Travel

Valdese celebrates its immigrant past

The Trail of Faith traces the history of the Waldensians from their homeland in northern Italy to North Carolina’s Burke County.
The Trail of Faith traces the history of the Waldensians from their homeland in northern Italy to North Carolina’s Burke County. Gary McCullough

The town of Valdese was begun in the late 19th century as a colony of Waldensians migrating from northern Italy. A museum, commemorative trail, and summer outdoor drama bring the history of the town’s founding families to life.

Distance

Eight miles east of Morganton, in Burke County, Valdese is 60 miles from Charlotte – about an hour’s drive.

To see and do

Valdese was founded by immigrants from the Cottian Alps in northern Italy. Known as the Waldenses, they were members of a religious group that had its origins in the Middle Ages. Dire economic straits in the late 1800s prompted many of them to leave their homeland in search of locales offering hope for better futures. Along with colonies in South America, Waldensian communities were planted in Missouri, Utah and here. The Waldenses bought a 10,000-acre tract of land outside Morganton; the first settlers, only 29 in number, including 13 children, arrived at their new home on May 1893. They and later settlers established a vibrant manufacturing community. In 1938, during the Great Depression, Valdese was recognized as the fastest-growing town in the state.

The Waldensian Heritage Museum provides a history of the Waldenses both in northern Italy and in the N.C. foothills. The religious group had its origins in the 12th century when Peter Valdes, a wealthy merchant of Lyon, France, rejected many of the tenets of the Roman Catholic Church, preaching instead a reformed theology founded upon the belief that the Scripture was given to all men, not just priests. His converts, called “the People of the Book,” were branded as heretics and subjected to centuries of persecution, with thousands being executed and thousands more being driven into exile. The museum’s collection of artifacts includes rare Bibles, including a 1535 translation in French.

The outdoor Trail of Faith commemorates the tribulations and triumphs of the Waldenses through full-size replicas of homes, churches, schools and monuments. These include the reproduction of the Temple of Ciabas, considered to be the world’s oldest Protestant church, and the Barbi College, thought to be the oldest Protestant seminary. One original structure is the Pierre and Louise Tron house, a simple frame house lived in by one of Valdese’s first families in 1893. Adjacent to the trail is the Old Colony amphitheater, where the outdoor drama “From This Day Forward” has been performed since 1967. Valdese hosts several special events annually, the largest of which, Aug. 7-8, commemorates a major event in Waldensian history known as the Glorious Return of 1689.

If you’re going

Guided tours of the Waldensian Heritage Museum are at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and by appointment. Admission: $2 for adults. Hours for Trail of Faith are 2-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, April-October. Admission: $9; $4 for K-12 children. Details: www.visitvaldese.com. “From This Day Forward” is performed Friday-Saturday through Aug. 8. Details: www.oldcolonyplayers.com.

General info: http://www.visitvaldese.com (click “Events” for details on the Aug. 7-8 Waldensian Festival).

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