You wonder what was on the mind of North Carolina’s greatest entrepreneur in the last three decades of his life.
I suspect it was dirt.
By the 1930s, the Piedmont region of North Carolina had lost an average seven inches of soil to erosion, up to 18 inches in some places.
The reddish, sometimes yellowish, clay so prevalent now is actually a subsoil laid bare by this erosion according to historians such as Dr. Paul Sutter.
The effects of that erosion are clearly evident today. It is why nearly all of our creeks, streams, rivers and lakes are muddy and will be, according to ecologists, for a thousand years.
A hundred years before we had “climate change deniers,” we had “erosion deniers.” They, too, had policy makers who tried to outlaw science.
Deniers of both are still in office in some states today.
James Buchanan “Buck” Duke, who died in 1925 at age 69, would not have been among the latter nor were he alive today, the former I suspect.
Duke was eight and living with family in Greensboro during the chaotic end of the Civil War, as it was being negotiated near his home in Durham even as his recently released Confederate father, a Unionist, made his way back home.
He was 17 when his father moved their tobacco factory into town and just 21 when “Sons” was added to the name of the enterprise. His father delegated manufacturing and marketing to Buck.
He is widely regarded today as the first genius in modern marketing.
But before relocating those four miles into Durham, Buck had earlier left the family farm during his teens first to attend what is now Guilford College in Greensboro.
He may have been the quintessential Tar Heel at the time, accent, chaw of tobacco and all, but uniquely for his time he also had formal business training including a curriculum that included practical experience to inform his innate entrepreneurial and strategic gifts.
At 24 he was made chief executive of his family’s business and opened a branch in New York. Before he was 30 he took the company public. By the time he turned 34, Buck Duke headed a trust that controlled 80% of tobacco production in the world.
In what we call today a SWOTs analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats,) he was well aware that one of the biggest threats to his company came not from federal regulators but the soil depletion associated with growing cotton and tobacco.
At first tobacco had required fertile land. But the weed-like varieties that yielded a much milder and more popular tobacco not only formed the basis of the Duke corporate empire but they grew on lands depleted by cotton.
But after a few years, even this tobacco wouldn’t grow without huge amounts of fertilizer, which became prevalent after the Civil War, as well as large quantities of water and eventually pesticides.
Still growing tobacco was leaving swaths of abandoned farm land unproductive because its topsoil had washed away.
Buck Duke did not know of tobacco’s harmfulness to health but he could readily see during his time that it was not good for the environment or future business.
With half of his life still ahead of him including new entrepreneurial pursuits in hydroelectric power and higher education in his home state, Duke bought a farm 45 miles west of New York City and assembled nearly 40 others, for a total of over 2,700 acres in all.
Northern New Jersey had been deforested for agriculture and charcoal by 1850, resulting in heavy erosion into the Raritan River adjacent to his land.
Any forest remnants that remained, here and there, were in poor condition.
Buck Duke foresaw by several years a call in 1896 by the state geologist for reforestation and protection of watersheds. Primeval forests were extinct and nearly half of the state had been cleared of trees.
Forest fires were ravaging what remained to the south. half of them caused by sparks from locomotives.
Through much of his 40s, Buck Duke worked feverishly to recreate more of a nature area than an estate including excavating and/or rehabilitating, enhancing and connecting a chain of nine lakes and associated waterfalls.
All of this was protected by extensive reforestation of more than 2 million trees.
His vision, in the wake of deforestation, was to create a natural “wonderland,” but he also experimented with sustainable hydroelectric power there and methods to make both land and water more sustainable as well.
Within a few years, his work would be the inspiration for forest parks in New Jersey.
Coincidentally, this was the same period in which his father, Washington Duke, aided by other Durham leaders was busy relocating the 1830’s Trinity College to Durham as the foundation for what would later be renamed Duke University.
But rather than a retirement for Buck Duke, this period of creating what is called Duke Farms in north-central New Jersey was more of an entrepreneurial interlude to be inspired by his intrigue with hydrology and forestation.
It was also about this time that soil research became a national priority, including its indispensable role in life and its birth from forest.
The system Buck created with his natural restoration at the turn of the 19th century was designed to pump a million gallons of water per day from a canal above the Raritan River up to a reservoir.
From there the water was then controllably-released through gravity to flow successively down through nine excavated lakes and related waterfalls as well as restored meadows, lagoons and other wetlands before being reintroduced to the river much cleaner than when it was removed.
Lets just say that before he turned his attention a few years later, when not yet 50, to a startup back in his home state that would become Duke Energy today, Buck Duke knew what he was doing.
That experience through his 40s gave him an understanding of how to later rehabilitate thousands of acres of depleted farm land in his hometown of Durham by laying the groundwork near the end of his life for what would become Duke Forest as part of his transformation of Duke University.
Soil scientists estimate that in North Carolina where under virgin forest exists, it would take approximately 468,000 years to remove a topsoil layer, something that takes only a matter of minutes with today’s method of site preparation in advance of buildings.
Soil science is a discipline fathered as we know it today by another North Carolinian, Hugh Hammond Bennett.
But some who had previously also cut their teeth in North Carolina had been “erosion deniers,” as some policy makers are today.
Back then, evidence was mounting in some studies that would show that an average of 5.3 feet of topsoil sediment had discharged between 1820 and 1830 atop pre-settlement floodplains.
Ironically, many areas we consider treasured wetlands now were really created by these sediment avalanches.
As a ten year old, Bennett has been observing erosion on his family farm near Wadesboro at about the same time Duke was experimenting with how to prevent it as well as restore and protect polluted waterways.
Bennett was graduating from UNC and starting out his career by performing soil surveys in North Carolina counties in the two years before Duke returned to his native Tar Heel state.
One subsequent 1920 survey of Durham soils is filled with descriptions and information about Durham at the time Duke spent much of the last years of his life back here.
Based on a plan hatched in 1919, Buck Duke at the time of the survey was already buying up what would be 5,000 acres (today more than 7,000) of mostly depleted farmland in Durham dotted here and there by remnants of old growth forests.
But this was much more than what was needed for what are now Duke University’s West and Central campuses.
While much of the land he acquired would be reclaimed by forest, telltale gullies are visible today in the undergrowth, tombstones for an era of topsoil erosion.
Only today, the culprits behind that continued destruction are more likely to be mechanized site preparation for buildings which not only scrape off or crush fragile top soils but compact it so as to be impervious.
Most credit those acquisitions from 1919 through the early 1920s stretching across west and southwest Durham as well as west into Orange and eventually Alamance counties to Duke’s strategic sensibilities, a means that guaranteed access roads and water availability.
But his past experience suggests something even more strategic.
The School of Forestry created five years after Duke’s death is credited to William Preston Few, a longtime friend who was the university’s then president, along with a Forest Service veteran turned professor and researcher named Clarence Korstian, with the creation of Duke Forest.
Korstian had served in the United States Forest Service out West including a stint in the Pacific Northwest during the period of The Big Burn in 1910 before an assignment in the North Carolina Mountains.
He followed that with a stint at Yale before returning for a consulting assignment at Duke.
Few had spent a lot of time with Buck Duke, and while intrigued by Harvard Forest, in the mid-1920s he had recruited an ecologist named A.S. Pearse who was even more intrigued with the potential of the lands Duke had purchased.
Pearse connected Few with Korstian in 1927. Buck Duke had died suddenly in late 1925 leaving behind one last stroke of entrepreneurial genius, a vast endowment so visionary it is as relevant today as it was then.
At his death, he was one of only 23 multimillionaires who had been born in the South, out of 331 nationwide. But unique to others, he directed his philanthropy back to his roots.
It isn’t a leap to conclude that his influence was very present as Few, Pearse and Korstian envisioned Duke Forest. Not at all.
If only shorter sighted policy makers in Durham today had the strategic sense of this earlier native son when it comes to the overall urban forest canopy.