It all started during the final days of the Civil War.
Union General William T. Sherman negotiated the surrender of the forces under Confederate General Joe Johnston at Bennett Place, a farmstead near a rural train depot called Durham Station.
The negotiations took almost two weeks. While they were waiting, the soldiers purchased (or pilfered) all the “brightleaf” tobacco in nearby warehouses. The brightleaf curing process was unique to North Carolina, and the soldiers liked it.
When the soldiers went home to Indiana and Ohio and Pennsylvania, they took with them a taste for “Durham tobacco.” Within just a few months, a boom was born.
Tobacco manufacturing took off in Durham, with dozens of competing firms. Blackwell’s Tobacco, headquartered in the Old Bull building, emerged as a leader in the field with their “Bull Durham” brand.
But across town, Duke & Sons upended the industry by perfecting the first automatic cigarette rolling machine. Through mergers and acquisitions, Duke & Sons acquired Blackwell’s Tobacco and over 200 rival firms. They renamed the company American Tobacco.
In 1896, American Tobacco controlled 90% of the cigarette market worldwide and was one of the first 12 members of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
In subsequent years, American continued to lead the tobacco market worldwide with successful products including Lucky Strike, Pall Mall and Tareyton. Celebrities including Frank Sinatra and Jack Benny helped promote American Tobacco brands on radio, television and in print.
The American Tobacco Company renamed itself American Brands in 1986 and began to acquire non-tobacco companies. Subsequently, the company was renamed Fortune Brands.
In 1987, Fortune Brands closed the old American Tobacco factory in Durham.
The factory sat empty for more than a decade. The windows were blacked out and the campus was surrounded by razor wire. Durham Police used the campus for tactical training. Trees grew out of some of the buildings. “It was an eyesore,” remarked Durham historian Jim Wise.
In 2005, Capitol Broadcasting Company, owners of the Durham Bulls, reopened American Tobacco as an office, entertainment and residential campus. Tenants including Glaxo, Duke and Bronto signed on to be part of the project.
Capitol Broadcasting invested a quarter billion dollars over the next decade, refurbishing the tobacco factory into an urban campus on the National Register of Historic Places.
“There’s no question that the renovation of American Tobacco has been a success,” said Durham Mayor Bill Bell. “It’s become a 24/7 destination. But more importantly, it’s spurred other development around American Tobacco Campus.”
“The redevelopment of American Tobacco transformed the image of Downtown Durham,” added Bill Kalkhof, president of Downtown Durham, Inc.
Today, American Tobacco is home to an art college, 10 restaurants, a film festival, WUNC National Public Radio, the American Underground and more than 5,000 workers in tech, advertising, medicine and education.
Residential Leasing Specialist
"I love my experience at American Tobacco - it unlike any place I've lived before. Downtown Durham is an amazing place to be if you like music, food and a strong sense of community and living at American Tobacco is like all of those things on steroids"
Residential Leasing Specialist