By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 13, 2015
Recently, I was asked about things to visit and do in Durham, where I’ve lived for about seven and a half years. I’ve split my response, which has been lightly edited, into three blog posts. The first one was about Duke-related places; this second one is about Durham’s non-Duke stuff; and a third one covers miscellaneous items. Enjoy!
American Tobacco Historic District
300 Blackwell St., Durham, NC 27701
This complex, once the Lucky Strike cigarette factory, now houses restaurants, offices, residences and a small movie theater devoted to documentaries. The large, rambling courtyard hosts concerts during the warmer months; it also has a stream running through it that visitors can enjoy following any time of year. The facility has no retail shopping to speak of, but there are multiple places to get a bite to eat. American Tobacco Campus (or sometimes ATC), as it’s called, is across the street from the Durham Performing Arts Center, a.k.a. DPAC, and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, a.k.a. DBAP. Be sure to stroll through ATC if you’re going to see the Bulls host a Minor League Baseball game! The Diamond View complex that surrounds the ballpark has additional dining options in a variety of styles and price points. Of all the places in this list, this is closest to downtown Durham — just a short walk across the railroad tracks.
Museum of Life and Science
433 W. Murray Ave., Durham, NC 27704
This is not affiliated with the museum of the similar name in Raleigh. It has indoor and outdoor components, the latter of which include a small zoo and a popular holiday train (book tickets for the holiday train way, way in advance). This museum also has a terrific butterfly house that I’ve visited twice with my Parental Unit. It’s the first such one in the Triangle, I was once told by someone who accused Raleigh of copycatting the MLS butterfly enclosure. The main building has different stuff including some cool space things — I think there’s either a real moon lander or a full-scale mock-up. (It was never sent to space, of course.) This museum is best on days when the weather is decent because visitors must go outdoors to walk between the main building and some of the other attractions.
4409 Bennett Memorial Road, Durham, NC 27705
Despite the much greater fame of Appomattox Court House, Va., this humble farm near the line that separates Durham and Orange counties was the site of the Civil War’s largest single surrender of Confederate troops. The negotiations that took place here between the Union’s Major General William T. Sherman and the Confederacy’s Gen. Joseph E. Johnston in the spring of 1865 were a pivotal event in the end of the Civil War. The visitors center and the tour can provide guests with a great deal of information about farm life in the 1860s and about the end of what remains America’s bloodiest conflict.
2828 Duke Homestead Rd., Durham, NC 27705
Looking at the modest-seeming Duke family farm without knowing its history, you might find it rather unremarkable. However, this was the home of a family that played a vital role in popularizing tobacco. In the process of accumulating an immense fortune following the Civil War, Washington Duke and his heirs remade the small community of Durham, the tiny school now known as Duke University and, arguably, the nation and the world. The visitors center has plenty of information about tobacco, but be sure to sign up for a tour of the grounds. It’s interesting to compare the divergent fortunes of the Bennett and Duke families.
5828 Old Oxford Highway, Durham, NC 27712
The Bennehan-Cameron family owned Historic Stagville, one of the largest plantations in the state. Although the buildings and grounds lack the grandeur of plantations in the Deep South, Historic Stagville shows visitors a great deal about rural life in a slave-holding region in the 18th and 19th centuries. The slave quarters are fascinating, in part because the treatment that the masters considered humane and progressive for their captives in retrospect seems extremely cruel. My favorite structure is actually the immense slave-built stable; designed and erected by men used to naval architecture, it has unnecessarily strong construction. This can readily be see from within, where I had the impression of standing inside an unfinished ship that had been rolled until the keel was atop everything else. There are very few restaurants and gas stations near Historic Stagville, so make sure that you and your vehicle won’t need to be topped off (or emptied out, in the case of people) en route to or from the plantation. Historic Stagville hosts events throughout the year, especially during the holiday season.
West Point on the Eno
5101 N. Roxboro Road, Durham, NC 27704
This city-owned park on the north side of the Durham is probably my favorite nature area in Durham County. Visitors can swim (at their own risk!) during the warmer months. I believe that it may be possible to arrange for canoe and kayak rentals and tours year-round. The park features a mill, a blacksmith shop, a tobacco barn (which I don’t think I’ve visited) and a residence and a photograph museum (which I know I have not visited). Every summer, this park hosts an immense music and crafts festival — a must-do if you are in town at the right time. Don’t confuse West Point on the Eno with Eno River State Park, to the west, which is mainly for hikers and campers.