Today, Washington Duke’s original home and factory are a Historic Site open to the public. In 1865, just after the end of the civil war, Washington Duke started a small tobacco company from his 300 acre farm in what is now North Durham. He built the homestead for his second wife before the Civil War in 1852. A modest home, it originally consisted of three bedrooms and a parlor. In 1860, Duke built an attached living/dining room and a kitchen. A few years later he was conscripted into the Confederate Navy against his will. Washington Duke was a unionist, but since the secession, the Confederate states passed laws that conscripted men up to the age of forty-five. Shortly after joining the Confederacy, Duke was captured and imprisoned in Richmond, Va. Released after the surrender in 1865, Washington Duke walked the 135 miles back to the homestead. Upon his return, Duke decided to try producing his own tobacco for a higher return from his tobacco crops.
Washington Duke began selling his tobacco “Pro Bono Publico” from a cart that he took throughout the small communities in the Piedmont. Quickly, the Duke Family’s brand of tobacco became supremely popular. In 1870, Washington Duke provided finances to his son Brodie for the construction of a factory in Durham near the train station, and in 1874, Washington Duke built another two acre factory downtown. After the building of the factory, the company becameW. Duke, Sons and Company. It was one of the first companies to use a new cigarette rolling machine that reduced the cost and increased the production. Soon, Duke and Sons was a major competitor with the W.T. Blackwell Company who owned the brand “Bull Durham” tobacco. A decision to merge the two companies was made which createdone of the largest tobacco enterprises in the world. Under the new name American Tobacco Company, they created famous brands such as Lucky Strike and Genuine “Bull” Durham Tobacco.
Although nowadays most people associate the Duke name with Duke University, it was because of this entrepreneurial family that Durham boasts the skyline we see today. With tobacco, textiles, and a growing financial center, Durham became and economic center of the South. All of these industries and developments helped Durham grow as a city with strong historical character.
Golden Belt Manufacturing Co. was founded in 1887 by Julian Carr and was initially housed in the north end of the W.T. Blackwell Company’s tobacco factory in downtown Durham. Golden Belt was set up to manufacture cloth tobacco pouches for Bull Durham tobacco. The original pouches were handsewn by women in their Durham homes, but as tobacco production expanded, so did the need for the bags. Julian Carr invested in machinery that quickly expanded the company’s pouch production which, in turn, led to the necessity of a larger building. In 1901, the Golden Belt Mill was constructed across the street from the Hosiery Mill.
The American Tobacco Company purchased Golden Belt Manufacturing Company and their mills in1958. By this time, the business had transformed into a cigarette packaging company which made and printed cartons and bags. In 1960, with decreasing business, the switch was made to manufacturing plastics, including plastic cigarette filters. The company’s revenue was cut in half when it lost Phillip-Morris as a client in 1992.
Four years later, the complex was donated to the City of Durham Housing Authority who converted it into housing. In 2004, it was sold to Scientific Properties who invested $12.5 million to renovate Golden Belt into artist studios, apartments, retail space, and office suites.