All in the Family
Story Shannon Bardwell | Photograph Luisa Porter
It was 1938. Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, the American flag had 48 stars, minimum wage was 40 cents an hour, and Lee Alton Duke was thinking about pecans.
Lee Alton and his bride, Annie Lou, proved themselves enterprising when they took the front half of their house on Mayhew Street in West Point and converted it into a neighborhood store. Annie Lou bought pecans from her customers, made pecan tarts, and sold them right back to the customers for 25 cents apiece.
In the ’30s pecans were not a commercial product; the main reason was that they had to be hand-cracked. But when an automated cracker was invented, Lee Alton took a chance. The Duke boys have been cracking pecans ever since.
The Dukes’ son, Thomas A. Duke — known as T.A. — was bagging pecans in burlap bags by the time he was 6 years old. Soon T.A. was trusted to make the run with Willie B. Young, an employee, to the E.F. Nunn Co. Orchard down in Shuqualak. T.A. said it seemed like a million miles away, especially the time their overloaded ’50s-model open-bed Chevy blew a tire.
“I was scared witless,” recalled T.A., “but the only pecans we lost were the ones eaten by Noxubee County Sheriff Emmett Farrar and local FBI agent Lynn Smith who had stopped to help.”
T.A. took over the business and, blessed with his father’s ability to seize opportunity, he expanded the pecan business to include nut cracking and harvesting tools, buying and selling fur skins, and becoming the world’s largest provider of wildlife traps.
During my visit, right there in his office T.A. pulled out a “Duke’s Easy Pecan and Nut Cracker” and demonstrated the tabletop model like the expert he is.
“You crack pecans on the ends,” he explained, “Cracking pecans in the middle tears them up.”
Today Duke Pecan Co. continues as a family business. Bill Duke, T.A.’s oldest, graduated from Mississippi State University with a degree in accounting. He then migrated right back to the family business and stayed on in ever-expanding roles. In 2007 he traveled to South Africa to consider possibilities of pecan importing in the off-season.
Bill reminisced, “I can remember the [South African] way of life was so simple and without much mechanization. However, the people there seemed much happier than those in more developed countries.”
T.A.’s son, Garry, who graduated from the University of Mississippi with a degree in international business, also joined the ranks of the Duke Pecan empire.
The Dukes sell native pecans, known for their natural pecan oil flavor, and also the Stuart variety, the most common improved variety. From November through March the Duke’s offer gift packs of pecans, nuts and candy mixes like Pralines and Millionaire Turtle Delights, “’cause most everybody loves a little chocolate with their pecans.”
Though the Dukes operate a global business they are experts in keeping it simple. The family’s primary goal is to see their business continue for generations.
This year marks 75 years in business for the Dukes, but T.A. said he hasn’t thought much about a celebration.
“We thought we’d wait and celebrate our 100th.”
Duke Pecan Company is located at 508 Brame Avenue in West Point. 662-494-6767
BILL DUKE’S PECAN CARAMEL CHEESECAKE
1 ¼ cups graham cracker crumbs
¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar
¼ cup margarine or butter, melted
1 14-ounce package caramels, unwrapped
½ cup plus 3 tablespoons half-and-half or coffee creamer
1 cup chopped pecans, toasted
3 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pecan halves or pieces
• Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
• Combine crumbs, sugar and margarine; press firmly on bottom of 9-inch springform pan.
• Reserve 10 caramels. In heavy saucepan, combine remaining caramels and ½ cup half-and-half. Over medium-low heat, cook and stir until melted and smooth.
• Stir in chopped pecans.
• Spread over prepared crust. Bake 15 minutes.
• Meanwhile, in large mixer bowl, beat cream cheese until fluffy.
• Gradually beat in sweetened condensed milk until smooth.
• Add eggs and vanilla; mix well. Pour into prepared pan.
• Bake 1 hour or until set (center will be slightly soft). Cool.
• In small saucepan, over low heat, cook and stir reserved caramels with remaining 3 tablespoons of half-and–half until melted and smooth. Immediately spread over cake.
• Garnish with pecan halves.
• Chill thoroughly.
• Refrigerate leftovers. (Although, Bill promises there are never any leftovers.)