Welcome to Preservation Durham's Virtual Tobacco Heritage Trail

Preservation Durham, founded in 1974 as The Historic Preservation Society of Durham, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Durham’s culture, history, and historic architecture. On the second Saturday of each month, Preservation Durham conducts a Tobacco Heritage walking tour. A guide leads visitors through downtown Durham, sharing the history of the buildings—some still standing, some long gone—that were once home to the city’s tobacco-industry operations, and telling the stories of the people who worked there.

Durham grew tobacco...

Durham has created an identity for itself as a “City of Medicine,” but it was once unquestionably a city of tobacco. In 1850, a country doctor named Bartlett Durham donated land for a railroad station to be built. Over the next 10-15 years, businesses sprang up around the railroad depot, and after the Civil War Northern soldiers frequently wrote to the postmaster at Durham Station to ask about getting more of the popular “bright leaf” tobacco they had tasted while in Durham waiting for the troop surrender at Bennett Place. This combined with the increased ease with which tobacco farmers could now transport their produce to town via train created a thriving tobacco industry. Downtown Durham became a hub of the tobacco trade, with farmers coming to town from the surrounding area to sell their tobacco at auction in Durham’s many warehouses.

...then tobacco grew Durham

The influx of people and money gave rise to a vibrant culture centered around the warehouses. People met and socialized. Musicians entertained the crowds; there was dancing, drinking, and revelry. Merchants reaped the benefits of the farmers’ newly-earned money. A demand for labor created a demand for housing, and an increase in workers moving in created a demand for retail, entertainment, and other forms of industry. The prosperity of the tobacco trade lasted into the 1940s and 1950s, then began to decline, and by the end of the 1980s tobacco was all but finished in Durham.

Aerial view of Central Durham, 1920, Courtesy of The North Carolina Collection, Durham County Library

Using this Website

This website is a companion to Preservation Durham’s Tobacco Heritage walking tour.  View the historic map to discover the physical locations where tobacco was was cured, bought, sold, and manufactured into saleable products. Browse through oral histories to hear stories describing life in the tobacco heyday told by the people that made the tobacco industry and the city of Durham flourish.The stories comprise four major themes: Life in the Workforce; Market Days and the Tobacco Auction; The Development of the Cigarette; and Transitions and Community Identity. Below each oral history there are links to related items such as tobacco advertisements, pictures, videos and historical information that provide further context for life in Durham during the tobacco boom. 

The Preservation Durham Tobacco Heritage walking tour and this website would not be possible without the help of the following groups and individuals:

  •    The North Carolina Humanities Council
  •        Durham Central Park
  •        The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
  •        The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke
  •        The School of Information and Library Sciences at North Carolina Central University
  •         Mr. R. Kelly Bryant, Jr.
  •         Dr. Glen Hinson
  •         Dr. Benjamin Speller, Jr.
  •         Mr. Jim Wise
  •         Mr. Billy Yeargin 

Lesson Plans

In this lesson, students will learn about the tobacco industry, from the tobacco farm to the tobacco warehouse and auction, and its impact on the people involved. Students will particularly focus on downtown Durham in the 1900s, whose tobacco warehouse district became a hub of the tobacco trade. Through the exploration of this digital history project, as well as through readings, class discussion, primary source examination (photographs, music, videos, etc.), creative writing, and more, students will gain a comprehensive sense of the vibrant culture and rich history of tobacco in North Carolina. In a culminating group project, students will apply their understanding by researching, designing, and presenting a "living" exhibit for a museum on "North Carolina's Tobacco History and Culture." This lesson can be accessed at http://database.civics.unc.edu/files/2012/05/TobaccoHerritage.pdf.

Teachers who have limited class time can also pick and choose particular activities to implement. For additional information on these lesson plans, or for additional curriculum ideas, contact Christie Hinson Norris at cnorris@unc.edu or visit the Civic Education Consortium's database of lesson plans.

Project Credits

This website was created by graduate students of the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill as part of a class on Virtual Cities in the American Studies Department at UNC during the Fall of 2010.

  •     Community Adviser:  Preservation Durham
  •     Scholarly Advisers:  Dr. Robert Allen and Dr. Pamella Lach
  •     Team Manager:  Molly Bragg
  •     Team:  Adam Fielding, Vanessa Hays, Kathryn Michaelis

Special thanks to the North Carolina Collection at the Durham County Library, as this site would not be possible without their collections.