July 18, 2009
Years ago, on a walk in the woods with Kerry Pittman, we came upon a tree with spikey knotty bark. Kerry pulled out a large folding knife, expertly cut a piece of the bark and handed it to me. "Here, chew this," he said. As I did, I felt my mouth go numb. "Toothache tree," he said.
The tree cropped up again recently, this time a week ago in a classified ad in the Macon Beacon: "Wanted, Toothache Bark (Prickley Ash Bark) $2 per pound; Milkweed Root (Pleurisy Root) $2 per pound. Duke Pecan Company, West Point, MS."
I wanted to know more.
Duke Pecan Company is housed in a clutter of well-worn metal buildings on a West Point street that is a blend of residential and commercial (Three blocks away is Pappy''s Foodarama, another WP institution). The buildings and offices of the company are strictly utilitarian -- white walls, fluorescent lighting, metal office furniture. In addition to medicinal plants, the company buys, sells and shells pecans and trades furs. The Dukes also manufacture and sell animal traps and pecan shelling equipment.
Bill Duke says his family business has been buying toothache bark and pleurisy root for years. Duke, 37, works with his father, T.A., and brother, Garry, in a company his grandparents founded in the late 30s.
"Black people who live in south Lowndes and Noxubee counties harvest it (the milkweed and prickly ash) along creek banks," said Duke. The foragers strip the bark with knives and dry it before bringing it to sell.
T.A. Duke says the plants are sold to pharmaceutical companies who use them in the manufacture of prescription drugs. If the natural ingredient is too costly, says T.A., the companies formulate a synthetic equivalent. The company also buys some ginseng and blood root.
Native Americans chewed prickly ash bark for toothache and it''s been used for rheumatism and circulatory problems. Herbalists use the bark as a stimulant for the central nervous system and circulation.
Milkweed root, also known as pleurisy root, was chewed by Native Americans to relieve the pain of pleurisy, a painful inflammation of the membrane that encases the lungs. Bill says his company collects about 5,000 pounds of bark and roots in a season.
Animal traps are now the largest part of the business. According to its Web site (duketraps.com), the company manufactures over 30 different models of coil spring, long spring and body gripping traps "for use in the harvesting and control of wild animal populations. ... Duke maintains the world''s largest market share in game traps with sales to well over 100 national and international accounts."
Bill travels as often as four times a year to China and Korea to supervise production runs for the traps and nut crackers. When I expressed my amazement at the scope and breadth of their business, Bill Duke shrugged, "It''s an old style business that sounds foreign to a lot of people."
This old style business has received attention in unexpected, and very hip, places recently.
An Internet customer called on a Friday to say Saturday Night Live needed a bear trap for the following night''s show.
"We over-nighted a bear trap to 30 Rockefeller Plaza for Saturday delivery," said Bill. The trap was used in a skit featuring the actor Seth Rogen.
Thanks to another Internet retailer -- Red Hills General Store -- the company''s nutcracker appeared on the Martha Stewart TV show. After Stewart bragged on the nutcracker, the retailer sold hundreds, says Duke.
A Google search for Duke''s nutcrackers brings up an Amazon listing for the Duke 0100 Pecan Nutcracker/Base for $12.89. Remember the nutcracker your grandma had? Other than the "Made in China" stamp, this one is no different.
Here''s what an Amazon customer from Montana says about the Duke nutcracker:
"This is the last nutcracker you will ever need. It''s even endorsed by her highness, Martha Stewart.
"We annually receive a big bag of black walnuts from friends who have a tree in their yard. They are very good eating, much better than store bought walnuts. However, shelling them is often more trouble than it''s worth, as black walnuts are among the toughest nuts to crack.
"Then we heard about this inexpensive device, so we picked one up, and it works very well. You''ll be amazed ..."
Amazed I''ll say. It''s difficult not to be amazed by all that these industrious men are doing in a couple of nondescript metal buildings just down the street from Pappy''s Foodarama in West Point, Mississippi.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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