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Former workers return to American Tobacco after 'remarkable reboot'

Posted September 6, 2014
Updated September 7, 2014

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— More than 150 former American Tobacco factory workers returned to their old stomping grounds on Saturday to help celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the campus’ reboot.

Workers came from far and wide to enjoy lunch and take tours of cutting-edge companies like McKinney and Bronto. They also had plenty of stories to share.

“Some of them we can’t tell,” 91-year-old B.W. Crabtree joked Saturday.

Crabtree was integral in helping RSVP Events find out where former American Tobacco employees lived so they could attend the celebration.

Crabtree, a former shipping supervisor, said he’s thankful for what tobacco meant to his working life – which started in Durham in 1953.

“Tobacco is not a good word anymore, but it’s been mighty good to me,” he said. “It educated my two children. It has helped me get one of my sons through college.”

When American Tobacco left Durham in the late 1980s, Crabtree had spent 35 years with the company.

“It was a sad day. We knew that we would never have another job that would be as good to us as American Tobacco was,” he said. “If somebody’s family had problems, it would be our problems.”

Sharon Heath-Riley, the organizer of Saturday’s reunion event, said American Tobacco was “contemporary” in how it treated its employees.

“They had on-site healthcare. They had the womb-to-tomb title, where you could be treated here from the time you were born to the day you die,” she said.

When American Tobacco shut down operations, it left the area in bad shape. The dusty, warehouse-filled space on the edge of downtown Durham had little appeal.

That changed thanks to a $200 million renovation by the Goodmon family. It has turned the area into a thriving city center with restaurants and offices space that has drawn more development, including the Durham Performing Arts Center.

Capitol Broadcasting Company, the parent company of WRAL, also owns the American Tobacco Campus.

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