The favorable publicity associated with the cultivation of bright tobacco stimulated Orange County farmers to begin growing it as a cash crop in the late 1850s. When his cotton crop failed, Washington Duke turned (in 1859) to the cultivation of tobacco, which he continued during the next few years until his farming operation was interrupted by the Civil War.
Washington Duke had left home around the time of his twenty-first birthday to take up tenant farming. The son of Taylor Duke, a farmer and respected neighborhood leader who served as captain of the local militia and also as district deputy sheriff, Washington was the eighth of ten children. His basic education was gleaned from behind the handles of a plow in the rugged, rural setting into which he was born in the year 1820. As a young man, family and church exercised the most influence over him, and throughout his life both his family and the Methodist faith would remain important. Years later his son, James B. Duke, remarked: "My old daddy always said that if he amounted to anything in life it was due to the Methodist circuit riders who frequently visited his home and whose preaching and counsel brought out the best that was in him."
On August 9, 1842, Washington Duke married Mary Caroline Clinton. Two children, Sidney Taylor and Brodie Leonidas, were born to the couple, but in November 1847, Mary Caroline passed away. Left with two small sons to raise, Duke continued as a farmer, raising such crops as corn, wheat, oats, and sweet potatoes. He had acquired his first land in 1847 from the estate of his father-in-law and had purchased additional property until he now had accumulated over three hundred acres.
Washington turned his attention to providing a substantial home to shelter his family and completed the residence--now called Duke Homestead--in time for his marriage to Artelia Roney of Alamance County on December 9, 1852. The family soon increased from four to seven members with the births of Mary, Benjamin, and James Buchanan Duke.
Life was running smoothly for Washington Duke when in 1858 misfortune struck again. His fourteen year old son, Sidney, became ill with typhoid fever; while trying to nurse the boy back to health, Artelia Duke also contracted the disease. Both she and Sidney died. Once again Duke faced the responsibility of raising his family alone. Artelia's sisters, Elizabeth and Anne, moved to the Homestead to help care for the family and run the household.
Before the Civil War, Washington Duke used the labor of enslaved people to help run his household and farm. He purchased one enslaved person, a young girl named Caroline in 1855, and leased the labor of at least one enslaved man named Jim in 1863. Duke likely purchased Caroline to help with domestic tasks, like cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children. She also may have helped on the farm during the busy seasons. Duke leased the labor of Jim, paying his slaveowner James W. Cox, for a year of his labor. Jim was involved in growing and processing tobacco for sale.
Washington Duke joined the Confederate Navy in late 1863 or early 1864. Because of a shortage of troops the Confederate government enacted conscription laws which forced men up to the age of forty-five to join the service. Thus Washington was compelled to join the army and had to make arrangements for his family and farm before he entered the service. He sent his children to the Roney home in Alamance County, except for Brodie who accompanied him into the service.
Duke decided to sell all his farm belongings and had converted all his means into tobacco by the end of 1863. It is not clear whether he sold or rented the homestead; however, he was to receive payment in leaf tobacco which was to be stored on the property.
During his brief military career, Duke was captured by Union forces and imprisoned in Richmond, Virginia. At the end of the war US officials released and transported him to New Bern, North Carolina. Lacking money and transportation, Duke walked back to his homestead--a distance of 135 miles.