Fact Friday 86 – Boomtown Beginnings - Duke Goes to Market

Fact Friday 86 – Boomtown Beginnings - Duke Goes to Market


Happy Friday everyone!


Yankee troops took something other than victory with them when they left the South for their northern homes at the war’s close in 1865. They carried their taste for “smokes” made from Carolina tobacco and wrote back asking where to buy more.


Young “Buck” Duke and his tobacco-farming father outside Durham, NC, knew an opportunity when they saw one. Tobacco required less labor than cotton. Almost as soon as he could drive a wagon, Duke delivered tobacco to market. His father agreed to make him (at age 18) manager of the farm’s tobacco “factory.” Buck Duke was a born trader, attended Eastman Business College in Poughkeepsie, NY, and was the first to advertise widely or produce paper-boxed cigarettes in quantity. “I don’t talk. I work,” said Duke, who was a whiz at promotional gimmicks. Many a southern country store had a folding wooden chair with bold letters heralding “Duke’s Cameo,” a popular early cigarette product in the 1880s. Duke was among the first to use such innovative advertising for his father’s company, W. Duke and Sons.


Duke’s competitive talents were only exceeded by his judgment of men. “The best men come from backwoods churches,” he believed. In New York, in a fierce corporate contest among the nation’s tobacco giants, he wound up on top of the consolidated companies of the American Tobacco Company in 1890. Duke and his less flamboyant brother Ben were also to leave their mark indelibly on Piedmont North Carolina.


Duke’s appointment with a New York doctor named Wylie led to a widely circulated tale. One of Duke’s feet felt awful and looked worse. A specialist, Dr. W. Gill Wylie, diagnosed erysipelas, which required rest and frequent treatment. In the course of bandaging, Dr. Wylie told the captive Duke of his own interest in water power. A young engineer had dammed a river on Wylie’s South Carolina plantation and installed a small hydroelectric plant that gave light, heat, and power to the neighborhood. Wylie speculated that the many tumbling rivers of the Piedmont could supply power to support towns and cotton mills and provide electric lights and streetcars, which had recently begun operating in Charlotte.


Duke already owned sites along the Catawba and was fascinated. Eager to develop long-distance transmission of electric power, he met young engineer William S. Lee. Lee presented a proposal to link the Great Falls and Mountain Island plants on the Catawba, which would provide a continuity of service. Lee told Duke that the endeavor “would cost $8,000,000. I thought it was about the biggest amount I had ever heard of, but it seemed to attract him.”


And so began the creation, in 1904, of the Southern Power Company, later Duke Power, with subsequent plants on the Catawba and other rivers. The first dam at Great Falls, South Carolina, below Charlotte, was finished in 18 months. The location had been described by historian-artist Benson Lossing in 1860:


At this place in the midst of fine cotton growing country, almost inexhaustible water power invites capital and enterprise to seek good investment, and confer substantial benefit upon the state. The place is wild and romantic. Almost the whole volume of the river is here compressed by a rugged island into a narrow channel, between steep, rocky shores… There are no perpendicular falls; but down a rocky bed the river tumbles in mingled rapids and cascades, roaring and foaming and then subsides.


A view of Great Falls on the Catawba River.


An advertisement for the Southern Power Company appeared in 1904. “The company begs to announce that they will be ready to supply electricity for any and all purposes on or before August 15, 1904.” By 1920, water power made possible over 300 area cotton mills, among them the mills of Charlotte’s neighbor, James W. Cannon, a Concord cotton broker. He was among the first in this section to bring large-scale cotton manufacturing near the cotton fields, instead of shipping local cotton north to be made into cloth. Cannon’s enterprises in Kannapolis, 30 miles northeast of Charlotte, made him “towel maker to the world.” With harnessed power, Cannon and other mills ringing Charlotte and neighboring Gaston County quickly evolved into a growing textile center. Charlotte’s transportation advantages made it once more a highly viable trading path. Year’s later, Charles A. Cannon, son of James W., affirmed that the Cannon enterprises would have obscured without the Southern Power Company.


Duke maintained a Charlotte mansion, a handsome home built in 1915 for Z.V. Taylor in the elegant new neighborhood of Myers Park. By the time Duke finished tripling the house’s original size, it thoroughly benefitted a tycoon. For an international figure with homes in New York and Newport, the completed 45 rooms and 12 baths were a millionaire’s “country house.” But Duke’s home (now known as White Oaks or the Duke Mansion) was a local wonder.


The ornate Trust Building (center left) housed the Southern Power Company, which first supplied electricity to the region, on South Tryon in the early 1890s.


In Duke’s time, Charlotteans called it the “Big House.” The 11-acare landscape extending down Edgehill Road bloomed with flame azaleas and dogwood. Duke asked Earl Draper, the full-time Massachusetts landscaper for Myers Park, for a custom landscaping plan. He paid Draper $150 to $200, which Draper recalled, “was plenty at the time.” The earliest homes on Hermitage Ardsley and Harvard Place were those of Duke Power executives and were also landscaped by Draper. Duke set the pattern for entertainment in Charlotte. He loved good food. One woman remembered, “His dinners were always elegant with champagne. He ate his food fast and if you didn’t eat yours fast too, they took it away.”


White Oaks, the James B. Duke Mansion, a National Register Historic Site in Myers Park.


Two unique features of the house were the fountains, one at the entry and the other a spectacular coal point downhill from the home. Duke had told Draper that he wanted an enormous fountain. “I said it was a little out of scale for a private place. But he said, ‘My wife wants a big display of water down there.’ She talked about some of the fountains in Italy,” Draper recalled. “He followed my plan in part and in part departed from it. He was very original in his ideas.” Duke built fountains on his other estates, but here he laid pipes twelve miles to the Catawba River. Pumping mechanisms supplied a lofty fountain. It threw columns of water 150 ft. into the air below his great, rambling white home. People drove long distances to park and gaze. Fountain View, the street above Carolina Medical Center, is named for its excellent view of the spectacular fountain.


Duke amassed a vast fortune from tobacco and hydroelectricity. In 1924, a year before his death, he announced the Duke Endowment at a meeting that took place in the sunroom of the Big House’s west wing. In addition to transforming Trinity College into Duke University, the gifts set forth at this meeting endowed Furman College, Johnson C. Smith University and Davidson College. Since that date, the endowment has given more than $1 billion to Carolinas’ institutions. Approximately $500 million of this was distributed for education. Endowment funds built hundreds of Methodist churches in rural NC and equipped or built child-care homes and more than 200 of Carolinas’ hospitals. The original $40 million bequest to seed the endowment has been described as one the outstanding philanthropies of all time.


Irving Harding as a Davidson girl who later married publisher of the Charlotte Observer Curtis B. Johnson. A frequent guest at the Duke home, she later recalled:


Duke said, “I want you to go to Davidson with me. Will You?” I said, “I would love it.” So I took him up to Davidson to see the college. He was then making his will and decisions about where and how he would leave his money. We went early in the morning with his chauffer and picked up my father (a professor of Greek) and my father took him all around the buildings. A swift look was all Mr. Duke needed… his mind was made up really before he went up there. He just wanted to make sure he hadn’t made a mistake. He said, “This is a remarkable institution. It lives on a shoestring.” He was the savior of the college.


Davidson’s endowment had disappeared into Confederate bonds. Duke’s timely gift in 1924 saved the day.


It is difficult to imagine Charlotte’s economy and educational institutions without the far-reaching benefits brought forth by the redheaded Buck Duke. Judge William R. Perkins wrote that Duke created the Duke endowment because he recognized that “education when conducted along side sane and practical, as opposed to dogmatic and theological lines, is, next to religion, the greatest civilizing influence.” Duke once said, “I have succeeded in business not because I have more natural ability than those who have not succeeded, but because I have applied myself harder and stuck to it longer.”


To read more about the history of the Duke mansion, such as when John F. Kennedy visited in 1929, and the Duke family, click here!


Until next week!




Email me at chris@704Shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!


Find all previous Fact Friday blog posts by clicking here.


Information taken from:


Charlotte North Carolina: A Brief History; Mary Kratt, 2009



“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass

Back to blog