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Fifty Cents
and a Dream

Article and photes by Kathleen Walls

Duke Homestead1
The Duke Farm

The Duke Homestead story begins with a man who had fifty cents, a war devastated farm, a dream and not much else. When a young farmer, Washington Duke, built his home in 1852 on his small farm, he never dreamed it would be a National Historic Landmark one day. But this two-story frame house was to become the birthplace of one of the largest industries in the United States.

One of the Homestead outbuildings 
He had begun experimenting with Bright Leaf Tobacco when the War between the States broke out. He joined the Confederate military to help defend his home state even though he opposed slavery. He reached the rank of Lieutenant and was captured by Union forces just days before the end of the war when they took Richmond. He was walking home with just a five dollar Confederate bill in his pocket when he met some Union soldiers who traded him fifty cents American money for the bill. When he arrived at his plundered farm, that and the fifty cent piece were all he had to his name. That and four children. Both of Washington Duke's wives died young. Mary Caroline Clinton. his first wife died in 1847: she was just 22. His second wife, Artelia Romey died in 1858 at the age of 29.


  An individual tobacco plant 
Perhaps he recalled many nights during the war when the opposing forces camped on adjacent sides of a stream. They might try to kill one another the following morning but at night in camp, they were both just lonely men far from home. Both sides walked to the stream at night to wash and get water. Union soldiers had gladly traded their coffee for the Confederate soldiers tobacco.

He did find a little tobacco that the raiding Union Army had missed. With that tobacco he began his dream of a tobacco products factory again. He and the children began a small factory on the premises. Ironically, in light of future discoveries about the effects of tobacco, he named his product "Pro Bono Publico," a Latin phrase meaning "for the public good."

 The factory was so successful that soon had to utilize an old stable, called the second factory, for production and then built a two-story frame building, the third factory, and had to hire workers and buy tobacco from neighboring farmers. Washington financed a factory in Durham for his son. By 1873, the Dukes were producing around 125,000 pounds of smoking tobacco annually.

Today, that small farm where it all began is a living history museum. Along with the farm and early factory buildings, there is a  museum, the Tobacco Museum, that traces the history of tobacco. A good way to begin the tour is by viewing the documentary "Legacy of the Golden Leaf,"  highlighting the history of the Duke family, the North Carolina tobacco industry, and the history of the town of Durham.  

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A piece of equiptment at the Homestead A dried Bright Leaf Tobacco leaf  A guide explains tobacco processing 

A small plot of tobacco is still cultivated so visitors can see the process. Since I have never been a smoker, I was in for a new experience. I saw the growing tobacco and realized it was a beautiful plant. When we visited the drying barn, I was surprised at how pleasant the tobacco leaves smelled. 

The Duke home is also open to view. It's a modest two story house with just a touch of Greek Revival influence. Washington Duke built the original house with heart of pine boards in 1852. It's furnished much as it would have been when Washington Duke and his family lived in it.

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Furnisihng at the Homestead 

Perhaps the thing that impressed me most was how modest the beginnings of what was to become the largest tobacco manufacturing company in the United States, American Tobacco.

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