, skirting their edges. Under one roof dried tobacco leaves were strung and hanging off a wooden pole. They were almost papery to touch, and smelled deep and earthy. I had stupidly assumed tobacco leaves actually smell like cigarette smoke, but they actually smell very good. The smell lingered on our hands as we headed to the main house.
Painted bright white, the house appeared a great deal bigger on the outside than it was from the inside. We accidentally bumped into a tour in the master bedroom, and our guide gave me another knowledge gem: the phrase “sleep tight” comes from the days when mattresses were laid out on ropes. From time to time, the ropes would sag and have to be tightened, thus, “sleep tight!” Who knew? (I’m a little bit of a factoid dork, but I will definitely find a way to bring “sleep tight, “bull pen,” and the origin or baseball cards into my next mixer with faculty or potential employers).
Behind the house we found living reminders of the life on the farm. Black and white chickens cooed at us from within their wooden pen, and grape vines twined around an arbor that provided stability for the plants as well as shade for the Duke family in the summer. We ended our own tour in the rows of tobacco, still green and sprouting bright pink flowers. The leaves – the leaves that are the foundation of the tobacco industry and have driven North Carolina’s development – were soft and even a little sticky, basking in the bright sun of the afternoon.
I like history. We were at Duke Homestead for an hour, maybe an hour and a half, but in that time I was able to see the humble beginnings of a family that made my education possible, my Durham home possible. Duke students should take an afternoon and stop by. We all are so focused on where we are going, as we should be, but for one afternoon it was good to see a little of where we have come from.