For years Durham has been about tobacco, tobacco and more tobacco. Throw in textile mills and blue-collar industry was what drove the city. The Duke family became tobacco tycoons with the formation of the American Tobacco Trust. After the anti-trust legislation passed in 1890 it was broken up into the American Tobacco Co., R.J. Reynolds, Liggett & Meyers and Lorillard.
The Duke family owned the American Tobacco Co. and also owned several textile mills and developed Duke Power to run the cotton mills. In the 1890s they saved the struggling Trinity College in Trinity, N.C., giving them enough money they changed the name of the school to Duke University and moved the campus to Durham.
The textile mills closed in the 1940's and 50's. Several of the mills sat empty for decades and some of the old mill houses became crack houses.
The tobacco plants closed in Durham in the 1980's, laying off thousands of workers. Some long range thinking has saved the area. A large research park was developed between Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh called the Research Triangle. IBM was the first tenant and the area now houses many high tech companies, including the company my brother works for, Syngenta.
In Durham the remaining textile mills have become long-term hotels or apartments and condos. The mill houses have been renovated and are now nice family homes.
The latest development is downtown at the former tobacco plants. They are now a mix of small businesses, condos and restaurants. The downtown area is cleaned up and is safe once again for strolling and shopping. The range of eating establishments is wide and the quality is great.
The first night we ate at Rue Cler, a Parisian bistro-style restaurant. We had their Prix Fixe menu, a three course meal that has many choices for each course. My choices were: Belgium Endive, Creamy Bacon Dressing, Garlic Croutons; Sautéed Asparagus, Sunny Side-up Farm Fresh Egg, Sauce Béarnaise; and finally Sliced Flank Steak, Collard Greens, Oignons Aigre- Doux, Veal Jus. Barb also had the endive salad but then went with: Roasted Pork Loin, Spatzel, Spinach, Oyster Mushroom Jus. All was great and we found room for dessert as well (Crème brûlée for me, Terrine au chocolat for her).
Then we got a tour of the Syngenta research facility where my brother works and then had true North Carolina barbecue, both types. We discovered North Carolina has two styles of barbecue, eastern and western. Western is a tomato-based sauce close to what most in the Midwest know as BBQ sauce. Eastern is a vinegar and spice sauce that is mostly clear. We tried both kinds, the eastern on some pulled pork, the western on some ribs. I prefer the western, but not by much.
Chris then took us on a tour of the Duke University campus. It is a very beautiful campus, with three sections, east campus where most freshman live and study, central which is mostly housing and finally the west campus. The west campus is where the Duke Chapel sits and is the campus building most often pictured. The east campus features Georgian style architecture while the west campus features a Gothic style. I almost felt like I was on Hogwarts. The three campuses sit on about 900 acres of land.
We also walked through the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, a magnificent 55-acre garden. Again our timing is wrong to see it in all its glory, but it was beautiful even in January.
That night we cooked in and had corned beef and winter vegetables. Made for a great sandwich on the road later.
Thursday we were on our own as Chris had to work, so we visited my Aunt Laura who lives in nearby New Hill, N.C. Finding her house proved remarkably easy, thanks to the little blue dot on our iPad. The roads in this area have a tendency to change names whenever they feel like it and straight through an intersection means it's generally less than a 30-degree turn. Many intersections have five or more streets coming in at all kinds of angles.
My cousin Sherry also came down to visit from High Point, N.C. and we were able to catch up. This side of my family gets together every two years somewhere in the country and we have always been very close. Laura is my mother's youngest sister and she moved to North Carolina after marrying a pilot who was training in Nebraska during World War II. Laura served us a vegetable beef soup, with zucchini bread and Moravian spice cookies, one of Barb's favorites, for dessert.
That night we walked from Chris's house to the Geer Street Garden. This is a bar/restaurant in a former gas station. The food is simple and down home and the atmosphere is relaxed. I had a bratwurst/sauerkraut sandwich and Barb had an oyster po-boy. Chris opted for butternut squash soup and a spinach salad topped with fried oysters and warm dressing. What a treat to have this kind of food within walking distance of home.
Friday morning we left Durham with an ice storm coming. We left early and went a different route than we had planned. More on this next time.