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[caption id="attachment_165554" align="alignright" width="300"] “Major” the 10-foot bronze bull statue located in downtown Durham.[/caption] When you’re in the main square of downtown Durham, you’ll see a 10-foot bronze bull statue

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[caption id="attachment_165554" align="alignright" width="300"] “Major” the 10-foot bronze bull statue located in downtown Durham.[/caption] When you’re in the main square of downtown Durham, you’ll see a 10-foot bronze bull statue

“Major” the 10-foot bronze bull statue located in downtown Durham. photograph by © ZIMMYTWS/DREAMSTIME.COM

When you’re in the main square of downtown Durham, you’ll see a 10-foot bronze bull statue in the southeast corner of the plaza. Children chase each other in circles around his hooves. Tourists climb on his back for a photo op.

Bulls are everywhere in Durham. From the main square, you can walk a few blocks to the baseball stadium to see the Durham Bulls play. On your way, you might grab a burger and fried pickles at Bull City Burger and Brewery — 26 percent off if you show your restaurant-approved bull tattoo. Strolling through downtown, you’ll pass dozens of iterations of the bull featured in business names and logos, from laundromats to bars to gyms to metal fabricators to apartment complexes.

You might guess that the bull of “Bull City” has something to do with a town history involving livestock. But actually, the bull comes from tobacco ads in the 19th century. And before that, it all goes back to a jar of mustard.

• • •

A Yankee packs his pipe with lemon-colored tobacco. It’s lighter than the stuff he’s used to. It smells sweeter, too, like dry autumn leaves seasoned with nutmeg or cinnamon. He lights the pipe, and the sweet scent mingles with campfire smoke, putting the soldier at ease. It’s been a long four years, and he aches for home.

Photography courtesy of State Archives of North Carolina

By Easter weekend 1865, the Civil War is already over for most of the country. Sherman has marched. Lee has surrendered his troops. Lincoln’s been shot. But the Yankee is waiting for his commander to negotiate the terms of surrender with Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, who still has nearly 90,000 troops under his command. General Johnston, encamped in Greensboro, and Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, encamped in Raleigh, have agreed to meet in the middle — at Durham Station — to negotiate what will be the largest surrender of troops of the entire war.


While the brass are hashing out the terms at a local farmer’s kitchen table, a cease-fire is declared, and soldiers in gray and blue swap stories, sip whiskey, and smoke the local tobacco. The lemon-colored leaf is the result of a curing technique developed by Piedmont farmers and enslaved workers that uses sudden, intense heat instead of the common air-drying method. It’s called “bright leaf,” and the soldiers fall in love with it. When the troops disperse for home, heading north and south, they raid local tobacco warehouses and stuff their pockets and rucksacks with the yellow leaves.

Until now, no one has heard of Durham. It’s scarcely more than a railroad station with a hundred or so people scattered in farmhouses and shanties. Now, with the collapse of the Confederacy and a crushed economy, the hamlet’s future looks grim. But hosting the surrender turns out to be a lucky strike for Durham — although John Green, a local tobacco businessman, doesn’t know it yet.

The 1874 Old Bull building once housed W.T. Blackwell & Co., successor to John Green’s original tobacco brand, and was said to have a factory whistle that imitated a bellowing bull. Photography courtesy of DURHAM COUNTY LIBRARY, NC

All he knows is that his factory has been ransacked and his entire storehouse of tobacco is gone. I’m done for, he thinks. But then, former soldiers, now back home in Virginia; Washington, D.C.; and New York, start sending inquiries to the stationmaster in Durham: Where can we get more of that sweet yellow tobacco?

Business soon booms for Green and others in the tobacco trade, like Washington Duke of the famed Duke family. Within 15 years, Durham’s population will be 20 times larger, and the name “Durham” will be known around the world.

Which brings us to the bull.

• • •

Green can’t keep up with the orders pouring in from around the country. He needs a business partner. He also needs a new trademark. Competitors are using his product names, “Spanish Flavored” and “Durham Tobacco,” and he wants to rebrand. According to local lore, Green meets a friend, John Whitted, for lunch in Hillsborough. On the menu are fried oysters, dredged from the coast in the wee hours and shipped west on the morning train.

Photography courtesy of North Carolina Museum of History

The men dip the sweet, cool oysters into spicy mustard and talk shop. Whitted points to the nearby jar of Colman’s Mustard, whose yellow-and-red label features a bull. That would make a good logo for your tobacco business, he tells Green. The bull on the mustard jar is not just any bull. It’s a Durham shorthorn, the famed breed from Durham, England, and everyone knows that it’s one of the best, most coveted, and most expensive types of cattle. Within days, Green has a shorthorn bull painted on a sheet of iron and mounted on the front of his tobacco factory.

Bull Durham Tobacco’s logo left an outsize impression on the city of Durham. photograph by RETRO ADARCHIVES/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Green gets to enjoy the success of his brand for only a few years before he dies of tuberculosis. He doesn’t get to see Bull Durham Tobacco become known around the world as the best, most coveted type of pipe tobacco. He doesn’t get to see his business partner, W.T. Blackwell, spend unprecedented sums on advertising — $150,000 annually on newspaper ads alone (more than $3 million in 2023 dollars). He doesn’t get to see the rise of advertising murals, in which sign painters known as “walldogs” plaster the Durham Bull on brick buildings as far away as Canada and Europe.

He also doesn’t see the years of litigation against other tobacco companies that attempt to use the name Durham and the bull logo. And he doesn’t see the eventual acquisition of his brand by the American Tobacco Company, led by James “Buck” Duke, which grows to control 91 percent of the tobacco industry worldwide before Congress starts busting up monopolies.

• • •

Walk around downtown Durham today, and you won’t smell the sweet, earthy aroma of tobacco being cured, cut, bagged, sold, and smoked. Every third or fourth person you meet works in health care or education, not tobacco. But you’ll still see many of the factory buildings that prepared the bright leaf that made Durham famous. Now, those brick buildings contain condos, restaurants, and start-up companies. You’ll also find that Durham is still home to people like John Green, entrepreneurs with the ambition to turn their small ideas into big business. And you’ll still find bulls everywhere.

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This story was published on Feb 27, 2023

Karen Langley Martin

Karen Langley Martin is a writer based in Durham.