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We could have chosen a worse time to fly to Halifax. We could have come on December 13, when hundred-mile-an-hour winds were wreaking havoc in Nova Scotia, knocking down towering fir trees and ripping shingles off our carriage house. Instead, we picked the worst time to leave Durham, North Carolina. Soft, wet snow began falling around midnight, followed by freezing rain on the morning we were due to depart. Not exactly conducive to getting to the airport.

We considered booking a hotel in the vicinity, but finally decided to take our chances. I did revise our departure time, insisting that our cab driver show up at 6:15 AM for a 9:15 flight. The appointed time came and went, followed by a flurry of phone calls. It turned out our driver wasn’t lost, but fender benders had turned the route into an obstacle course. Since we were leaving Durham after almost a full year in residence, we were not traveling light. The cabbie came from Africa originally, so we got in with some trepidation, but he immediately informed us that he had lived in Michigan. Not to worry.

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One item in our carry-on may have been unique to our luggage– two hats in an elegant German hat box. One of our serendipitous discoveries in Durham was a first-rate hat store, owned by a classy Cuban. Southerners like hats, and they are willing to invest in them. On the afternoon we wandered into the store, my wife, who is fairly abstemious with her personal wardrobe, emerged with TWO hats, one for spring, one for winter. The purchase of two German hats made the owner’s day, so he threw in the fancy box.

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When we first took an informal inventory at the Stewart House twenty-three years ago, we were delighted to discover a genuine beaver hat, complete with leather box. Peeling stickers indicated that the hat (and its owner) did the grand tour of Europe. It may have belonged to Florence Nunn’s father. Florence was named after his favorite city in Italy. She married Charles Stewart, the great great grandson of Robert Laird, the man who had the “Stewart” house built, circa 1779. They traveled by sea in those days, but it was nice to return a hat box to the old homestead, even if it was in the overhead compartment of an airship.

To say that the Raleigh-Durham airport is a little light on de-icing equipment is something of an understatement. They have exactly two trucks to service every single flight, and it is a busy airport. My flight to Philadelphia was number seven in line for de-icing, so we took off three hours late. Fortunately, the flight to Halifax was delayed an hour and a half.  All’s well that ends well.  And arriving here on the same day was a good ending.

It was a quiet and green Christmas this year, with only one other family member present for the holiday. And our daughter, Stephanie, got on a plane for Vancouver on Christmas morning. Happy New Year. May 2011 bring you all serenity, peace and good fortune. We are living in interesting times, so those may be in short supply. Cheers from Grand Pre, Nova Scotia.

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As Washington Duke told the story, years later, when he was old and rich: “When the war was over, I found myself at Newbern, after being released from Libby prison with only a five dollar Confederate note, sold that to a Federal soldier for fifty cents, and walked home…. I said to my boys, when I got back home, ‘The war is over.  For people who will do their duty and stick to their business, there never was a better opportunity in the world to make their fortunes.'”

When Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered to Union General William Sherman at Durham Station in 1865, it was the end of the Civil War in the Carolinas.  The restless soldiers had little to do during the nine days of negotiations, so they broke into a local tobacco “factory” owned by John Green and made off with the best weed any of them had ever smoked.  It wasn’t long before orders started pouring in from the ex soldiers up North.

Green cranked up production, adopting the name “Bull Durham” after a picture of a jar of the popular Coleman’s mustard, manufactured in Durham, England.  The demand for Durham tobacco prompted Washington Duke and his sons to get into the business.  In addition to the addictive nature of nicotine, two significant events favored the phenomenal growth of the business– the accidental discovery of a new method of tobacco curing in 1839, and the invention of the cigarette rolling machine in 1881.

The story goes that in the summer of 1839, an eighteen year-old slave, a blacksmith by the name of Stephen fell asleep while he was tending the fire in a tobacco curing barn. When he woke up and realized the fire was nearly out, he dashed to his smithy and got a supply of charcoal which he dumped on the fire.  The burst of heat turned the tobacco leaves yellow instead of brown, and seemed to improve the flavor. Bright leaf tobacco was born.

Experiments with flue-curing the leaves compounded the significance of Stephen’s  discovery, altering the chemistry of the tobacco from alkaline to slightly acidic.  This subtle change made the tobacco milder, allowing smokers to inhale for the first time.  Nicotine takes seven seconds to hit the brain once it reaches the bloodstream.

Tobacco farming was a laborious, risky business, and Washington Duke realized that the profits would be in the end product. In the early years, the business was snuff, plug tobacco, pipe tobacco.  The patriarch spent much of his life at the old homestead, processing chewing tobacco and labeling it “Pro Bono Publico,” for the Public Good.  He finally moved to Durham when his eldest son, Brodie, started his own factory in town, taking advantage of the train station and the tobacco market.

The youngest son was the entrepreneurial genius of the family. By 1900, cigarettes were only 2 % of the tobacco market.  They were deemed a curiosity for the urban poor, who could not afford more appropriate forms of the leaf.  James Buchanan (Buck) Duke, led a radical transformation of the business that would turn his family’s modest beginnings into an immense fortune, changing Durham and the rest of the world in the process.

The cigarette business was limited by the time-consuming nature of hand rolling the product.  When James Bonsack, a Virginia inventor, introduced a rolling machine, Buck Duke immediately saw its potential.  It would churn out 200 cigarettes a minute, as many as a skilled roller could do in an hour.  Although it was not a reliable machine, Duke saw its potential and locked in long-term, favorable contracts with its inventor.

The mechanization led to overcapacity, and “Buck” Duke saw that the solution involved aggressive solicitation of new smokers.  He committed his company to efficient production lines, massive marketing and modern advertising.  Promotion would drive consumption.

His marketing campaigns centered on premiums, coupons and collecting cards at first, but he soon branched into nationwide advertising campaigns that stamped his brands into the impressionable brains of his target audience– young men and women.

He single-handedly turned the tobacco traditions on their head, using consolidation to gain control over markets and production, eventually forcing his competitors to join him in the consortium named the American Tobacco Company.

In 1924, James Buchanan Duke decided to cement the family legacy by endowing a local divinity school called Trinity College with an endowment of $40 million dollars.  Trinity was promptly renamed Duke University.  Its Medical School opened in 1930.  Ironically, perhaps, given the business of its benefactor, Duke Medical Center is world-renowned, a major employer in the City of Durham.  The weed that nobody needed had spread from the little backwater of Durham all over the world.

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