Step Back in Time at Old Salem Village

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A historic streetscape in the village, with the Winston-Salem central business district in the background.

A historic streetscape in the village, with the Winston-Salem central business district in the background. (Photos: Courtesy Old Salem Museums & Gardens)

Although the English Pilgrims get top billing in American history, another important group sought religious freedom in the New World. German Moravians settled first in Pennsylvania, then expanded their Protestant missionary work southward into the North Carolina backcountry. In 1766, after settling the small villages of Bethabara and Bethania, they founded the central town of Salem. The community grew into a thriving hub for industry and trade in the Southeast, all the while valuing education, music, and non-violence (the name Salem derives from the Hebrew word for peace, shalom).

The pristine colonial authenticity of present-day Old Salem is emphasized by its proximity to the commercial towers of Winston-Salem, the industry-based city with which it was incorporated in 1913. Crossing over a timber-framed covered bridge, visitors venture into Moravian life from 1766 to 1840. Old Salem Museums and Gardens is the largest original colonial historic district in the country with—bonus for those of us who love to ogle old houses—more than 100 meticulously restored homes and buildings along its brick and cobblestone sidewalks.

Here’s what makes it really special: The Moravians kept meticulous, detailed records. Record-keeping was encouraged for everyone, from the builders of the extraordinary Single Brothers House (a National Historic Landmark) to the housewife jotting down how many jars of sauerkraut her cabbages had yielded that day. Architecture, gardens, visitors, meals, church business, even small details of day-to-day living were transcribed and preserved. This wealth of information has enabled Old Salem to accomplish feats of architectural preservation and to re-create the gardens and landscapes of the old town with incredible verisimilitude.

Interpreters still cultivate garden plots using traditional farming methods and tools.

Interpreters still cultivate garden plots using traditional farming methods and tools.

Anyone who frequents historic sites knows that nothing can pull you into the past as fast as a good guide. Here, too, the archives have influenced the quality and method of interpretation. Nowhere is this more evident than in the interactive Seed to Soil to Supper program held at the 1771 Miksch Gardens and House. Matthew Miksch grew and sold vegetables, seeds, and young fruit trees while his wife, Maria Henrietta, baked and sold gingerbread and bread. The interpreters who play them do not simply give demonstrations; they live out the daily routines and chores of the 18th-century couple. The interpretation brings home the total interdependence of outdoor and indoor life, and the incredible amount of labor it took to accomplish what we do with the flick of a switch or twist of a tap.

Hands-on demonstrations like pottery turning are daily rituals.

Hands-on demonstrations like pottery turning are daily rituals.

The domestic arts are a vital part of the Old Salem experience. Activities and demonstrations follow a seasonal rhythm—candle making, preserving foods, hearth cooking, laundry and ironing, and quilting. Food production was of course central to the community, and the heirloom varieties grown in Old Salem’s gardens and orchards supply fireside and bake oven demonstrations. Apple fritters, anyone?

The dense material culture of the German Moravians makes for a particularly rich visual experience. Original furniture, textiles, paintings, ceramics, and household objects, all locally made and used, fill the museum buildings. Germanic influences are all-pervasive: You’ll be lured to Winkler Bakery by the wafting brown-sugar-and-cinnamon scent of Moravian sugar cakes, baked in the ancient wood-fired oven each day. When kids engage in a craft, it will be something like the intricate paper cutting called scherenschnitte.

Old Salem Museums & Gardens and MESDA
are open Tuesday–Sunday year round.

See more photos from Old Salem Village here.