Big, Bold, “Buck”

January 31, 2004


Durden: writing the book on J.B.

Durden: writing the book on J.B. Les Todd.

James Buchanan Duke built an industrial empire, powered the Piedmont, and endowed a university. He was a big man with big ideas, and he invested heavily in them. Robert Durden, emeritus professor of history, talks about “Buck” Duke's life and ambitions in Bold Entrepreneur: A Life of James B. Duke.

You have written four books on the Duke family. Why this one now?

I came to realize that I had not done full justice to James B. Duke in The Dukes of Durham. I learned more about him when I wrote the history of the endowment [Lasting Legacy to the Carolinas: The Duke Endowment (1924-1994)] and even more when I wrote the history of the Duke Power Company [Electrifying the Piedmont Carolinas: The Duke Power Company (1904-1997)]. So that suggested to me that there were angles to him that I had not really developed.

I was interested in the Duke family's relationship to the university, but Buck (I'll call him Buck since he's dead. People called him Mr. Duke throughout his life. It was a much more formal time, you know.) only becomes involved in Trinity College during the last decade of his life. In order to keep the family focus, I had to skimp on the most interesting moments in his life, things that didn't unfold in Durham and thus shifted the focus, like the formation of the British-American Tobacco Company.

We learn much about Duke's professional success, but do we know what he was like on a personal level?

Not a whole lot is known about Buck Duke's personal life. And actually, one thing that rather struck me was something I never came across. I never found any evidence of his exploding in anger. If he had a temper, he didn't show it. He seems to have been an easygoing, albeit hard-driving, person, and he expected those who worked with him to be the same. We do know that he was very soft-spoken and that he shunned personal publicity. He kept as low a personal profile as possible. I think he was a deeply religious person, like his father, but he didn't flash it; he wasn't flamboyant about it. He wasn't a speechmaker.

Duke built his empire on tobacco. Did he smoke it?

He didn't smoke cigarettes, just cigars--ironically, the one product he never got control of, since cigars were made by so many small units and didn't lend themselves to the assembly-line process of manufacturing.

Duke made his first bold move in 1885 by entering into a deal with Charles Bonsack, inventor of the Bonsack cigarette-rolling machine. What was the significance of the deal for James B. Duke's future success?

It was a gamble because the older cigarette producers in Richmond took the view that cigarette smokers would only smoke hand-rolled cigarettes. There was growing cigarette consumption at the time, but they were all hand-rolled, as they had been in Europe. And, as a matter of fact, the early hand-rollers tended to be immigrants, most of them from Eastern Europe. So the Richmond crowd insisted that the American cigarette smokers preferred these custom-made cigarettes. Well, Buck decides that if you could get a cigarette machine that worked, it would be worth a try. He tells Mr. Bonsack, "We'll use your machine, we'll give it a full test, we'll gamble that American smokers will buy the machine-made cigarettes, and in exchange we would like a special rate." And that's exactly what happens.

After building--and then, by order of the Supreme Court, dismantling--the American Tobacco Company, Duke put his money in hydroelectricity. Why did he make that investment?

Duke was a firm believer in industrialization. He was convinced that it was the only path to a "New South," although he never used that term. At the time, however, hydroelectricity was a new industry. It only got started in the 1890s and a lot of people were scared to death of it. When Buck approached mill owners about powering their mills they'd say, "No way! We're not going to bring electricity in here and kill our workers!" But Duke saw the potential it had to help industry and provide jobs.

At one point, I don't know exactly when, he came to realize that he was never going to make as much money out of electricity as he did out of tobacco. But he stuck with it, because I don't think that at that point making money was what he really cared about. He saw hydroelectric power as the best way to encourage textile manufacturing and as an escape route from poverty. The South had been so poor for so long after the Civil War, and then textile manufacturing becomes this booming thing. So Buck figured, you already have the mills. You just need to power them. So he built his own mills and did exactly that.

You mention an "unfortunate line" in the indenture for The Duke Endowment that led many to misinterpret Duke's motives in giving his money to the university. What was that precisely?

This is sort of a tricky technical point. Most people, possibly including Buck Duke, didn't fully understand what [then-President of Trinity College William Preston] Few wanted to do. He talked about organizing a great national university. He wanted to organize it around Trinity College and to have a four-year, first-rate medical school, a law school, a divinity school, and, if the funds were available, a business school. But he wanted to keep Trinity College at the center of it. So really Dr. Few was proposing a new institution.

And it was Dr. Few who said, in 1921, if we could ever build this national university (and Buck Duke liked to think big, so Few was shrewd in suggesting an ambitious project; Buck wouldn't have been interested in some local regional college), then we ought to give it a distinctive name. Few said, "There's already a Trinity in San Antonio and there are others on the East Coast and all over the English-speaking world. I think we ought to name it Duke University." Well, the lawyer who drew up the indenture inserts this totally unnecessary phrase that if Trinity changes its name to Duke University, Buck Duke would give $6 million to the college.

That was totally uncalled for. In the first place, Buck Duke's going to come up with a hell of a lot more than $6 million. He ends up giving about $19 million to rebuild the old Trinity Campus and to build from scratch the Gothic buildings on West Campus and to buy, to start with, around 5,000 acres of Duke Forest. Furthermore, he's going to provide annual support for this new institution from The Duke Endowment. But the newspapers pick up this line and write headlines like "If Trinity Changes Name to Duke It Gets $6 Million."

Well, the name change misses the point. It's more than that. It's a new institution. But that phrase was pulled out of the indenture and the story got started that Buck Duke tried to bribe a college to name itself after him. And then the story gets going that Buck Duke first offered his money to Princeton and then later Yale, and God knows how many institutions have come up with variations on this story. And it's false. I mean totally false. Generations of Duke students and faculty repeated it. And the truth never quite catches up with error when the error is amusing.