photos by Irv Green; text by Andrea Gross
On one side of the street is the thoroughly modern town of Winston-Salem. On the other is the historic village of Old Salem, a living history site that has been so well preserved that it has been declared a National Historic Landmark.
Here, about 100 miles west of Raleigh, costumed interpreters explain the roots of this market town, the beliefs of those who founded it, and the daily life that existed within its boundaries.
Salem was founded by the Moravians, a religious group which traces its roots to Bohemia and Moravia, territories that are now part of the Czech Republic.
In the early 1700s the Moravians, seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity, began immigrating to America. They settled first in Georgia, then moved on to Pennsylvania and eventually arrived in North Carolina where, in 1766, they founded the town of Salem. The residents soon became as well know for their hard work, fine craftsmanship and business ingenuity as for their religious beliefs.
Much later, in 1913, after the nearby secular city of Winston had also become a thriving industrial center, the two towns merged into a hyphenated whole, known today as Winston-Salem.
Unlike the Amish, whose distinctive outfits are religious statements that proclaim their distinctive beliefs, Moravians don’t have a special way of dressing. The interpreters at Old Salem are simply in a costume that shows how people dressed during the heyday of the community.
As the interpreters show visitors around the restored town of Old Salem, they delve into all aspects of Moravian culture and lifestyle. They explain that Moravian core beliefs are quite similar to those of other Protestant denominations, differing mostly in the details of specific rituals and practices. Moravian focus always centers on simplicity, fellowship and service.
Today there are Moravian congregations in eighteen states. The one in Winston-Salem is second only to the one in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in size and importance.
Old Salem covers 85 acres and has more historic structures than the more well-known living history town of Colonial Williamsburg.
The Moravian Log Church was built in 1823 to serve Salem’s African and African-American residents, most of whom were enslaved. In 1861 the congregation erected a brick building, and four years later, on May 21, 1965, a Union Army Cavalry Chaplain read the Emancipation Proclamation from the pulpit of the new church.
Today that church, St. Philips, is the oldest African-American church still standing in North Carolina and one of the oldest in the nation.
Old Salem was always more of a business community than an agricultural one, and small shops lined the streets. Many, such as the T. Bagge Merchant Shop, which was constructed in 1775, had two doors, one of which led to the store and the other which opened either into another shop or into the owner’s home.
Today T. Bagge still serves the community but it’s also attractive to tourists. The chalkboard outside the left-side door advertises “unique gifts, tinware and Moravian cookies” while the one on the right lists a variety of garden supplies.
The Salem Tavern was a place to house “outsiders” as they passed through town on business. When a new tavern was built in 1784 to replace the older one that had been destroyed by fire, it was deliberately constructed without windows on the first floor. After all, it was best for townspeople not to know what all those outsiders might be up to!
Today the Tavern is a museum, but its main claim to fame is as a sleeping spot for George Washington, who stayed there for two nights in 1791. He was making good on his campaign promise to visit every state if elected.
Music has always been an essential part of Moravian life. Many immigrants had been influenced by the music of Mozart and Hayden when they lived in Europe, and when they came to America they brought their instruments as well as their faith.
Today Moravian communities continue to celebrate their rich musical heritage both in the church and at home.
Many Salem residents became skilled craftsmen, producing items that were used for daily living as well as ones that could be sold to people from surrounding communities. Thus the town became know as a trades town or merchant town.
Today visitors can watch as historic trades from woodworking and pottery-making to gunsmithing and tailoring are performed with eighteenth-century tools and according to eighteenth-century methods.
Moravians are known for their culinary artistry, made all the more impressive by the fact that foods were cooked over an open fire.
Virtually all homes in Old Salem had a garden. These gardens were beautiful, yes, but the Moravians were equally concerned with their functionality. They worked the land not only to get food but also to get medicine and the materials used for crafts.
Like the buildings, the gardens of Old Salem are historically accurate, featuring only plants that were grown prior to 1850.
The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Art (MESDA) houses a mix of fine art and folk art that showcases objects made and used by the early setters of the upper South. Containing twelve galleries, it is a not-to-be-missed part of a visit to Old Salem.
Mrs. Hanes’ Hand-Made Moravian Cookie Shop isn’t physically part of Old Salem — it’s ten miles away — but culturally it’s as authentic as it can be. Owner Evva Foltz Hanes learned to make Moravian cookies from her mother, who in turn traces cookie-making in her family back six generations.
Today Evva’s 80-plus year old husband Travis shows visitors one of the early kitchens that his wife used for cookie-making.
“Every cookie is mixed, rolled, baked, stamped and packed by a person, a real person,” says Travis, who is proud of the fact that he and Evva managed to keep the business going through the 2008 recession. “We all cut back on hours, but we all drew a paycheck,” he says. “The only thing better than the cookies are the people makin’ them.”
Mrs. Hanes’ Cookies come in six flavors and are shipped worldwide — even to Oprah, who has declared the delicate cookies to be one of her favorite things. Kudos to the Moravians past and present. www.hanescookies.com
For more on Old Salem, see www.oldsalem.org
For more on North Carolina travel see the NAPKIN NOTES and NEWS YOU CAN USE sections of this website.