The independent news organization of Duke University

Chronquiry: What are the roots of the Duke Forest and why is it still here today?

Chronquiry: What are the roots of the Duke Forest and why is it still here today?
  Special to the Chronicle

Stretching across Durham, Orange and Alamance Counties, the Duke Forest spans more than 7,000 acres and serves as a bastion for teaching and research.

“The mission of the Duke Forest is to facilitate research that addresses fundamental and applied questions across a variety of disciplines and to aid in the instruction of all students in their pursuit of knowledge, especially regarding the stewardship of our natural resources,” reads the Duke Forest bulletin, the LOG.

The Forest makes up more than 80 percent of the University's land as a whole. Most of it came from a slave-owning family that fell on hard times after the Civil War, allowing Duke to buy it relatively cheaply early in the 20th century. Duke has put it to better use since then, turning it into a world-renowned hub for forestry research at a minimal cost to the University.

Retracing history 

Director of Duke Forest Sara Childs delivered a presentation in 2017 to retrace the history of the Duke Forest. She provided The Chronicle with the text of the presentation.

When the James B. Duke family began to “[finance] land purchases” in 1924, “land prices began to skyrocket,” sparking Duke to “[threaten] to build a university in Charlotte.” Then-President William Preston Few “[sought] out a buying agent,” and Murray Jones, a local realtor, bought land for approximately $1.7 million. 

Although there is some uncertainty to the exact figure, Robert Durden’s "The Dukes of Durham" described that the $1.76 million was in exchange for 8,000 acres, and 5,000 acres of that land became the Duke Forest in 1931, according to the text of the presentation.

But why was so much land available? Childs explained in her presentation that farmers in the 1800s followed a practice of continually clearing new land, leaving “unproductive fields” with “soil erosion and nutrient loss” until “they simply ran out of arable land.” 

“So when Murray Jones went searching, it was this glut of degraded farmland and interspersed woodlots that he was able to secure,” the presentation says. “Signs of the land’s agricultural past, like erosion gullies and old-field furrows, are still visible in the Forest today.”

The Couch family

Families in the 1900s departed from their farms in search of jobs in the tobacco and textile mills in cities. A family with a similar story that played a role in the history of Duke Forest is the Couch Family. 

Rachel Frankel, a former Duke student, completed a thesis entitled, "The Couch Tract of the Duke Forest - Learning From Land-Use," in which she traces the family’s involvement in the Duke Forest.

In the late 18th century, according to Frankel’s thesis, the Couch family purchased 300 acres of land in Orange County. The Couch family farmed the land from its inception and had “a few slaves at this time” that “continuously grew in number” as the farm became more profitable. By 1822, Thomas Couch Jr. owned 25 slaves.

The Couch family owned much of the land that is now the southwest portion of the Duke Forest. Their cabin is now being used for the Deer Management Assistance Program and other fun events. 
The Couch family owned much of the land that is now the southwest portion of the Duke Forest. Their cabin is now being used for the Deer Management Assistance Program and other fun events. 

“Just as Thomas Couch, Jr. purchased land to endow his children, he acquired slaves to ensure that his heirs would have a reliable and renewable labor force to farm their land,” Frankel wrote.

When Couch died, he had 1,600 acres of land, and he willed his slaves to his six sons. Upon his son William’s death, the land that is now known as Duke Forest was willed to William's fifth son, John W. Couch. 

Along with the land, John “was allotted two male slaves, ‘valued at eight hundred dollars and two hundred and twenty four dollars in cash paid to him by two of his siblings, making his lot equal to theirs.’” 

The once-profitable farm was not so profitable after the Civil War, as their field practices exhausted the soil and eroded the land. The Couch family “was without slaves and faced with high reconstruction prices.” 

“Not only would the young farmer have to pay higher taxes than his father had, but he would have to hire labor and pay a wage," Frankel wrote. 

By the late 19th century, “the steady depletion of the soil and the bleak outlook it created for the farm did not evade John W. Couch.” He sent his son, J.W.T. Couch, to a prep school in Greensboro, making him the first in five generations to receive a secondary education.

As the Couches could not rely on their tenants to pay rent or take good care of their property, tenancy continued to pose problems for the Couches, in addition to their “burden of taxes and other expenses.”

“It is no wonder that in 1947, when Duke University offered to buy the Couch's property they readily agreed,” Frankel wrote. “Not only did Duke offer the Couch's relief from the burdens of taxes and tenants, but Duke allowed the Couch's to continue to live on their property as long as they choose.”

Ultimately, Duke buying the land would result in no more need for tenants, allowing J.W.T. Couch to move back into his house and live on the land where he had grown up.

According to an online cemetery survey, members of the Couch family are still buried in the Duke Forest today. The website describes seven Couches and their relationship to others in the family, such as William A. Couch Sr. and John W. Couch.

“There were 3 graves marked by worn and partially illegible gravestones and some 27 others marked by fieldstones and/or depressions,” the website says.

A special Duke Forest project in 2018 was to restore the Couch family cabin. The cabin has been in its current place in the southwest region for more than 100 years, and the Forest endeavors to preserve its cultural history. As the boards for its front porch were decaying, the historic cabin was renovated through replacing those boards with lumber from a white oak tree in the Forest.

In 2018, the Duke Forest restored the Couch family cabin, which has been on the land for over a century, by replacing the front porch with local White Oak.
In 2018, the Duke Forest restored the Couch family cabin, which has been on the land for over a century, by replacing the front porch with local White Oak.

Why buy the land?

Childs provided three reasons to explain why so much land was purchased, as “neither the Dukes nor the administration intended to build a campus that large.” 

As the Dukes were “incredibly successful industrialists,” they were the cognizant of significance of “creating and controlling access to the campus” via nearby roads and railroads.

“So they pursued the acquisition of land on which they could build a road that linked existing major roadways—this connector is what we now know as [Highway] 751 or Academy Road closer to campus, and the land surrounding it became the core of what is now the forest’s largest division–the Durham Division,” the document says.

As the Forest is used for educational purposes, most of the land is exempt from local property taxes, but a small section of the Forest next to Highway 751 is next to a private development and thus is taxed. Michael Schoenfeld, vice president of public affairs and government relations, wrote in an email that, according to its last tax bill, the parcel only costs $385.

However, Schoenfeld wrote in an email that sections of Duke’s 9,000 acres are “put on the tax rolls if it is for another purpose.” He also emphasized that Duke pays millions each year in property taxes on various commercial properties.

“In addition, and importantly, Duke voluntarily pays more than $8 million a year in property taxes through leases of commercial space throughout Durham, including downtown,” Schoenfeld wrote. “These leases would otherwise be considered tax exempt, but Duke has chosen to pay the full amount in order to keep commercial property on the tax rolls and support important public services.”

The second objective of purchasing thousands of acres extended the Dukes' 20-year involvement in the hydropower industry.

“So when they learned of a nearby creek that had provided power for several mill sites, Duke directed the acquisition of the land surrounding it,” the document says. “The power potential never materialized, but the land became the core of what is now the forest’s second largest division (now named the Korstian Division), which protects several miles of New Hope Creek, an important drinking water source.”

New Hope Creek has been a part of a recent project of the Duke Forest, according to the bulletin, due to its recovery from Hurricane Florence flooding in September 2018. As the rainfall far exceeded the limits of its floodplains, the bulletin noted the “superhuman tasks” of the Duke Forest field team to restore the creek.

“Such high, rushing water significantly damaged road culverts and undermined bridge abutments,” the brochure says. “While some trees also fell, the scale and scope of this damage was minimal compared to what we originally expected when the storm was initially forecast.”

The Dukes also viewed the new land as an opportunity to discover quarries with specimens of volcanic stone to be able to use for the campus’s Tudor Gothic style. They found such stone in an abandoned quarry near Hillsborough, North Carolina. 

Buying the quarry and the surrounding land, this section became the Hillsborough Division of the Duke Forest, “also [protecting] a mile of Eno River frontage.”

“This stone possessed beautiful hues of blue, yellow, green, gray, black, and brown,” Childs' presentation document says. “Besides its unique aesthetic, it would be significantly cheaper than the stone from the north.”

Few, a former Harvard University graduate student, also recognized the academic potential of the Duke Forest, as he thought a similar model to Harvard’s forest could be used at Duke. This use of the land for research could also provide guidance as to “how to restore the productivity of the land."

A research establishment

In the 1930s, Clarence Korstian, hailing from Yale, became the first director of the Duke Forest and established the forest to act as a teaching and research lab. Integrating their past involvements in the Harvard and Yale Forests respectively, Few and Korstian shaped the educational purposes of the forest into the Duke Forest Teaching and Research Laboratory today.

“[The Duke Forest] was officially established in 1931 when Few put almost 5000 acres under the care of Dr. Clarence Korstian–the first Director of the Duke Forest and seven years later, the founding dean of the first graduate school of forestry in the south,” Childs' document says.

The data Korstian collected almost 90 years ago is still used and expanded by those at the Forest who continue his tradition of paving the way for groundbreaking research on forest succession.

Ranging from doctoral students in the School of Forestry to institutions from across the country, academics utilize the Duke Forest as a research hub to advance fields such as forest economics, aqua-terrestrial biogeochemistry and global climate change. The Forest has specifically progressed the study of Piedmont forests and the theory of old field succession.

Last year, Christopher Payne, a PhD candidate at the time, presented his dissertation "The Long-term Temporal Dynamics of the Duke Forest." Working on the project for eight years, Payne used some of Korstian’s permanent plots and new data from hundreds of thousands of trees to be able to draw observations from decades of historic data.

“Payne discovered that more stands are transitioning to species that are more moisture tolerant than Oaks and Hickories, like Maple and Beech,” the Forest bulletin says. “He also found that secondary hardwood forests, while already surpassing the typical biomass volumes found in old-growth stands, continue to gain more biomass at a higher than expected rate.”

As Payne’s research shows that the Forest could undergo shifts that may not be as forecasted, Payne and Robert Peet are attempting to preserve the Forest’s history through collaborations with the Duke Forest Office and Duke Digital Repository. They aim to fashion “a comprehensive digital record” along with “a complete paper file housed in Duke Archives” to document the past and current changes of the Forest.

The Duke Forest is now an important research hub for forestry and environmental research, as well as citizen science initiatives. In the Rhododendron Bluffs in the Korstian Division, Director Sara Childs is leading a first-year orientation tour.

In addition to continuing to maintain its goals of preserving the past, the Forest also is looking to the future of getting others involved. Over time, there has been an increased demand from the public to become involved in scientific research, otherwise known as citizen science. 

The Forest’s first citizen science initiative started last summer. Teaching 20 community volunteers, staff at the Forest showed the public how to “identify, photograph and document” various amphibians and reptiles. According to the Forest bulletin, their research will then be used to gain more insight into more than 60 different species in the Forest and “inform strategies to better protect them.”

“In the spring, we hope to launch another citizen science project that will focus on tree phenology, specifically the timing of flowering and leaf out,” the bulletin says. “We hope to use this data to better understand the seasonal cycles for a variety of dominant tree species in the Duke Forest.”

Editor's note: This article is a product of a service run by The Chronicle called Chronquiry. A reader submitted a question, other readers voted on the question and The Chronicle got the answer. If you have a question you would like answered about anything related to Duke, visit or submit a question below: