The fifth-largest city in North Carolina could have easily been named Zinzendorf-Pottendorf – the way Charleston was named for Britain’s King Charles II and Asheville was christened after a long-forgotten N.C. governor.
Instead – 250 years ago next week – the very religious founders of what became Winston-Salem called their primitive settlement “Salem,” a variation on the word meaning “peace” in Hebrew. The name was chosen by their patron, a German aristocrat named Nikolaus von Zinzendorf und Pottendorf.
A religious and social reformer, Count Zinzendorf first tried to create a heaven-on-earth community in a corner of an estate he owned in Germany. When that went belly-up, a number of the residents who were Protestant refugees from Moravia (in today’s Czech Republic) left for the New World.
A settlement was built in Pennsylvania, then the attention of the Moravian Brethren moved to what today is Forsyth County.
After early starts at two locations on their 99,000-acre N.C. tract – named Wachovia, after Zinzendorf’s ancestral estate – the site for Salem began to be cleared in January 1766; the first move-ins were Feb. 19. Lodgings were a high priority: Among the first buildings constructed were a Brethren’s House for single men and a Sisters’ House for unmarried women. (Both structures are still standing.) The property was owned by the Moravian Church.
Waves of other immigrants washed over the area, and in the mid-1800s the congregation sold some of its land to create a county seat, Winston. The towns grew – and grew together.
The religious denomination endures, as does the public’s appreciation of the Moravian cookies associated with Salem’s settlers.
Still with us is Old Salem, the largely intact heart of the self-sufficient settlement – like Virginia’s Williamsburg, it is a nonprofit-owned living-history museum/neighborhood. It’s free to stroll; various shops there feature artisan-oriented shops. Admission is charged to enter restored buildings on the grounds, participate in programs and to enter Old Salem’s Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts and Old Salem’s gardens.
Founders’ Day – Feb. 20 this year – is the daylong kickoff of Salem’s 250th anniversary events, with 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. activities included in regular Old Salem admission.
Demos and historian presentations include gunsmithing, surveying, map-making, clock-making activities and explorations of what daily life and food were like in Salem. You can learn about Salem’s early settlers and the founders of the African-Moravian Church there. A hands-on activity for kids involves using miniature bricks and logs to learn about the settlement’s early building techniques.
It’s an easy, 75-mile drive into the past. The time-trip math works out to be 3.3 years per mile.
John Bordsen: 704-358-5251
Want to go?
Old Salem admission: $23; $11 for ages 6-16.
The visitor center at Old Salem is at 900 Old Salem Road, just southwest of downtown Winston-Salem. From Charlotte, take I-85 North to Exit 87; follow U.S. 52 North to Exit 108-C. At the top of the ramp, turn right onto Stadium Drive/Rams Drive; at the stoplight, turn left onto Salem Avenue and follow it to the traffic circle; take the first right onto Old Salem Road. Go under the wooden pedestrian bridge; make an immediate left into the visitor center area.