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Durham’s Tobacco Legacy

by Jay on November 30, 2009

It may be ironic that sweeping legislation to put tobacco regulation under the control of the FDA has been done during the administration of a president who himself is struggling with a tobacco addiction.  But as Terry Mancour of the London Guardian points out in the article here such regulation was inevitable.

I’m no fan of tobacco (three people very close to me have died of tobacco related diseases) but I’ve lived in three cities, Richmond, Winston-Salem and Durham, where tobacco was an important driver of the economy and where, when conditions were right, the sweet smell of the tobacco blends would waft through the air during processing.  The fortunes made by those factories built schools like Duke and were the source of much of the early wealth in Durham and built many of its historic homes.

In the late 80’s I did some public relations work for the North Carolina Tobacco Growers Association and saw first hand some of the changes taking place that Moncour shares in his article.  By then allotments were already being consolidated in the hands of farmers who could muster the capital to mechanize operations instead of depending totally on migrant labor.

Many of the farmers were also beginning to switch to alternate crops but the alternatives that produce the same return on investment were, and are, few.  One farmer I got to know pretty well was growing an annual crop of pumpkins that his wife took to Raleigh to market during Halloween. He was also experimenting with oats, which is a speciality crop here, meant for the equestrian market. Others were moving to horticulture crops that were destined for the landscaping and decoration of the growing metropolitian areas, and not for food consumption.

Interestingly, there seemed to be a love/hate relationship between the farmers and the manufacturers. Moncour points out that North Carolina did grow the best tobacco in the world but adaquate tobacco can be grown much more cheaply in countries in Africa and South America.  One of the large tobacco companies was actually paying for our work with the NCTBA and I got the strong impression that what the companies were interested in was the political support of the farmers, not necessarily their production.

Tobacco is not the force it once was in creating wealth in eastern North Carolina nor the urban areas like Durham that grew up around tobacco factories, but its legacy is still with us in many ways including fine historic homes that became the base of Durham’s luxury home market.

Perhaps more important today, the old factory buildings of American Tobacco and Liggett Tobacco have become the foundation for a unique downtown revitalization drawing both residents, workers, and entertainment seekers. It’s taken a few decades, but the buildings that made Durham a working class town are now making it a classy town.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

lucke strike December 1, 2009 at 11:31 am

At least the areas are rebounding unlike allen town PA after the fall of the stea industry

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