Southlandish! * Tobacco Road (part 1)


Tobacco Road   { Featured Southerly }

Around here, the term Tobacco Road is just another way to talk about basketball.

It’s a shorthand way for locals and diehards to refer to the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference and its four major North Carolina universities: Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

And who can deny the powerhouse supremacy of the storied teams that make Tobacco Road the stuff of legend?

But just how did a term that sounds more like an old farming path come to be synonymous with college basketball in North Carolina?

It all started with a trashy novel and a whole lot of tobacco.

Best I can tell, the first mention of Tobacco Road comes from the 1932 Erskine Caldwell book titled–you guessed it–Tobacco Road.  Interestingly enough, the book has nothing to do with basketball or North Carolina.

image courtesy Scribners

first edition image courtesy Scribners

It doesn’t even paint a favorable picture of life in the South.

Okay, it actually paints a repugnant, pulpy, and downright deplorable picture of the South. So much so that all these years later (not even a Southern publication!) is outraged anew, calling it a “greasy hairball of a novel—one of the sickest and most lurid books to have emerged from the literature of the American South” and recounts that at the time of the book’s popularity one “local police chief said that if Caldwell [the author] ever came crawling back, he’d run him out of town on a rail.” *

I’m not recommending the book.

But I am interested in figuring out exactly how it happened that the title Tobacco Road was transferred from the Georgia backwoods to the North Carolina Piedmont and how it went from referring to “hillbilly degeneracy” to the prestigious programs of “the nation’s college basketball heartland.” **

Location, Location, Location: These days when we talk about Tobacco Road what we mean is the heart of North Carolina–as a region of the state’s geography for sure and maybe, just maybe, as a fair-to-middling piece of its soul as well.

Big Four map - image courtesy accbasketballrxWhen applied to North Carolina basketball, Tobacco Road is not really so much a road as it is a general location or a sort of rallying esprit de corps for fans throughout the Old North State in general. Plainly, there is no actual street named “Tobacco Road” that connects the state’s universities (and their basketball programs).

That said, however, over time Tobacco Road has been used with reference to at least 3 different real-life thoroughfares: old Highway 70; U.S. Route 15-501; and, today, the 108-mile east-to-west stretch of I-40 between Raleigh and Winston-Salem.

But it was not always thus.

Before I-40, before Wake Forest University relocated to Winston-Salem in 1956, before the Atlantic Coast Conference was even organized–Tobacco Road initially designated the 30-mile radius of “the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle, the heart and soul of Tobacco Road” and the original home of the local universities known for almost 100 years as The Big Four:

• the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,
• Duke University,
• North Carolina State University, and
• Wake Forest University (which, at the time, was located in the city of Wake Forest, just a bit north of Raleigh). **

The North Carolina universities referred to as the Big Four are called such because there are four of them and they are big–not just in size but also in history and athletic prowess.

And it just so happens that the Big Four all reside in the area of North Carolina known as the Piedmont–that is, the foothills, the middle part of the state with its 200 miles of rolling terrain between the mountains and the coast.

And the area that has seen most of the state’s farming and manufacturing.

Especially in tobacco.

In fact, it was Piedmont’s dual dominance in both agriculture and industry that gave rise over time to the “Big Tobacco” business that has long defined the state’s commerce.

image courtesy of

Postcard: Tobacco Warehouse in Wallace, NC

Big Tobacco: Although this country’s first tobacco was grown in Virginia in the early 1600s, it really took hold in the North Carolina soil, especially in the Piedmont.

First introduced to North Carolina sometime between the Lost Colony (1587) and the signing of the Declaration of Independence (1776), tobacco has been a staple in North Carolina’s economy for pretty much its whole statehood.

By the 1900s, tobacco was the state’s primary export, and “North Carolina was internationally recognized as America’s leading source of tobacco.” The North Carolina tobacco industry peaked around the mid-1900s, when the production of “nearly 1 billion pounds of leaf” in 1955. ****

Just as Big Tobacco was in full bloom in the heartland of North Carolina in the 1950s, another very different pursuit was also making its claim to fame at the very same time and in the very same region:


College basketball.

to be continued…

part two • beautiful obsession
{ in which Tobacco Road becomes a basketball dynasty }

Lagniappe (a little something thrown in for good measure):

  • Barstow road sign - image courtesy James McCallum via PinterestI-40 runs east to west right smack through the middle of the state–and indeed, clear across the country as well. In fact, where the road begins in the North Carolina city of Wilmington (hometown of basketball great Michael Jordan, formerly of UNC-CH) is a road sign stating the mileage to Barstow, California, the end of the line–2,554 miles, to be precise.
  • Of course, all of this Big Tobacco business was not without scandal. A lightning-quick summary of the major points of Big Tobacco controversy:
    • The labor-intensive nature of cultivating tobacco in the early days of the state very likely contributed significantly to a “plantation economy based on slave labor”;
    • The monopoly of the industry by the American Tobacco (as organized by James B. Duke, who disassociated himself from the industry and later financed the founding of Duke University) led to the Supreme Court order in 1911 to dissolve the corporation into six subsidiaries, including Philip Morris, Brown and Williamson, and R.J. Reynolds.
    • An on-going myriad of health-related hearings, lawsuits, and settlements confronted the state’s tobacco manufactures throughout the latter half of twentieth century. ****
    • In spite of its decline due to health concerns, economic issues, and societal trends, the North Carolina tobacco industry still remains a top world producer.

Sources: {click title of online source to visit}

Dennis, Brady. “Basketball Road: The Story of ACC Basketball.” Our State. July 2012. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.

Featherston, Alwyn. Tobacco Road: Duke, Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest & the History of the Most Intense Backyard Rivalries in Sports. Guilford, Conn.: Lyons Press, 2006. Print. **

Garner, Dwight. “Pulp Valentine: Erskine Caldwell’s Lurid Vision of the American South.” 24 May 2006. Web. 19 Mar. 2015. *

Kamberg, Mary-Lane. America’s Most Winning Teams: North Carolina Basketball. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2014. Print. (juvenile lit)

Simpson-Vos, Mark. “Basketball.” Encyclopedia of North Carolina. Ed. William Powell. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina Press, 2006. Print. 95-98. ***

Yeargin, W.W. “Tobacco.” Encyclopedia of North Carolina. Ed. William Powell. Chapel Hill: U of NC Press, 2006. Print. 1120-1122. ****

Images Sources: {click title of online source to visit}

Barstow road sign: image courtesy James McCallum via Pinterest @

NC basketball map:

Big Four Cover:

tobacco warehouse postcard:

unless otherwise noted * graphics, photographs, text © 2015-2017 hilary hall

Visit the online shop at clover & pine on Etsy to view graphic art and custom designs.



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