Meet the Moravians of Old Salem, N.C.

Interpreter Cindy Kepley and a visitor talk about early American culinary arts in the Miksch House kitchen. The Miksch Gardens and House, there since 1771, are a great place to get a sense of Old Salem family life. Matthaeus Miksch sold tobacco he grew in the garden; his wife Henrietta made candles and gingerbread that she sold in a small shop.
Interpreter Cindy Kepley and a visitor talk about early American culinary arts in the Miksch House kitchen. The Miksch Gardens and House, there since 1771, are a great place to get a sense of Old Salem family life. Matthaeus Miksch sold tobacco he grew in the garden; his wife Henrietta made candles and gingerbread that she sold in a small shop. (MICHAEL SCHUMAN)

Settlers from Pennsylvania moved South in 1753; now this North Carolina village shows off colonial life with a German accent.

Posted: July 14, 2014

The shoemaker explained what made his lasts last, and the tavern public room was set up for a congenial checkers match. But when we saw the tavern owner's wife sitting at a table practicing the art known as fraktur and when we spotted the ceramic tile stoves that heated 200-year-old buildings, we realized that Old Salem in Winston-Salem, N.C., is a living history town unlike Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, or others you may have visited.

Sure, there were interpreters portraying early Salem residents, and there was the same metallic scent that permeated the gunsmith's forge, but the homes and trade shops are named for the Winklers, the Voglers, the Miksches, and the Blums, not the Charltons, the Wythes, the Geddys, and the Randolphs.

The colonial settlers here were of German, not British, descent, and the furnishings and stories of family life have Teutonic roots.

Boxy tiled stoves usually seen in castles on the Rhine River, not the familiar potbellied stoves, slowly ate up the wood in the Old Salem living spaces and trade shops. And the tavern owner's wife had several samples of fraktur, with images of birds and flowers, on a table; the German folk art is sort of a combination of calligraphy and painting. She explained that the pieces were given to young children for school achievements, the way gold stars are awarded today, and to adults to commemorate births, weddings, and deaths.

These colonial Germans were members of the Moravian church and they came to these shores for the same reason others did around that time, to escape religious persecution in Europe.

After first settling in Pennsylvania, in 1753 the Moravian church purchased nearly 100,000 acres of land in the central Carolina wilds that they called Wachovia. They named the third town established in Wachovia Salem, adapted from the Hebrew shalom, meaning "peace." Salem soon became Wachovia's center for commerce, trade, and professions. (In the mid-19th century the town of Salem sold some land north of the community to the county. It was named Winston, in honor of North Carolina Revolutionary War Col. Joseph Winston. The towns merged in 1913.)

A step inside the building called the Single Brothers' House offers insight into the Moravians and their nonconformist ways. The Single Brothers' House was basically a village within a village with a meeting hall, dormitory rooms, kitchen, and resident craftsmen including a tailor, shoemaker, dyer, and weaver inside its walls. The building was home to the Single Brothers' Choir, but not a choir in the usual sense.

The Moravians did love to sing, but they also used the term choir to mean a group within their church.

Members, and almost all were addressed by the titles of Brother or Sister, lived in segregated choirs based on age, gender, and marital status. There were choirs consisting of married people, single men, single sisters, widows, widowers, older girls, older boys, and so on. Choir leaders watched over the members' spiritual growth, and enforced the rules such as a single brother was not permitted to marry until he could financially support a family, and that usually meant having a trade such as shoemaker or gunsmith.

The shoemaker's shop in the Single Brothers' House is pleasantly cluttered with lasts and scraps of leather, paper, and wood. The craftsman showed us how he added padded leather to lasts to conform to a man's feet, and how he hammered bull hide to make the soles. In time, Brother Samuel Shultz opened a second shoemaker's shop to accommodate women so they would not have to awkwardly enter the Single Brothers' House to buy their shoes.

That tradesmen worked out of the Single Brothers' House was hardly unusual. In colonial Salem most tradesmen ran their businesses from inside their homes.

The Vierling House, home of Dr. Samuel Vierling and built in 1802, is separated into residence and business sections. Like most Moravians, the Vierlings loved music, as evidenced by the curious wooden quartet music stand in the parlor.

Across the hall an interpreter stood in the apothecary - the doctor also served as a pharmacist - and discussed how opium, as laudanum, was used for a while to ease pain, but ultimately failed due to severe blood thinning. Then he demonstrated such prehistoric medical devices as an ear trumpet, a tooth remover (ouch!), and an ancestor of today's stethoscope, a crude, hollowed-out wooden tube narrowed in the middle like an hourglass.

If anything was almost as important to the Moravians as music, it was bread. Bread was so important to daily life in the mid-18th century that a baker was one of the first settlers. Christian Winkler ran the bakery one can step inside today. Its gaping domed oven is still used, and visitors can watch reenactors baking bread and pastries and purchase the finished products. Moravian sugar cake is best enjoyed by those with a keen sweet tooth. Also good, but not as sweet, are the wafer-thin sugar cookies.

Across the road from the bakery are the Miksch Gardens and House, there since 1771, and a great place to get a sense of Old Salem family life.

Matthaeus Miksch sold tobacco he grew in the family garden, a virtual lush salad bowl and one of several historically accurate Salem gardens. His wife Henrietta made candles and gingerbread that she sold in a small shop. The Miksches were considered equal partners in their businesses. In fact, the Moravians encouraged education for both genders at a time when schools for girls in the South were sparse.

When not crafting goods and growing plants to sell, which the Miksches did so for self-sufficiency, they adjusted the size and shape of just about anything natural to use as a utensil. On a wooden kitchen table a split gourd serves as a bowl, holding globs of fat soon to be made into soap. The Miksches also made yeast from hops they grew in their garden, and used it to make bread.

When the topic of history in the American South is broached, the conversation often turns to questions about slavery. By 1760, Southern institutions worked their way into the Moravians' lives, including slavery. But the Moravians, who had created a theocracy in Salem, set guidelines. Fearing that relying on slaves might make whites lazy and that too many slaves might create disorder, church leaders prohibited most citizens from buying slaves. Instead, Salem's slaves were owned almost exclusively by the church, which leased them to community-operated businesses.

Inside the reconstructed African Moravian Log Church, visitors can listen to actors reading passages based on slaves' diaries that were kept by the Moravians.

Phyllis, a slave belonging to Dr. Friedrich Schumann, said through a headset, "For a change I feel pretty good today. My family belongs to Dr. Schumann on his plantation across Middle Fork Creek, behind the church. But after all our work is done, we mostly come and go as we please. I'm 21 and can read and write. I'm a good student. Everybody says so. I have a beautiful son to take care of now."

In 1836, eight years after Phyllis wrote those words, Schumann emancipated his 17 slaves and paid for their voyage to Liberia.

Before leaving Old Salem, take a look at the tin coffee pot on steroids at the northern end of the historic district. Nineteenth-century tinsmiths the Mickey brothers used it as an advertisement and shop sign. So, after you leave Old Salem and drive past a furniture store with a humongous chair in front, or a tire shop with a tire the size of a Ferris wheel on its roof, remember that over-the-top advertising is nothing new.


traveltalk@phillynews.com

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