Imprints and Furrows

Washington Duke seated on the front porch of Duke Homestead farmhouse
Washington Duke seated on the front porch
of Duke Homestead farmhouse.

The farmhouse at Duke Homestead, a plain vernacular house with hints of Greek Revival influence, was constructed in 1852 by Washington Duke. The two-story frame building originally contained only four rooms, two on either side of a central chimney. A small structure at the rear of the house served as a kitchen. It is thought that the kitchen may have been replaced later when the informal dining room was added. The interior walls of the home were fashioned of hand-dressed, heart-pine boards--a feature typical of North Carolina farmhouses of the mid-1800s. The furnishings and household items on display are representative of those which were in use in farmhouses of the region during the mid-nineteenth century.

Beneath the house is a root cellar which served as a cool storage place during hot summer months for the family's stock of fruits, vegetables, and other foods. A wellhouse, meathouse, and grape arbors stand behind the house.

Tobacco in its various stages of growth can be seen at the Homestead in the tobacco field where the crop is under cultivation. Agricultural information in the census of 1870 indicates that Duke raised a smaller amount of tobacco than neighboring growers. Tobacco cultivation around that time was a task which required long hours of work. During the winter months, the site of the plant bed was burned and cultivated. Burning was done to sterilize the soil and in turn decrease the probability of weeds and insects. Soon the bed was sown and covered with finely-cut brush to protect the young seedlings from frost damage. Preparation of the tobacco field itself was also begun in winter. The soil was cleared of debris and fertilized. When the ground had dried just enough, the field was plowed several times, and a peg-tooth harrow was used to further break the soil.

In May or June during the rainy season, the seedlings were transplanted from the plant bed to the field. Workers first carefully drew the seedlings from the bed, laying each small plant at intervals in the field. Other laborers followed, using a peg to form a hole for the seedlings, after which the peg was employed to cover the roots with earth.

During the months that followed, the maturing plants required constant attention from the farmer. When it reached a height of two or three feet, each plant had to be "topped," a procedure in which the top portion of the plant was removed to control its future growth, and provide more nourishment for the remaining leaves. "Suckering" was the operation of removing new shoots or "suckers" which appeared at the base of the leaves after topping. If not removed, these growths would rob the developing leaves of nourishment. Several types of worms, including cutworms and hornworms, were a constant threat and, unless controlled, could quickly destroy the entire crop. "Worming" techniques included using turkey and guinea fowl to control the pests, or simply picking the worms from the tobacco by hand and destroying them.

Tobacco that managed to survive insects or disease usually was ready for harvesting by late August or early September. An experienced eye was required to determine the ripeness of individual plants. A ripened tobacco leaf had started to yellow and appeared spotted and curled at the tip of the leaf.

During the early 1870s farmers usually cut the entire tobacco plant, instead of removing the leaves separately. A small knife with a curved blade was used to split the stalk within three inches of its base; the entire plant was then severed below the split, inverted, and placed on the ground between the rows until gathered by other workers carrying tobacco sticks. The sticks, about four and one-half feet long, held seven or eight stalks of tobacco. A nearby wagon carried the full sticks to the curing barn. The entire tobacco plant was cured, rather than single leaves--a practice which evolved and was in use later in the curing barn at the Duke farm.

The curing barn at Duke Homestead is an early twentieth-century log structure which was transported from another Durham County farm. Exemplary of North Carolina flue-cured tobacco barns, it contains brick furnaces and metal flues used to circulate hot air to the hanging tobacco.

As the ripened tobacco arrived at the barn from the field, the leaves were fastened, or "looped," onto sticks with twine and subsequently "housed" in the curing barn. The sticks of tobacco leaves were hung on tier poles high inside the structure. When the barn was full of the leaf, fires were built in the brick furnaces, and the curing began. For several days, the farmer tended the fires continuously, steadily increasing the temperature. This process effectively dried the tobacco by removing moisture from it, producing a lemon-yellow-colored leaf. When the curing was finished, the doors of the barn were opened in order for the tobacco to regain moisture.

The packhouse at the Homestead, constructed during the early 1900s, was used to store cured tobacco until the leaf was taken to market. While in the pack house, the leaves were "graded" or sorted into groups according to quality. After size, color, and condition determined the grade of the leaves, they were bound into bundles called "hands." Periodically during storage and grading, a pit beneath the barn was utilized for "ordering" of the tobacco, a procedure in which the leaves were hung to absorb just enough moisture to make the blades pliant.

exterior of a tobacco curing barn
Curing Barn

Near the packhouses stands the two-story frame structure known as the third factory, which was constructed in 1869 by Washington Duke to house his expanding manufacturing operation. Until that time, there had been no building on the property built specifically for the manufacture of smoking tobacco. The third factory was designed to receive and store unmanufactured tobacco and to house the manufacturing operation. The structure featured wide doors to facilitate loading and unloading of tobacco. Rafters inside the building held tier poles probably used for hanging sticks of tobacco prior to manufacture. Small doors in the attic were opened or closed to regulate the moisture content of the hanging leaves. Square holes cut into the ceiling of the first floor apparently were openings for chutes. The manufactory probably contained no sophisticated machinery. No records have been found detailing the interior contents, though it must have contained such items as flails, seives, work tables, weighing scales, and an assortment of baskets and barrels.

The process of manufacturing at the third factory was simple and slow--as it had been at the first and second factories in use previously. Workers flailed the cured tobacco, beating the dry leaves into a very fine state. By forcing it through a sieve, laborers then granulated the crushed leaf. Other skilled workers weighed and packed the sieved tobacco. Demonstrations of processes used in early tobacco manufacturing are presented in this factory.

Duke University acquired the property in 1931, and for over forty years maintained the site for the enjoyment of the public. In 1974 the university offered thirty-seven acres of the original homestead property to the state of North Carolina with the understanding that it would be preserved and used to depict the history of tobacco and the Duke family. In addition, Liggett & Myers, Inc. donated almost six acres of adjoining land to be used for the construction of a visitor center/museum. The Tobacco History Corporation, a nonprofit organization, was formed in 1972 for the purpose of assisting with the development of this historic site. Since that time the corporation and other volunteers have contributed significantly to the endeavor by providing funds and artifacts.

The old farmhouse at Duke contains furnishings presented in memory of two devoted friends of the historic homestead, Herbert C. Bradshaw and Edwin S. Yarborough Jr. These two, as president and secretary of Tobacco History Corporation, served generously to ensure that tobacco history be portrayed through the preservation and interpretation of Duke Homestead.