Mules to Millions

Teer cleared the way for campus expansion
January 31, 2011
 
Building boom: grading work for new East Campus buildings, August 1925

Building boom: grading work for new East Campus buildings, August 1925
University Archives

Engineering students who spend late nights in the Teer Engineering Library might curse the name, but if they knew more about the man the building is named for, they might be inspired by his innovative methods and his life’s story.


Hospital construction in the 1940s


Hospital construction in the 1940s
University Archives

Born in 1888, Nello L. Teer created a company that dominated the grading and paving industries for much of the early half of the twentieth century. As a young man, Teer became acquainted with the Duke family while working on Benjamin Duke’s estate. Teer had lost his right hand in an accident in 1905, and Benjamin Duke provided him with his first prosthetic.

In 1909, Teer took over his father’s road-construction business—a few rented mules and a cart—despite having only a third-grade education. Just a year later, Teer’s fledgling company was hired to grade the site for the Hanes Athletic Field on the Trinity College campus. When Trinity College expanded into Duke University in the 1920s, Teer’s now-flourishing company did the grading for all of the foundations on East and West Campus.

While working on the construction of Duke’s campus, Teer made a pivotal decision to switch from working with mules to using machines. He sold his more than 400 mules and invested in heavy machinery, becoming one of the first contractors in the South to go to a machine-only operation.

The Nello L. Teer Company became highly successful in the decades following Teer’s innovative decision, working on the expansion of Duke hospital in the late 1940s, for example, and on numerous road and highway projects, including 180 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

In 1952, when Teer stepped down as president, the company was earning $1 million a year. Teer died in 1963. The Teer library, built in part with funds donated by his family, was dedicated in 1984.