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Destination: Duke Homestead

The state historic site in Durham was where Washington Duke started growing and process tobacco. It traces the history of tobacco in North Carolina.

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Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
When we left Duke Homestead in Durham the other week, I turned to my seven-year-old daughter and just had to drive home the following one more time: Tobacco is bad for you.

"I know, Mom," she replied with a roll of her eyes.

It's not that the state historic site glorifies the crop. Tobacco has played a key role in the growth, development and culture of North Carolina for generations. Duke Homestead tells that story.

But, for me, after years of telling my daughter that tobacco is no good for her, I'll admit that it was odd to read together with her about some of the positives that came from the growth of the crop back in the days of Washington Duke and his sons.

Duke started growing and processing tobacco at Duke Homestead. His sons eventually founded The American Tobacco Company, the largest tobacco company in the world. The enterprise made them one of the richest families in the country in the early 20th century. They were behind Duke University, Duke Energy and the Duke Endowment.

The visitors center at Duke Homestead explores the growth of the business and industry. It takes you from the tobacco fields to the factories where cigarettes were made to how the products were marketed.

While the exhibits definitely have a bit of age on them, there are plenty of buttons to push (a highlight for most young kids) that start up audio pieces. And my older daughter particularly liked the "talking" farmer, a moving mannequin who talked about the hard work it takes to raise tobacco, calling it a 13-month crop.

At the visitors center, there's a short orientation movie about the history of the Duke family, the tobacco industry and Durham. If you have kids with you, be sure to ask at the front desk to see "Sarah's Farm," an eight-minute film about a day in the life of a farm girl from the 1800s. My kids loved it.

From there, you can walk along a short path to the actual historic buildings, which include a tobacco curing barn, tobacco pack house, Washington Duke's third tobacco factory and his 1852 homestead. You can take a self-guided tour, though you won't be able to enter any of the buildings.

A free 45-minute guided tour, which I recommend, lets you in a couple of the buildings including the 1852 homestead. Mia Berg of Duke Homestead showed my daughters how tobacco was processed in the early days by crushing it with sticks and let them give it a try.

And like most other historic sites, you'll find plenty of open space here, including at least 10 picnic tables. So there's room for the kids to run off some energy before or after a trip through the visitors center and tour.

Duke Homestead offers all kinds of special events throughout the year including Saturday's Summer Children's Festival with free activities including period games, crafts, a mule-drawn wagon ride, a concert from local children's band Baron Von Rumblebuss and much more. It's from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Click here for details and a full schedule.

For a closer look at Duke Homestead and to hear from Berg, watch the video.

Duke Homestead, 2828 Duke Homestead Rd., Durham, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday. Guided tours are offered at 15 minutes past each hour, starting at 10:15 a.m. and ending at 3:15 p.m. Check the website for more information.
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