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Sunday, November 27, 2022
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NC trend: Durham’s smoking history

In the days when almost half of Americans smoked cigarettes, Durham was happy to feed the habit. The American Tobacco plant stood at one end of Main Street, Liggett & Myers at the other. From them spewed millions of butts every day — Luckys and Chesterfields, Tareytons and Larks, Pall Malls, and the Fatimas immortalized in Dashiell Hammett stories.

Then it all went up in smoke. Hacking coughs and gasping lungs were suddenly out of fashion. As early as 1953, scientific researchers showed a connection between smoking and lung cancer. In 1964, the surgeon general said smoking was, in fact, killing us. A few years later, cigarette ads were banned from the airwaves. 

America slowly lost its taste for cigarettes. In 1960, more than 100 million Americans smoked cigarettes. Today it’s down to 45 million, about 15% of the population.

Durham took the big hit. The brands that made the city famous are now mostly dead. The factories that spit them out have assumed new identities as shops, offices, condos and apartments. The university that bears the name of the original tobacco tycoon is now a worldwide leader in cancer research.

That’s how it ended. But does anyone remember how it started? How did Durham become the center of the smoking universe?

The story begins at the tail end of the Civil War with a Confederate general named Joseph Eggleston Johnston. For most of 1864, he dodged a showdown with the superior Northern forces under William Tecumseh Sherman across the South until finally facing the inevitable in April 1865. 

Johnston came to rest at Bennett Place, a small farm just west of what was then Durham’s Station in the heart of bright-leaf tobacco country. Encamped there, waiting for the final surrender, were 80,000 soldiers — 50,000 Union and 30,000 Confederate. 

For the armies of the North and South, tobacco was almost as indispensable as food — mostly quid and cud and chaw and plug, an occasional stolen stogie, and some old roll-your-own. 

Shortly before the formal surrender on April 26, a squad of Union cavalry commandeered a huge stash of Bull Durham bright-leaf smoking tobacco from a nearby factory owned by local farmer John Green and took it back to camp. 

After the war ended, Green received letters from former soldiers asking how to get “some of that fine Durham smoking tobacco.”

His business boomed and attracted competitors. Within five years, the town was home to at least a dozen tobacco manufacturers, including W. Duke, Sons & Co., the progenitor of what by 1900 would be the world’s largest tobacco company.

The full story is told in Robert F. Durden’s The Dukes of Durham (1975), which recounts the rise of James Buchanan “Buck” Duke and the founding of American Tobacco Co., as well as Duke Power and the university that bears his name. 

An inexhaustible supply of smoking scholarship — I call it tobaccarna — can be found in the bowels of Perkins Library on the Duke campus. Just for sport, you should read W.J. Cash’s Buck Duke’s University, published in American Mercury in September 1933. Better yet, watch Gary Cooper and Lauren Bacall in Bright Leaf, a 1950 drama. 

There’s no better way to discover a time when smoking was cool, tobacco was king and Durham stood at the center of it all.

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