On September 10, 1752 a handful of men stepped off a small boat onto the docks of Edenton, North Carolina. Leading these men was one Bishop August Spangenburg and he had been sent here on an important mission, to determine the future location of a major Moravian settlement in the wilds of western North Carolina. You see, the Moravian Church in North America had already been established in the north at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Interest had grown within the church, however, to expand south in order to both spread the Gospel among the Cherokees as well as to expand the church's economic base. They had, therefore, recently purchased nearly 100,000 acres of land (unseen, mind you!) from then Proprieter of North Carolina John Carteret, Earl of Granville. The Moravians named the newly owned land 'Wachovia'. Bishop Spangenburg and his men were setting out to see just what Wachovia might offer. After many months of wandering the wilderness backcountry of North Carolina by hoof and by boat, the small party eventually located a promising tract of land in the rolling Piedmont hills of today's Forsyth County. This was where they would found Wachovia by constructing a town which would serve both the spiritual and commercial needs of the region. That town would be called Salem.
Let's back up a bit though...these 'Moravians'...who are they? The Moravian Church, a protestant denomination, was formed in 1457 in the regions of Bohemia and Moravia in todays Czech Republic. From the beginning, followers of this fledging sect endured great persecution from their neighbors. Over the following century small bands of faithful Moravians spread out across Northern Europe, wanting nothing more than to practice their faith in peace. Finally, in 1722, they found a refuge of sorts. A German Count by the name of Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf offered the exiled Moravians a portion of his estate as a refuge. The Moravians eagerly accepted and quickly founded the small but peaceful town of Herrnhut. It wasn't long after this that the first members of the Moravian Church made the pilgrimage to North America. Landing in the Savannah, Georgia area in 1733 the Moravians set about building their first New World settlement. It wouldn't last. With ongoing border conflicts between Britain and Spain erupting all over the region, the peace-loving Moravians sought to move somewhere more...well, peaceful. This they did in 1740 when the community packed up and moved to Pennsylvania, where they founded the town of Bethlehem. It was intended to be the center of the Moravian Church in North America. One of the prime directives of the church was that of spreading the gospel among the local native tribes. This they did, with a passion, in Pennsylvania, New York, and points west. That's about the time the Earl of Granville stepped in and offered the Moravian Church that prime piece of real estate in the wilds of North Carolina.
So, back to Salem. Between 1752, when the Bishop and his men first arrived, and 1765 the search was on to select the perfect place to build the new Moravian city. While the survey of the land progressed two smaller towns, named Bethabara and Bethania, were built by immigrating Moravians from Pennsylvania to give the regions infrastructure and economy a kick start. Finally, in 1765 a spot was chosen to build Salem and by early 1766 construction began in earnest. The town square was plotted out and work began on the major administrative buildings of the town as well as a select few private homes. By 1772 the shiny new town was move-in ready and Moravians from the two settlements mentioned earlier began to move in. Slowly, the town began to thrive and over the intervening decades Salem became a major economic hub in the region. A major test to the new community of Salem came with the onset of the Revolutionary War. In adherence with their beliefs, the local Moravians maintained a strictly neutral stance. For the most part the town escaped the ravages of war though it did find itself occupied on occasion during the Southern Campaigns of 1780-81. Eventually peace returned and as the 19th Century dawned Salem looked to have a prosperous future ahead of it.
Prosper it did. The early 1800's saw staggering growth in every type of industry. This was a very diverse town. If it could be made or grown, it was probably made or grown in Salem. The times were good. However, with progress came a gradual loosening of the Moravian Church's control over the community. In its early days the church oversaw the operation of all businesses (even the tavern!), told people where they should and shouldn't build their homes, and had ultimate authority over marriage arrangements, among many other things. By the mid 1800's, however, more and more private businesses were popping up around town and more and more Moravians were becoming independently wealthy. On January 5, 1857, papers of incorporation were signed, and the Moravian church town of Salem ceased to exist. Then came the Civil War. Another thing that Salem had lost was its spirit of pacifism. Though still deeply divided as to what role they should play in the conflict, many Moravian men did sign and fight with the Confederate Armies. Thankfully, in the four years of conflict, Salem was spared the horrors of war visited on so many other nearby communities.
Reconstruction followed the Civil War and Salem fell into the same economic slump which had swallowed the rest of the south. Never again would Salem be the primary economic center of the region. Tobacco, and simultaneously the upstart town of Winston to the north, began to dominate the fortunes of Salem and, in 1913, the two towns officially joined as today's Winston-Salem. Understandably, with so much growth and change over the years little of 18th Century Salem remained in its 20th Century form. Luckily, starting in the 1930's, forward thinking citizens began to take interest in preserving what had manage to survive. Then in 1950, Old Salem Incorporated formed with its express mission being acquisition, preservation, and restoration. Since its formation some 85-acres of the original Moravian town have been protected....including over 100 buildings!
So it was into this magnificent, sprawling, tangible, piece of North Carolina history that I wandered this day. Paying the modest fee so I could get into the handful of buildings where knowledgeable costumed interpreters were waiting to add to the experience. In addition to the building open to the public I also took it upon myself to wander around and document the rest of the historic district, much of which is still in the hands of private homeowners. Even so, it was all incredibly fascinating. All the stories, all the lives, all the richness of the Moravian community that is now long gone is still on display here for anyone to visit and experience. I invite you then to come along with me as I wander the historic neighborhoods of Old Salem. If you like what you see I highly recommend you go visit for yourself.