||For most of us a walk through the Duke Forest is more than fresh air and tall trees.
It is an escape from manmade surroundings to Mother Nature's paradise. Walking along
a barely distinguishable trail, taking refreshment in what appears to be the virginal
out-of-doors, one imagines undisturbed generations of wildlife touched only by the
changing seasons. If, by mistake or romantic inclination, the nature-lover leaves
the trail and discovers the vacated furrows or abandoned farm houses, the surrounding
forest, once perceived as pure and unchanged, takes on a new identity. Here are retired
farmlands where fields and pastures have, over the decades and generations, grown
into woodlots and meadows.
Who farmed this land and for how long? What crops and livestock did the farmer cultivate
and raise? What sorts of agricultural techniques and implements did he employ? Whom,
and how many people did the land support? What were the consequences for the land
when generations of farmers stripped the forest and tilled the soil? These are but
a few of the questions a detailed study of the land-use practices of the Couch Tract
of the Durham Division of the Duke Forest answers. Finally, why was this land, after
spending two hundred years in the same family, permanently retired and eventually
sold to Duke University in 1947?
Such a study relies extensively on primary sources, such as estate papers, wills,
personal letters, family papers, land deeds, and population, agricultural and slave
census schedules. In addition, this kind of land-use analysis utilizes soil surveys,
aerial photographs and forest cover maps. Tax lists, legal papers and oral histories
are other important resource tools for land-use research and analysis.
This thesis is a case study of the history of a family of small farmers and their
attempts, over five generations, to get a living from their land. This thesis examines
possibilities and the limits of certain agricultural practices and the intelligent
yet doomed approach to landuse the Couchs chose.
This study does not just seek to find out about a family and its farm. Rather, it
attempts to discover the different stages of change and the reasons for those changes.
For instance; when did the farm begin producing for the market and why, why were some
crops cultivated early in the history of the farm and others later?
Most historical studies of agricultural practices in the South focus on the southern
plantation. Historians such as William C. Bagley, Philip A. Courtney, Susan Dabney
Smedes, and Julius Rubin have studied the failure of the southern plantation and have
provided us with rich and detailed information on the southern planter. Although plantations
produced the bulk of the staple crops of the South, small farmers made up the majority
of rural Southerners. The study of the historical significance of the small southern
farm and its agricultural practices--how it adapted to change and its eventual collapse--has
just begun. This investigation of the Couch family lands represents a contribution
to that history.