Dr. Bartlett Durham
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Dr. Bartlett Snipes Durham

Moving Dr. Durham: City namesake mobile in life and after
by Jim Wise (used with permission)

The spot where Dr. Bartlett Durham spent his first 75 years of eternity lies on a low slope of ground that eases from a wooden gazebo in a churchyard to a sudden dropoff into a wooded gully.

At least, evidence says this is the spot.

Contemporary accounts say that, when the Bull City's eponymous founder was relocated to Maplewood Cemetery in 1934, his body was disinterred from the Snipes family graveyard near Antioch church in Orange County.

There, just over the low crest from the gazebo, rears the brick edifice of Antioch Baptist Church, on White Cross Road 8 miles west of Chapel Hill. Here stands a stone shaft, 6-1/2 feet tall and topped with a crucifix, almost dead - so to speak - center in the church cemetery, bearing the name Snipes.

Margaret F. Snipes: Feb. 22, 1841-June 20, 1922. Go and dwell with Him above, happy in the Savior's love. And on the other side of the shaft, Calvin P. Snipes: July 11, 1841-Oct. 12, 1908. His toils are past, his work is done, he fought the fight, the victory won.

But other stones date back to the right period. There are Tabitha and John Quakenbush. She died Aug. 14, 1852, and he on Feb. 12, 1853. She was 18, he 24. Old Doc Durham was first laid to rest in February 1858. To the right of the Snipes shaft there are two individual Snipes markers. One records a death in the 1890s - the rest of the inscription is too worn to make out - the other is Calvin's: Confederate soldier 4 years, Soldier of the Cross 50 years. So old Calvin must have been about 18 when he got saved.

Bartlett Durham's grave at Antioch, the story goes, was never marked. And to the left of the Snipes monument there is a bare stretch of ground - a good 25 feet to the next marker. Odd, in a graveyard where the stones are evenly spaced with that sense of linear order you associate with Midwestern roads.

Perhaps this is the place.

Bartlett Durham, who gained a spell of immortality for donating 4 acres of land for a railroad station around which a city arose, grew up 12 miles west of Chapel Hill. Born Nov. 3, 1824, to William L. and Mary Snipes Durham, Bartlett was a fourth generation of Orange County Durhams.

Legend has it he studied medicine first with a family acquaintance - perhaps Dr. James Webb of Hillsborough - and then in Philadelphia, maybe at Jefferson Medical College, maybe the University of Pennsylvania - no record survives, in any case. And in any case, in 1847 or 1848 Durham apparently bought about 100 acres of land in the vicinity of the present Durham Bulls Athletic Park and American Tobacco ruin and relocated himself and his practice there.

Actual records of Bartlett Durham's life are sketchy. It has been conjectured that he moved to take advantage of the planned North Carolina Railroad, and the business it would bring. Actually, the railroad's route was not laid out until a year after Durham moved, but one may imagine a young physician would have been attracted to the area between Prattsburg and Pinhook - a couple of early settlements whose enduring reputations for rowdy carryings-on suggest the good doctor would have had plenty to keep him occupied.

One account suggests Old Doc Durham tended that way himself. The late Wyatt Dixon, chronicler of the Bull City for more than 50 years in the old Durham Sun, recorded some recollections of one W.T. Redmond from 1933.

Redmond, in a statement supporting the removal of Durham's body from Antioch to Maplewood, said he remembered the doctor from his own childhood.

"Dr. Bartlett Durham was a fine, portly looking man, Redmond said. "He was a jovial fellow. On moonshiny nights, he would get a group of boys together and serenade the town. ...

"I remember on one occasion Ed Lyon, L. Turner, Jim Redmond and Dr. Durham went out to serenade. I don't remember where we went. We had some horns, a fiddle and a banjo. We went by a barroom and got some liquor. Dr. Durham would go on a spree and when he did, he would want to get in a fight. He would fight only when necessary, as he proved on one occasion. Dr. Durham weighed about 200 pounds. He came in late one night. He knew [his landlord] Andrew Turner had a dog. On that occasion, he was in the yard and the dog came toward him, the dog not having a block on him. Dr. Durham got the dog in the collar and mastered him and sat down on him. ...

"Dr. Durham never got married. He knocked around with the women a great deal, and he died at a woman's house by the name of Dollarhite. ... Dr. Durham was a fine man and when he was sober, he was strong and courageous. ..."

According to Hiram Paul, who published a "History of the Town of Durham" in 1884, Bartlett Durham became the first railroad agent in town, and was part owner of the first store. The record does show that by 1852, he had a license to sell liquor at a general store - even though, as an Orange County representative in the General Assembly, he introduced a bill to form a chapter of the Sons of Temperance.

Lore has it Durham had a two-story home called Pandora's Box, near the present intersection of Corcoran Street and the Loop. The site would have been across the track from the depot he provided for; in later years, it "I would be the site of Julian Carr's grandiose Carolina Hotel, then of the Durham Hosiery Mill. Today, it's a parking lot.

Antioch Church is guarded, fore and aft, by sturdy old oaks, and its churchyard is ringed on three sides by bare oak woods. At the trees' edge, brush has caught windblown bits of remembrance; bright splashes of plastic flower and ribbon, snarled in the colorless scrub.

Dampness blows up out of the steep gully behind the church. One end of the graveyard is a Christmas tree of artificial wreaths and bows, a tag of the '90s. But most of the place, with its mossy and weathered stones, is Everytime.

Most of the stones are uniform, upright rectangles, though there are enough elaborate monuments to give the place visual and historic interest. Some are deceptively new, such as the stone of the Quakenbush couple, dead these 145 years - fresh, shiny and legible. But there are more, many more that testify to the anonymity that is for all of us our final resting place.

John W. Stone, son of Haywood and Adeline, "Born April 8, 1843, killed in action at ... " The earth has risen, the marker sunk, so the rest of the inscription is gone from sight.

There are Durham graves all over. But the Old Doc was laid with his mother's people, one frozen winter day, the story goes, after lying in state for a night at the hotel in Chapel Hill. It leads one to wonder -

Because this place is still so far from the other. Not even five miles from the Triangle fringe, from new subdivisions with cutesy names like "Sturbridge" and "Stoneybrook," but it's already a different world, one of dairy farms and junky trailers, pine woods and working pastures and old fields gone back to broomstraw. It would have been a different place even back when, when young Bartlett went to sow his oats and sing his songs in the towns a-borning, and when they brought him home.

And the road from town, the Old Greensborough Highway - its now part of the state's bicycle-route and scenic-byway systems, and from Antioch it runs on toward old places where the past would have still been fresh when Bartlett was helping the world change around him: Snow Camp, the Quaker settlement; the battle sites at Lindley's Mill and Alamance; the almost-ghost milltown just up the river at Saxapahaw.

In this churchyard, those seem closer than the other.

As with many things about Durhamville, lore credits "Gen." Julian Carr (a Confederate private during the fighting, a rich man during the remembering) with the idea of bringing Bartlett Durham's body to the town he - as things worked out - helped create.

But it was after Carr's passing that some outfit called the American Business Club actually got the show on the road, so to speak.

The body was dug up June 27, 1933, with accompanying ceremony before a crowd of hundreds at Antioch Church. S.B. Turrentine, president of Greensboro College and a native of southwest Orange County, gave the principal address; there was also a remembrance by Mebane Edwards, who had attended Durham's funeral as a 10-year-old slave.

(What most impressed him at the funeral, Edwards told the crowd, was Dr. Durham's cook: "She was dressed in green silk from her head to her feet and she sure was pretty.")

Durham's grave had never been marked, but had been located when the movement to move it got serious a few years before. Sure enough, excavators found the iron coffin with a small glass plate through which the doctor's features were clearly visible perfectly preserved, along with his bow tie, high collar, pleated shirt and gold-rimmed spectacles.

Mayor W.F. Carr and County Commissioner John Harris officially accepted the body for the city and county. It was transported to Hall-Wynne Funeral Home, where it lay on public view for several days. Reburial took place Jan. 2, 1934.

And that's where he belongs. This, after all, is the place he left - for the same reasons then that, now, in quizzical turnabout, the city keeps groping back.

And why the rambling road, with its dips and rises toward distant hills, and its curves taken for no apparent purpose except the sheer aesthetic pleasure, call with something like a summons home.

Jim Wise writes a weekly travel column on Gateways. To reach him, call 419-6680 or e-mail jew@herald-sun.com.

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Copyright 2003 Henry Nicholson
Last modified: June 15, 2009