Friday, October 21, 2016

A Bit of History in Durham

It had been a while since my pal...Nikon...and I had been on an outing together, so I was tremendously pleased when I woke up today to find, not the gloomy, shower-y weather that had been forecasted, but rather a gloriously sunny, pleasantly cool Fall tableau on display outside the window. Even with a laundry list of "To Do" chores (which, oddly enough, did NOT include...actual laundry...for once) I couldn't pass up the golden opportunity to take an overdue Friday Field Trip.

One historical location that I'd been hemming and hawing about visiting since we moved to North Carolina over two years ago was the Duke Homestead. And I know what you're probably thinking...but no, not necessarily because of the association with that rival school up the road that we shun whenever possible. More so due to the fact that the Duke family made its money growing, and later processing, tobacco--which the well-preserved farm proudly showcases--and anyone who knows me even a little bit is aware of how I feel about that particular crop...and what it's used to make. (Relax, I'm not going to go off on a rant...I think you get the picture...)

But the site is close by and easy to get to, and I had a LOT of other stuff to take care of today, so I decided to give it a shot. By incredible good fortune, I arrived only shortly after the 10:15 guided tour had begun, so I was able to join the presentation already in progress. Now, normally I opt to forego these talks and just walk around on my own, but in this case I'm glad I didn't, since the lady leading the program was a veritable fountain of useful and interesting information. (She told us later that she's a graduate student at NC State in a new-ish field called Public History, which--rather than the more traditional academic side of the discipline--focuses on teaching you things like how to interpret history for the masses, how to run museums, and how to curate collections of artifacts. See what I mean? Super cool! Or was that just my nerdiness coming out? Yeah, it does that...)

 Anyway, she talked about Washington Duke and his wives, children, service during the Civil War (for the Confederacy, of course), blah blah blah, which I did find relatively entertaining. Then when she moved on to explain the tobacco growing/curing/manufacturing business, I just stood there with what I hoped was a polite expression on my face, twitching in discomfort, waiting for it to be over.

If there was one thing that I took away from her narrative, however, it was this shocking story: in the late 1800s, Trinity College had been asking the wealthy Duke clan for a monetary contribution, to support and improve their institution. Eventually, Washington Duke agreed to donate what amounted to, in the equivalent of today's currency, about 40 million dollars...enough to get it got it....Duke University. So...Duke was essentially endowed by one of the biggest tobacco companies in the U.S. at the time...just one more reason (for me, anyway) to give it the cold shoulder! Ha!

However, to be fair, the locally-famous patriarch also acted as an advocate for African Americans (establishing Durham's first hospital devoted to serving them--still segregated, yes, but it was a start), the Methodist church, and women (one of his large monetary gifts to the university came with the stipulation that they begin to admit female residential students--yay, W.D!). Our little history class finally ended up in the house, which was filled with furniture and household items that were either true to the historical period, or original to the family.

My absolute favorite piece had to be the "pie safe" (also, you have to imagine that spoken in the sweetest, most delicate Southern accent by our guide...I'll wait...can you hear it? Lovely...)--a handsome cabinet with punctured tin on its doors, to allow air to circulate and cool food, while keeping bugs and critters out. Or, as I dubbed it, "a pre-refrigerator"...) It was all utterly fascinating, to be sure...but after seeing the cast iron oven...contraption....and the corn husk mop, I'm convinced that, had I lived in the 19th century, I would have detested cleaning and cooking EVEN MORE than I do in my own time! Don't get me wrong, it's all very charming to look at and learn about...but give me a microwave and an electric floor cleaning device (if I must) any day thankyouverymuch.

So, that concludes my report on my brief, engaging foray into America's byegone days. It was a delightful way to spend a Friday morning, before commencing the mad rush of necessary errands. And, since all me ravenous, I made a slight detour to obtain some nachos, which I'd been craving, for reasons unknown. Which kind of sums up my final thought: exploring the past is undoubtedly rewarding, but it inevitably reminds me to give thanks for our blessed modern fast I right?

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