Today TheBullsOfDurham. com is featuring the very first guest blog by local historian, long time Durham journalist and Bull City resident of 50 years, Jim Wise.
And Now, a Few Words on our “Founder.”
The man for whom Durham is named lies to rest at the top of a low knoll, off Duke University Road in the city’s Maplewood Cemetery.
Dr. Bartlett Durham has the knoll pretty much to himself, his gravestone standing tall, 61/2 feet or so, in reverent solitude with just an evergreen tree for company, set off by a broad lawn leading the eye up to the Founder’s memorial.
That’s what the gravestone says: “FOUNDER, THE CITY OF DURHAM.” though Dr. Durham didn’t exactly found anything. What he did was to, circa 1849, grant the North Carolina Railroad the right to run track and locate a depot on a 100-acre tract of land he owned just off a road running between Hillsborough and Raleigh.
Why he chose to buy that property is unknown – the purchase was before the railroad route had been determined – but perhaps the doctor figured that its location roughly midway between two notorious watering holes – “Pinhook” to the west and “Prattsburg” to the east – would provide good trade for his medical practice.
The railroad’s survey map from 1849 shows Dr. Durham’s property and a depot on the proposed rail corridor designated “Durham’s Station” – thus for the first time putting the name “Durham” on the map. “Durham” was made further official four years later, April 26, 1853, when the station was made a U.S. Post Office.
A century later, the city took the date of the post office’s establishment as date of the city’s establishment as well, April 26, 1953 becoming the peg for a week-long “centennial” celebration.
Over the next few years, a village took shape around the depot-post office, the village variously known as “Durham’s Station,” “Durhamville” or just “Durham’s.” When the state legislature felt its stature warranted incorporation, in 1869, the community quite reasonably took the name to which it was accustomed.
By that time, Dr. Durham himself had gone to his reward and been laid to rest – not in Maplewood Cemetery, which was yet to come, but in the good doctor’s home country southwest of Chapel Hill, in the Snipes family graveyard. Dr. Durham’s mother was a Snipes.
According to family tradition passed on to this writer about 20 years ago, Dr. Durham practiced in Chapel Hill as well as Durham’s Station, and was particularly good at treating children. One child he treated in Durham’s Station, Thaddeus Redmond, recalled him many years later as “a fine, portly-looking man.
“He was a jovial fellow,” Redmond went on. “On moonshiny nights he would get a group of boys together and serenade the town. … When he was sober he was strong and courageous.”
The doctor must have felt a strong attachment to those he treated, for, according to Redmond, if he lost hope for a patient’s recovery Dr. Durham would spend “a week or ten days” drowning his sorrows.
However, according to Jean Anderson’s authoritative history Durham County, the good doctor’s fondness for spirits did not deter him from introducing a bill to incorporate a Sons of Temperance chapter while he represented Orange County (Durham County was peeled off from Orange in 1881) in the legislature in the early 1850s.
Dr. Durham lived only 34 years. After his death, the town was established, boomed with the tobacco business, grew by leaps and bounds – from about 200 residents in 1870 to more than 5,000 in 1890 and 52,000 by 1930, by which time the idea was taking root that Bartlett Durham should repose within the city which bore his name.
Consequently, some Bull Citizens set out to find Dr. Durham’s grave, dig him up and move him. They found the grave in the wilds of Chatham County, just below the Orange County line, and went to digging on June 27, 1933.
Jim Sykes, who was on hand for the exhumation as a 10-year-old boy, recalled in 1999 that the diggers found an iron coffin with a glass plate over the deceased’s face. Looking in, Sykes saw that “small glasses were still perched upon his nose and … his hair and beard appeared dark. He had on a black string tie and a shirt with two small ruffles down the front.”
According to Sykes’s records, Dr. Durham’s state of preservation was remarkable, so much so that became the subject of a syndicated “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” cartoon in 1937.
The body also appeared to be “almost floating” in water. When the coffin was brought up, it was decided to drain the water off so as to lighten the load for transport. A hole was punched, the water drained and, according to Sykes, “I have not smelled such a gripping, nauseating odor, before or since.”
The stench may have come from a mix of embalming fluids with water that leaked into or condensed inside the coffin. In any case, according to other accounts, the odor got into the clothing of those observing and even laundering with lye soap couldn’t completely get it out.
Lightened, the coffin with Dr. Durham’s body made its way toward Durham, with a stopoff for a short service at the nearby Antioch Baptist Church. Once in his namesake city, “Ol’ Doc” lay on public view at Hall-Wynne Funeral Home. According to the Durham Morning Herald, “between five and six thousand people” came by to have a look.
The body then went into storage for several months until its reburial in Maplewood the following January. And so Dr. Durham’s remains have remained in their grassy knoll these 84 years, beneath their solemn monument.
“Bartlett Snipes Durham/1822 – 1858,” it reads.
Very dignified. And, it would seem, incorrect.
According to family records, Bartlett Durham was born Nov. 23, 1824, not 1822, and he died Feb. 2, 1859, not 1858. And there’s the matter of his middle name.
In her meticulously researched book, Jean Anderson reveals that his middle name was, not Snipes, but Leonidas. The railroad survey map identifies the doctor’s property as “B.L. Durham,” the same middle initial recorded in Hiram Paul’s 1884 History of the Town of Durham, N.C.
So Durham’s namesake was B.L. – no B.S.
Being picky, we’ll also note that, while the gravestone says re-interrment took place Jan. 1, 1934, it was actually done on Jan. 2, as recorded in the local press.
Maybe someday the monument will get an edit. In the meantime, let’s just remember that it’s really the thought that counts.
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Sheila Amir is a health & nutrition writer who fell in love with Durham, North Carolina and starting writing a book about it.