I confess that I judged Jean Bradley Anderson's Durham County, in a new second edition, by its cover. But hear me out. Near the center of the 1920s photo of downtown Durham is a building bearing the words, "E.H. & M.V. Lawrence Wholesale and Millers." As it happens, I own the house E.H. Lawrence built in 1905, not far from his business. That made me want to read.
History is personal, for the writer as well as the reader. Jean Bradley Anderson moved to Durham in 1955 when her husband, Carl, was hired by the English department at Duke University. They lived on Chapel Hill Road for about a decade and then, inspired by a sabbatical to Norway, decided to move to the country.
"By word of mouth, we heard of this place out on the Eno," Anderson says. "Neither of us had ever lived in the country before, so it was really daring to take it on."
There wasn't much there. "A well. A country road," she says, stark as Samuel Beckett, who would have been delighted by the old graveyard on the Andersons' land. She got interested in the people buried there and began to look into their histories.
Her study soon grew more urgent. Right when the Andersons moved to the Eno, the City of Durham was making plans to dam the river for a reservoir. The ensuing controversy was, as Anderson puts it in Durham County, "a classic case of grassroots power successfully pitted against a bureaucracy." The Andersons and their friends, "the indomitable, articulate, deceptively soft-spoken Margaret Rodger Nygard" and her husband, Holger (like Carl Anderson a Duke English professor of Scandinavian descent), were among a "small group of Eno landowners [who] recruited sympathizers in their effort to preserve a natural resource close to the city in its wild and free state."
Hoping to help convince the bureaucracy of the necessity of preserving a valuable historical site, "I began to do research in the [Duke Library] manuscripts room looking for anything that pertained to the original families that lived along the river," Anderson says. "This was the beginning of my discovery of the treasures in the manuscript room, and I was hooked.
"And that was the beginning of my interest in the whole area," Anderson says. In time, she established herself as a local historian and genealogist.
Its Eno River episode notwithstanding, Durham County is no memoir. Anderson's thorough and traditional 600-page history goes at least as far back as 1701, when a surveyor named John Lawson found "the Country, thro' which we pass'd [...] so delightful, that it gave us a great deal of Satisfaction." Lawson met the "Enoe-Indians," who fed him "hot Bread, and Bear's-Oil; which is wholesome Food for Travellers. The Enoes "struck up Musick to serenade and welcome us to Their town."
The new edition brackets that early history with recent. Durham County, first published in 1990, had gone out of print, and the Preservation Society of Durham, which had commissioned Anderson to write the first edition, "felt that there should be available a county history in print," she says. "They asked me if I wanted to make corrections or additions [for the second edition], and I wanted to do so much that they decided it would be better to make a new edition and add some information."
The book's new final chapter, "City and County to Millennium's End," details, among other trends, the leftward movement of Durham's government, the boom of Research Triangle Park, the balancing of development with environmental concerns (Margaret Nygard pops up again) and Latino immigration—Durham's Hispanic population has increased by more than 1,000 percent since 1980.
Asked to name Durham's most important development over the last quarter century, Anderson—like Nygard "articulate and deceptively soft-spoken," as well as gracious, inquisitive and sociable—is quick to respond. "The arts," she says, unequivocally. "Tourism is very important to the economy, and as a part of tourism the arts are absolutely essential."
Unsurprisingly, "City and County to Millennium's End" concludes the second edition of Durham County with a six-page survey of Durham's burgeoning arts and culture over the last two decades. "High among Durham's assets was its flourishing artistic life and the artists who created it," Anderson writes, adding that "there was nothing provincial about the influences to which Durham was exposed."
Although Anderson has "been here longer than most people, by now," she says, Durham remains something of "a mishmash to me. I can't make it out. Much of the original fabric had already been torn down when we moved here."
Anderson calls Durham "a rebuilt city" and fondly recalls the "wonderful old wooden houses" that once lined what is now South Mangum Street, which were torn down in the notorious "urban renewal" of the 1960s. "So I didn't have that sense of street after street of inhabitants" as she did in Philadelphia, where "I loved walking on the old streets, and thinking about the past and the old churchyards. I'm always looking back.
"When my children were very young," she remembers, "I would put them in the car and drive, but I always drove on unpaved country roads looking for and photographing old houses. That was my real delight. My hobby took me away from the city rather than towards the city."
Some of Durham County's old houses—its houses of worship—gave Anderson an important clue to understanding Durham's character. "The earliest churches in Orange County," which was founded more than a century before Durham County, "were all Presbyterian," Anderson says. "And there were no early Presbyterian churches in what is now known as Durham County.
"The churches were a clue. The people who came into Durham were from Virginia or eastern North Carolina, mostly Baptists and Methodists. The roads that brought them here were different from the Scotch-Irish who had carried their religion with them down through the Cumberland Gap, many of whom had settled in Hillsborough. So there was a natural population divide that separated the people in what became Durham County—ethnic and religious."
Perhaps it was moral, too. "Work became the new morality," Anderson writes in Durham County of the late 19th-century tobacco boom, which gave Durham its originating identity (and its bull mascot). "But perhaps most characteristic of Durham was an easygoing tolerance, a live-and-let-live philosophy," the book adds. (The modern slogan "Keep Durham Dirty" is, in a way, a spiritual descendant of that philosophy.)
The laissez-faire attitude may also have enabled Durham to embrace so much change in so short a time. The Dukes established the tobacco industry here and used its income to fund a university which, in turn, transformed Durham into the City of Medicine—allied with Research Triangle Park. With the consequent influx of a global population came the boom of the arts and culture.
"Everything was possible," Anderson says. "There were a lot of people with ideas when Durham was just beginning who came forward and did their thing. It's surprising to me how much people were able to do.
"It's the openness," she continues. "The opportunity was huge. I think that may be one of the keys to Durham's success. There's always been opportunity here for whatever you're interested in."