Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Duke Homestead and Tobacco Musuem

Durham, NC

I asked my sister Susan if she planned on bringing her grandchildren to the Duke Homestead and Tobacco Museum.  Well, she said, that's a little tricky.  While they'd enjoy the animated farmer characters in the museum, like the gift shop toys and run wild in the expansive fields surrounding the Homestead there was the issue that at the heart of it, the museum is about tobacco.  Of course the family take on that is one of total abstinence.

While I'm totally on board with this anti-tobacco philosophy, I forgot about all that as we had a pleasant morning learning about the Duke family, Durham history and of course tobacco.

Washington Duke, a middle aged farmer, returned home after fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War to learn that the Union army soldiers had taken up the habit of rolling cigarettes with the local, bright leaf tobacco.  His decision to grow and sell the "weed" proved to be the start of what was to become the The American Tobacco Company.  The success of the company hinged not only on the bright leaf tobacco but on the marketing genius of James Duke, one of Washington's sons.

At Home With House Museums chronicles history; it's rare, no unheard of,  to "contribute to it".  Yet at the Homestead we did!  While standing behind a work table in the early factory our well informed tour guide noted that in order to pay for the ever increasing Civil War debt, the Congress passed on July 1, 1862 a heavy tax on tobacco.  And in 1868 this tax was a main source of income for the federal government.  

Maybe you had to be there to hear the way Jennifer, our guide, told the story but the question that popped into my mind, was "when had the government first taxed tobacco?".  Good question Jennifer said but she didn't happen to know the answer.

A minute went by, maybe less, and another tour group member reading from his iPhone phone told us that  in 1794 Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, ordered the first excise tax on tobacco products.  That satisfied my curiosity and I thought that was the end of the story.

A month later Sue, remember the sister with the grandkids, had more visitors to her new hometown of Durham.  Back she went to the homestead for another tour. The guide once again stood behind the factory work table and spoke about the civil war tobacco tax.  But now added into the standard tour guide talk is the iPhone information about the first tobacco tax in 1794!

During my visit to the Homestead it was easy to become immersed in the agricultural techniques, the marketing savvy and the humanitarian efforts of the Duke's and to forget about the evils of tobacco. One last tour group question, not about evil tobacco but something else, whiplashed me back to reality.  "Did the Dukes have any slaves?"  While she hadn't included it in her talk our guide knew the answer to this one.

Only one.  A female to shoulder the heavy repetitive tasks of housekeeping in the early 1800's...

Caroline, a 10 year old child.

corn husk broom