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Up in smoke

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For better and worse, the history of tobacco is the history of Durham. And here at the Independent Weekly, we're happily becoming a part of its better history.

This week, as you'll discover elsewhere in the paper (see Front Porch and our online announcement, plus the map below) we're moving from our rambling old house on Hillsborough Road in Durham into the Venable Tobacco Co. warehouse downtown being renovated by Scientific Properties.

There's some irony in that, because since our inception nearly 24 years ago, the Independent has never accepted tobacco advertising, a major source of revenue for our counterparts across the country. We didn't want to promote a lethal habit, and we didn't want to be beholden to what was, until very recently, the dominant economic force in the state. Instead, we are taking advantage of one of tobacco's legacies—an industrial construction boom that began in the 1880s and resulted in some of the most impressive commercial architecture in the South.

The first tobacco factories in Durham sprang up in the 1850s. In 1884, James B. "Buck" Duke (son of Washington Duke, who had already established his own successful tobacco business after the Civil War) gambled he could get the previously unreliable Bonsack cigarette manufacturing machine to work better than his predecessors. He did, and in 1890 the Dukes merged with their four main competitors to form the American Tobacco Co., a near-monopoly and the largest tobacco company in the world until the "tobacco trust" was broken up by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1911. (If you'd like to know more, visit one of Durham's most underappreciated assets, the Duke Homestead state historical site, which features a fascinating Tobacco Museum, Washington Duke's original farmhouse and beautiful grounds—www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/Sections/hs/duke/duke.htm.)

As the Dukes nearly cornered the market by creating modern brand advertising, millions of dollars flowed into Durham, and smaller companies thrived in their shadow. One of them was the Venable Tobacco Co., organized in 1907 as a branch of a Virginia tobacco company that was one of the largest independents in the world, according to The Durham Architectural and Historic Inventory.

We're moving into a building that was its prizehouse, where tobacco was sorted by grade before shipping. So, where tobacco leaves were once stacked the length of its brick walls and broad windows, we'll be sitting at computers, putting out a newspaper and a Web site.

Tobacco turned out to be a dangerous foundation for a community to build on. But just as it created a beautiful cityscape, a thriving middle class (black and white), and the wealth to endow a great university, it is now enabling hundreds of millions of dollars in downtown developments like the American Tobacco Campus, West Village (in the old Liggett & Myers factory), and now, Venable. We're excited to become a part of that transformation.

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