Our family is fortunate to live in a neighborhood that not only has a listserve, but one that flames red hot with use pretty much all day long. Usually it’s very helpful: Lost Cat. Suspicious vehicle on a certain street. Is it recycling day? Community coming up soon. Power is out but Duke Power vows to have it back on by noon.
Lately we’ve been telling stories about what some of us know about our homes, to help build more history about this wonderful part of Durham. I recently provided a snippet with the promise of more to come:
As a prelude, we live in Duke Forest, literally walking distance to West Campus. On big football Saturdays (don’t laugh) cars park in front of our home. The property once was part of famous Duke Forest, a research forest reserved for ecology and study. In the early 1940s Duke decided to aggressively elevate its status as a national university, so the school went looking for top faculty to lure from Ivy schools and, for the medical school in particular, Johns Hopkins. They had the money. The deals were going well. Then, often at the last stages, the faculty recruits would complain there was not enough suitable housing adjacent to campus. At older East Campus, Trinity Park was created for just this reason. But at newer West Campus, the Gothic heart of campus where the chapel and Cameron Indoor Stadium reside, there were no such homes. So the university took hundreds and hundreds of acres from Duke Forest, the parts that were closest to campus, and chopped them into large wooded lots. When the recruiting got down to the final detais, Duke would throw in a free lot, or at least offer one at a very low price. It worked. Duke’s reputation soared. And our neighborhood, Duke Forest, began to take shape.
Our place was one of the first on Perkins, circa 1949, custom built for Frank Bowers who had come to Durham from Pa. to play football for Wallace Wade back when Duke was a power. In fact, he played in the only Rose Bowl ever held outside Pasadena in 1942, when the game was held here because of the recent bombing of Pearl Harbor. No one wanted to take the chance of putting 80,000 people in a single locale on the West Coast in case the Japanese tried it again. Bowers graduated, then turned down offers to play in the NFL. He married, took a job at Duke and eventually rose high enough to secure this lot and build this house. He retired as Sr. VP for Buildings and Grounds. They never had kids. But our lot is elaborate and demanding with landscaping, especially in the back. When we bought it 18 years ago there was no back yard, just ivy and brush. It was a huge job to clear it out and create a lawn and a genuine place to use and enjoy. Once we began the project, we immediately began finding all sorts of stone retaining walls and patios, all made from the famous Duke stone they keep on hand to patch the chapel etc. Found beautiful bushes and other plants that had been carefully laid out throughout the yard, but then had become smothered by ivy. Most of those have come back now.
Also, a few original owners who still lived nearby when Jane and I bought this house nearly 18 years ago have told me about a big blue truck that would pull up ever week or so while a group of African-American laborers would jump out, carrying tools and wearing Duke blue jumpsuits. They’d hit out yard like a tornado, I was told. Then they’d lounge in the front yard under the shade of our pines while Mrs. Bowers would bring out one of those old wooden crates full of cold Pepsis in the tall, curvy bottles. Soon the truck would return, they’d hop back on and return to campus. Must have seemed harmless to Old Man Bowers, but can you imagine this happening today? You just know it’d find it’s way into the media. There would be outrage, at least I hope there would be. The guy would probably have lost his job!
Other original homeowners throughout older parts of the neighborhood have described grand parties in this house. Because in those days good restaurants and entertainment venues were in short supply in Durham, this neighborhood was especially good about having parties and dinners from house to house. Former Mayor Sylvia Kerckhoff, who lived for decades on Pinecrest, has told me many a tale about neighbors in the know taking turns hosting dinner parties, often experimenting with a relatively new cook book by somebody named Julia Child. Sylvia and others have told me about big parties at this home. When dinner and dessert were finished, everyone would tumble downstairs to our finished walk-in basement, open the garage door on one side and party like there was no tomorrow. Dancing and drinking and all kids of carrying on. This would have been primarily in the 50s and 60s, I suppose. Pretty fun to think about those people, most gone now, whooping it up in the room where I sit this very moment writing this.
One more tidbit: I love the fact that when we bought our home in the early 1990s, we were delighted to find a huge, 60-year-old fig tree in the yard. In the summer living here, I was working in the back yard one weekend morning when I hear this odd high-pitched singing, off key at that. I walked around toward the fig and saw a small, older woman filling a bucket with our ripe figs. I said, “Excuse me, can I help you?” And I kid you not, she deadpanned back, “No thanks, I believe I’ve got it.” Once I engaged her a bit more, I discovered it was an older woman well-known in the neighborhood as a character and gadfly. She was a real piece of work. When I asked once again about the figs she, almost indignantly, he told me the original owners, the Bowers, had given her permission to pick all the figs she wanted, some 50 years ago. So by God that’s what she was doing. They were my figs, of course, but I figured a deal was a deal. I just went on back inside to cool off, laughing out loud as I went.