Curtis Booker hadn’t been over to Leigh Farm in a while, so he paid a call the other day and he found the place rather depressing.
“Not particularly inviting,” he said. “It leaves a lot to the imagination in terms of a historic site.”
It was, though, an overcast Friday afternoon, the place is sort of off the beaten track and maybe not that many other people know that it’s a public park yet.
By way of introduction, Leigh Farm is an 1830s farmstead in southern Durham, homeplace of Richard Stanford Leigh, a father of 20 and grandfather to 89 to whom, according to Booker, a thousand or so Durham-area households can today claim kin. His included.
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The old farmhouse is still there, along with the smokehouse and corn crib Yankee soldiers raided in 1865. There’s a log slave cabin with a chimney made of wooden sticks that has survived for all these years, a carriage house and a grapevine more than 100 years old.
Leigh Farm is Durham’s newest city park, but for Curtis Booker it’s family, and he really has more to do with its becoming a public park instead of a stretch of Interstate 40 than anybody else.
What happened was, forty years ago Curtis Booker got word the highway was coming through his family’s land. He remembers the day – June 16, 1974, and how that word sounded to him – “like doom.”
Booker, a walking encyclopedia of Durham-Chapel Hill history, had loved the farm all his life. A high-school English teacher, he enlisted some of his students to spend the Fourth of July with him documenting what all stood in the bulldozers’ path for an ultimately successful nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.
A few months later, he set out to have the place not just protected but preserved, making a pitch at the very first meeting of the Historic Preservation Society of Durham (now Preservation Durham). He talked to the city, he talked to developers, he talked to the state and to the Junior League, but nothing was working out until his Aunt Cleora Hudson went to have a look.
By this time, the farm was being rented out and its most recent tenant had been a rock band. The place was essentially a wreck. Aunt Cleora, who had lived there, saw the state the place was in and “went ballistic,” Booker recalled. She was then agreeable to deeding her part of the property to the Historic Preservation Foundation of North Carolina (now Preservation North Carolina).
With a tract of about 90 acres subsequently assembled, the state took possession with an agreement that the city of Durham would develop and use the farm as a historic park – a southern equivalent of West Point on the Eno north of town.
That was in 1995. A formal opening for the Leigh Farm, according to the city parks’ website, is coming sometime this fall.
But developing has been done. Leigh Farm Road leading in has a nice new sidewalk, but with the widened right of way it has lost the quality of a country lane it had in years gone by. There’s a big new paved parking lot and a visitors center (formerly the doublewide Amshack that passed for Durham’s train depot). There are picnic tables, and paved paths, and a sign here and there.
Back in 1995, Booker contemplated the family farm’s future. He wanted to see it active, he said, with people in the yard doing things. Last week, he went to see what had been done.
“There’s nothing going on,” he said. “It looks abandoned.”
He had a point. No doubt, there will be times it looks different, when there will be activity and people in the yard doing things. On an gray weekday mid-afternoon, it just looked – frankly, like it needed a little tender loving care.
So it’s not hard to understand why Curtis Booker felt depressed. Still, though – the farm is there, it’s not an anonymous slab of asphalt, and when the public finds its way there it will come alive like he imagined it would. And the citizens of Durham are richer for Curtis Booker’s efforts.
When you see him, tell him thanks. To him, it’s kinda personal. Hits home, don’t you know. Family is like that.