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Monday, April 23, 2018


Old Salem has got to rank toward the top of the many terrific places to visit in North Carolina. Old Salem offers a treasure trove of knowledge.   Its development as living history, a place where you can visit the original sites and see many of the original buildings recreated BASED ON ACTUAL RECORDS just makes you burst with conversation and questions—many of which can be answered by the knowledgeable docents and staff.

We lucked out. Got there on a beautiful Spring day just made for exploring.

Located in Winton-Salem, North Carolina, Old Salem is an historical district, a community founded in 1766 by Moravians, German-speaking Protestants whose church bought 100,000 acres and set up several separate religious communities.  Old Salem was established specifically as a Trade Community, and only Moravian tradespeople were allowed to live there.  Moravian farmers, for instance, might come to buy things, but they were not permitted to reside.  Non-Moravians could also come to do business, and if they needed to remain overnight, there was a tavern in which they could rent a room.  Moravians, other than the carefully vetted tavern keepers, were not permitted in the tavern although they were not teetotalers.  Facts like these REALLY pique our interest and raise many questions.

Visiting this craftsman’s village, today’s visitor is in for a lot of surprises and some very beautiful workmanship on display. There’s beauty in every building, inside and out..

From the informative Visitor Center, we crossed the covered bridge to the village, walking under the Moravian Star, a universally recognizable Advent symbol I’m sure most of us have seen even if we didn’t know its origin.   

The 110 point star probably originated as a geometry lesson
at a boys' school in Germany in the 1830s

At the other end of the covered bridge, we enter another world.  The docents are dressed in period costume as is the staff at the Salem Tavern where we have lunch.

Our visit begins at the Frank L. Horton Museum Center (where photography is encouraged), a significant collection of work not only by the craftspeople of Old Salem which is assembled in one gallery but also, in another gallery, a collection of work coming from seven other Southern states, exhibiting the beauty and skill of early American society.  Additionally, if one is intent on research, the center contains over 85,000 craftsman files and 20,000 object files.  The Moravians were organized and careful record keepers.  We spent a lot of time at the museum, talking to docents, asking questions and leaving the building with a lot to think about.

The Salem gallery is divided into sections by trade.  The names of the chief tradesmen or women are listed.  Meticulously kept records give this information.  The work was beautiful.  I'd like to share some of it with you.  It's merely a small sampling.  We spent quite a bit of time there.

Music plays a huge part in the lives of the community.
Music was part of the religious services.  There were brass bands, organs, other instruments and choirs.
Several of the finest organs were crafted by Moravians, and two pipe organs were in Salem.
Look at the beauty of this work
Intricate patterns on silverware, serving pieces, and decorative pieces. 
Weaving, sewing, all manner of needlework.
Not woodworking 101.
Wouldn't you love a secretary as beautiful as this one?

This watercolor and ink on paper dating to 1775 is one of very few pieces with a religious theme.
The leaves represent all the Moravian congregations around the world at that time.
They hang on branches of a grapevine nourished by Christ's blood.

Our first period stop was the reconstructed African Moravian Log Church from 1823 and its next door neighbor the original St. Philips African American Moravian Church from 1861 with an 1890 addition.  Nearby is the African American and Strangers' Graveyard (1772-1859.  Non-Moravians were known as Strangers in this closed community. 
African American Log Church

St. Philips African American Moravian Church
The history of African Americans among the Moravians is perplexing to me.  Both free and enslaved people lived with the Moravians, were addressed as “Brother” and “Sister” as the Moravians addressed each other, spoke German as the Moravians did, often were educated as the Moravians were, sometimes were baptized as Moravians, but still retained their positions as enslaved or hired.  

There was concern about slavery among the Moravians, so it was the Church that actually owned the slaves and then leased them to the tradesmen.  Yes, you read that right, and then, as the Moravian community began to absorb the racial prejudices of the South, they began to separate the races more and more by not worshipping together and by not being buried together, etc.  The docent in the Single Brothers House, however, said that black and white men shared rooms there but that as segregation laws from outside the community were enacted, the Moravians followed them and separated the black and white men.

Today, in reconstructing Old Salem as it stood in history, archeologists and researchers try to learn more about how the enslaved people were treated, for whom they labored, where they lived, and how they worshipped.  Throughout the town are signs about these people as well as written accounts by enslaved people of different eras in an effort to make the depiction honest and true history and to educate those who visit.  History is not being erased; it is being revealed and taught. 

Rob and I need to return to take the guided tour of both churches.  Unfortunately, they were closed for lunch, and we never got to see the interiors.  We thought we’d return later in the day, but we had no idea how comprehensive Old Salem is and how much there was to see and do.  We did become members and supporters of Old Salem, and we will be back.  One day is not enough to see it all.

We did get to tour the T. Vogler Gunsmith Shop, and this was quite an exciting experience.  We met Blake Stevenson, the Assistant Director of Historic Trades at Old Salem and the Manager of the Gunsmith shop.  He and another gunsmith were actually making guns there. 

Timothy Vogler Gunsmith Shop 1831

The craftsmanship is amazing.  Watching these men is being in the company of artists.
A new visual experience for me, I was awed by the workmanship.  The long rifles were works of art, and Mr. Stevenson showed me how he was able to bring the beauty of the wood to the surface.  When I saw the raw wood of the rifle’s stock, I thought he had created the marks, but that was part of the wood itself.  With the different oils and varnishes he applies, he is able to bring out the natural beauty of the wood. 

Look at the beauty of the wood
Mr. Stevenson point out how he will work with this wood to create the finished product

Mr. Stevenson shows us a work in progress.

It was also fascinating to hear Mr. Stevenson talk to the children who came in.  Their wonder and attention was marvelous to see, his explanations and questions mesmerizing his young audience.

In a separate room, we saw the forge and other tools used to create these and other metal objects for the community.

At least part of the amazement, once again, is that art is incorporated into all these objects.  There’s nothing rustic or back-woods about Old Salem.

Despite the fact that Old Salem existed as a closed, religious community, apparently there was enough of a problem with raucousness that this sign was pinned to a board in the gunshop.  Just a touch ironic, I’d say.

Read this and shake your head.
There must have been a lot of jollity in order for this to be put in place.

There’s so much to see that one day is not enough.  The place is fascinating, and each stop at a home, shop, or Moravian building gave us ideas to discuss and questions to ask.  We have yet to visit, for instance, Salem College, the oldest private college for women in this country, God’s Acre, the Moravian Cemetery where people were not buried with family, but according to the “choir” to which they belonged.  See, what I mean?  Still a lot of interesting questions to answer. 

More on Old Salem in Part II.

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