A “pinhooker” is someone who buys something cheap for purposes of repackaging and reselling at a higher price. Look the word up online and most of references you’ll find relate to thoroughbred horses, but the term was also used historically for those who bought tobacco that went unsold at auction, repackaged it, and managed to turn a small profit reselling it. There’s a lot of speculation about the origin of the word, and suggestions that it might have been derived from a place name.
Pinhookers were the rag-and-bone men of the tobacco industry, so naturally it was a profession that drew the most marginal elements of society, as Pin Hook, the place in Old West Durham, reportedly exemplified, with its population of alcoholics, gamblers, and prostitutes. So, did the place take its name from the profession, or vice versa? I’m confident it was the vice versa, actually, since the first tobacco auction in Durham took place in 1873, and I’ve seen a reference to Pin Hook, by name, in print, with a date in 1871, and that was in a newspaper article looking back nostalgically on Pin Hook. Specifically, the Hillsborough Recorder was fondly recalling a race between a man and a woman, both naked, for the prize of a quart of liquor.
“Pin Hook,” the place, probably took its name from the bend in the railroad that marks the spot. The folks who inhabited this demimonde, making some money repackaging low-grade tobacco leaf, then gave their place name to the profession, which would suggest that the horse traders of today, still known as pinhookers, owe their occupational appellation to the bend in the tracks near what is now Erwin Square.
After work yesterday, I left my bike parked at Erwin Square and hiked across the street to explore the narrow greensward between the tracks and the Durham Freeway. I found little sign of past habitation, but I have posted a few pictures below:
Here’s a piece of wood from some past structure. As with every old artifact I saw here, I could imagine it dated from Pin Hook, but more likely it’s left from the later mill village that sprang up across from Erwin Mill in the early 20th century.
A length of iron pipe emerges from the ground, just outside the Durham Freeway fence.
This was the most evocative find: an old, brick-lined well, since Pin Hook famously had a well, frequented by travelers on the old Raleigh-Hillsborough Road.
Unlike most narrow stands of woods in the midst of development, this one was dominated by mature hardwoods, not scrawny pines. There was plenty of poison ivy, however, and I had to bathe in Tecnu when I got home.
Looking across to Erwin Square, where I work. 150 years ago, this view would have been the heart of Pin Hook.
On a final note, last weekend Jen and I walked from home to The Pin Hook, the latterday downtown Durham bar, to see John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats and opening act Midtown Dickens. In between was a band we’d never heard of, Mount Moriah, which is fronted by the woman who runs the bar (and also co-owns the record label whose benefit the event was). Now, I’m enough of a (nascent) Durham history geek to be bothered by the fact that The Pin Hook is located not in Old West Durham, where it should be, but downtown, and that it has a pointless “The” in its name. That said, I don’t want to romanticize what was no doubt a very unromantic past, and I’m sure I had a much finer time listening to John Darnielle pour out his heart with the articulate passion of a poet, and all the added power of his fine singing voice and acoustic guitar, then I would have had drinking grog with antebellum Old Southerners in some ramshackle roadhouse.
Still, I wish I could see that old place, and I keep trying to imagine it better than information allows.