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The More Things Change: Kin and Community on the Pickett Farm

This aerial photo shows the land along Pickett Road as it looked in 1940. Click the picture to see it in closer detail. (Photo and labels courtesy of Steve Bowen)

Today, The Forest at Duke is a fully developed, bustling community with several hundred people on site at any given moment. But if we venture back in time, things were very different before the organization set up shop at 2701 Pickett Road in Durham in 1992.

Take it from Randy Bishop, a retiree and Durham native. Randy grew up in the white clapboard house across the street from The Forest – a home his parents built in 1938 after buying the land from one of the many Pickett families on the road. At the end of the Bishops’ property, there was a split between two properties, one of which belonged to James (Jim) Washington Pickett and his wife, Lizzie May Teer Pickett (sister of Nello L. Teer, Sr., of the famed construction company).

Looking back with fondness

There were three sets of Bishops on Pickett during Randy’s childhood, and though the Bishops and Picketts were of no relation, they were good friends from the time the Bishops first bought land from the Pickett family. The road was originally populated by Pickett families who were all related, as was Cornwallis Road.

This lovely painting of Jim and Lizzie Pickett’s farm house was painted by late Forest resident Bob Blake. The piece depicts the still-standing cluster of oak trees that surrounded the home, situated on the edge of The Forest at Duke property line beside Pickett Road.

Jim and Lizzie’s farm began on the other side of Pickett Road, right before Wade Road, and extended all the way into the large plot of land that is home to The Forest at Duke today. “It was a working, productive farm,” Randy describes.

Along with two sisters, Ruth Pickett, one of Jim’s relatives, owned the land where the present-day Fountain View Lane homes are situated. His property and Jim’s land split on the other side of the pond. Wesley (Wes) Newton Pickett, one of Jim’s younger brothers, owned the land where all of the Forest apartments were built. His son, Cary Newton Pickett, owned the brick home across the street from the community. All of Cary’s property has now since been developed into Cameron Woods.

A window into the past

Hints of the original Pickett farm house still exist on The Forest at Duke property. If one exits the main gate of the community and turns left onto Pickett Road, one would see a cluster of tall oaks about 200 yards down on the left. Jim and Lizzie Pickett’s farm house once stood nestled within those trees.

The pond on the property was part of the landscape well before The Forest at Duke came to be.

Randy Bishop remembers the layout of the Pickett farm quite well. Beside the farm house, he says, going up to where the Fountain View Lane homes were finished in 2015, was an expanse of pasture land. There Jim Pickett kept his livestock. Behind the Pickett home was a meat house, a chicken coop, a tenant house, and a handful of tobacco curing barns, two of which were retained when The Forest was built.

“The majority of [Jim’s] tobacco farm is where all [The Forest at Duke] buildings are, going back the other way on Pickett, toward Academy,” Randy recalls. In those days, the sea of tobacco plants extended all the way up to the boundary, to the part of the land Duke University owns today. This encompasses The Forest’s community garden, as well as the property behind and around Caring House.

Life on the Pickett farm

Though tobacco was the farm’s primary crop, the Picketts also kept small vegetable gardens to help feed their family – just enough to sustain them. If they had any excess, they could take the extra crops into town to sell.

Another aerial photograph, this time taken in 1955, depicts the plentiful farmland along Pickett Road. Click the picture to see it in closer detail. (Photo and labels courtesy of Steve Bowen)

The Picketts kept a vast array of livestock and furry friends on their farm – some out of necessity, others because Mrs. Pickett had a soft spot for animals. Randy Bishop remembers watching Jim Pickett plow his fields with a team of horses. Jim also used mules for farming, cows for their milk, and chickens for their eggs. The Picketts never had any children, and Lizzie was very fond of her animals, always loving on them as though they were her children. Mrs. Pickett had a goat and something like 20 cats on the farm at a time.

According to Randy, Jim Pickett was not a fan of the cats, nor did he particularly care for Lizzie’s goat. The goat had a penchant for climbing cars, particularly Lizzie’s grey 1949 Cadillac. This proclivity didn’t become a problem until the Picketts received guests at their home. Well-to-do members of the Teer family visited the farmstead in their nice cars, and the goat showed no restraint.

Two tobacco curing barns from Jim and Lizzie Pickett’s farm, preserved by the developers when The Forest at Duke was built, serve as a reminder of the property’s past.

There were sharecroppers on the Pickett property in the early years of the tobacco farm – likely a few different families. Jim Pickett also worked a lot of day labor from town, particularly during tobacco season. The men toiled with tobacco sleds and mules, falling the plants, picking the leaves off of the tobacco, and putting the leaves on their sleds to take to the tobacco barns for curing.

From rural to developed

Up until the mid-1950s, Randy Bishop recalls, Pickett Road was very rural. It was paved sometime around 1950, but had been a farm-to-market dirt road, as were nearby Garrett and Cornwallis Roads. Over time, Pickett Road properties were bought up, and many new homes were added. Beyond the Bishops and the Picketts who had populated the land for so long, new faces, including Red Lewis (business manager of Duke Athletics, 1947-71), took up residence.

Nearby Chapel Hill Boulevard was built in the 1950s. Up to that point, Jim and Lizzie Pickett’s property led up to that area. When the road was drawn, however, the developers bought up a little bit of their land and developed it into a motel, restaurants, and a few other establishments, most of which don’t exist anymore.

“The construction has been unbelievable,” Randy Bishop says of watching Pickett Road and the surrounding areas transform over the years since his youth.

Just past Wade Road, the land where Montessori School of Durham stands today was actually the last piece of property along Pickett that “held out” before virtually nothing was recognizable to area natives. All of the road before development was “open acres, great farmland, great woods,” Randy says. “Now it resembles nothing [as I remember it].”

Maintaining a presence on Pickett

Randy and Judi Bishop enjoyed tending a small garden plot on the Pickett farm. This, even after the property became overgrown with pine trees. Lizzie Pickett gave them her blessing to do so. (Photo courtesy of Randy and Judi Bishop)

Randy remained on Pickett Road until he finished college in 1969. His parents and other relatives lived on the road until they passed away.

Even after he moved away from his childhood home, Randy Bishop and his wife, Judi, kept a garden on the Pickett property. This was from 1969 until well into the 1980s, while Lizzie Pickett still lived in the old farm house. The Bishops owned a very small portion of the land; the rest of it grew up with pine trees very quickly.

The garden was “a good ways down behind the house, fairly near the pond,” Randy explains. Standing behind the Pickett house, looking down toward the pond, “our garden was all over the left.” Many outbuildings on the farm—including the tobacco curing barns, storage shed, and tenant house—guarded the plot.

Jim Pickett passed away in 1970 at 82 years old, and no one else remained to care for the crops. As such, the property lay untended for about 10-15 years. Shortly before she died, Lizzie Pickett left her land and moved into town to live with her nephew, Thomas Teer. He had a home on what was then Milton Avenue (now Buchanan Street, where Immaculate Conception Catholic Church is located).

Lizzie’s legacy of love

Lizzie Pickett kept lifetime rights to the farm, however, including the house. She left all of her twenty-something cats behind when she made her big move; caring a great deal about their wellbeing, though, she had Randy Bishop’s dad visit the farm every day to take cat food and milk to her beloved felines.

The Bishops continued to care for their vegetable garden on the Pickett farm for many years. This photo shows how vegetation quickly took over the land when the farm was no longer active. The mass of trees in the background stands where a wide field of tobacco once thrived. Picture taken in August 1975. (Photo courtesy of Randy and Judi Bishop)

Her great love for animals continued well past her days on the old farmstead, according to Randy. At her nephew’s home in town, Lizzie fed the squirrels, pigeons, and other animal visitors, much to the neighbors’ chagrin. She was quick to defend her actions, though: “They’ve got to eat, too!”

For the last several years of Lizzie’s life, up until her death at 92 years old in 1986, the Bishops visited Mrs. Pickett at Thomas Teer’s home every Sunday after church. Randy and Judi brought their two children with them to see their friend, and Mrs. Pickett always looked forward to their visits.

A farm no longer

Years before the ground breaking ceremony for The Forest at Duke in the summer of 1990, a construction crew cleared part of the land for a short-lived condominium project. The original developers for those plans bought the land directly from Lizzie Pickett. They got as far as putting in concrete footings and building some of the structures about halfway. However, they soon abandoned the project due to economic conditions in the 1970s.

Another peek at one of the tobacco curing barns. Today the buildings serve as storage sheds and a picnic area backdrop at The Forest.

After the project was defunct, the old Pickett land went untouched for years.

The pine trees on the property soon began taking over the land once more. At the same time, the Crapos and their Duke Forest neighbors began dreaming of the retirement community to come. To save the tract, the friends began buying shares of the old Pickett farm property. This moved them ever closer to creating the home they envisioned.

Judi and Randy Bishop

Echoes of the past

Before The Forest at Duke, the failed condominium project, the Bishops’ garden, and Jim and Lizzie Pickett’s farm, what lay on these grounds? Exploring the fields across from The Forest as a young man, Randy Bishop stumbled upon bushels of arrowheads; to this day, he keeps many of them in a bowl on his mantel. These artifacts point to another civilization, most likely the Eno people who lived in the Piedmont of North Carolina during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Randy keeps these items for sentimental value, no doubt – perhaps to look back on his childhood with great fondness, or to recall simpler times on the Pickett Road he remembers. “Everybody knew everybody, and just about everybody went to Yates Church. The good ol’ days,” he smiles.

—Lauren Young, Marketing Specialist

Header image: Two tobacco curing barns from the Pickett farm, preserved by developers on The
Forest at Duke construction site, stand proudly among azaleas on the southwest corner of the
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