Many people are surprised to learn that one 18th-century historic district called Old Salem is not, in fact, located in New England.
Instead, it’s down South in Winston-Salem, the North Carolina city better known for the R.J. Reynolds tobacco empire. Winston-Salem was born exactly a century ago in 1913, when quaint, pious Salem merged with the bustling Southern commerce hub of Winston. But Winston-Salem’s cultural roots go far deeper — nearly two centuries further back, to when Moravian Protestants ventured south from Pennsylvania to settle these fertile valleys.
The German-speaking Moravians, religious missionaries from central Europe, found a welcoming environment in North Carolina and set a spiritual tone for the area that persists to this day. Hebrew and Old Testament references abounded a century before the first Jew arrived: “Salem” is an Anglicization of “Shalom,” while an early settlement, Bethabara, is said to be a place name from biblical Judea.
Today the city bustles with an economy far diversified from its tobacco roots. But Old Salem, preserved as a historic district and living museum, is a quirky trip back in time. For full period immersion, many combine Old Salem with visits to two adjacent Moravian settlements from the 1700s: Bethabara, now a 183-acre wildlife reserve with ruins of the original structures, and Bethania, a quaint village on the Winston-Salem outskirts that retains its small-town charm.
Old Salem Museums and Gardens is, in the gentlest possibly way, a theme park, complete with actors dressed in vintage costume explaining their “trades” to visitors. Cross the covered bridge and follow the red brick sidewalk past a cobbler, an apothecary, a working tavern that’s still popular at lunchtime and numerous churches and chapels.
Tall, shady trees line the cobblestone lanes and the town green; old wooden structures — sheds, wells — add grace notes of authenticity to a streetscape of prim brick and clapboard buildings. The area is particularly pretty this time of year as hues of gold and russet settle over hedges, vines and gardens.
While much of the district is a museum, the town gets a jolt of vitality from the young couples that stroll the village green — and from the more than 1,000 students at Salem College, a stately brick institution in the heart of Old Salem. A surviving legacy of the early Moravians, Salem is proud of being the nation’s oldest women’s college by founding date (1772).
While Salem guarded a fervent spiritual life, the neighboring city of Winston was prospering in more worldly affairs when the first Jews arrived in the mid-1800s. And although it was the pursuit of economic opportunity, rather than flight from persecution, that draw these mostly Ashkenazic Jewish businessmen from the Northeastern cities, they shared with the Moravians the comfort of a tolerant religious oasis.
By the late 19th century, Jewish retail and dry-goods stores dotted the main streets of Winston; congregations and communal activity coalesced, and the Jews prospered alongside their Protestant brethren.
Jewish life peaked in numbers during the postwar years. Over the succeeding decades, in an ironic reversal, many descendants of the original merchant families moved back to the Northern cities. But a steady influx of Jewish professionals has reinvigorated the community, many of them drawn to Wake Forest University and its major medical center. Today, the sole synagogue — Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation — endeavors to serve the needs of a diverse Jewish population, including joint activities with the Wake Forest Hillel.
Apart from the modern temple and the memory of those proud Main Street shops, there is little of Jewish interest for the visitor. But in Winston-Salem, history is always close at hand.
One of the most popular sights is the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, which anchors a pretty historic district on the edge of the Wake Forest campus. Built by tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds in 1917, this gracious Southern estate housed two generations of the Reynolds family.
The original house, which retains its period furnishings, was converted into an art museum in the 1960s. On the lush grounds of what was once a 30-building estate, the former blacksmith shop, cattle sheds and carriage houses have been converted into the historic district now known as Reynolda Village — a rustic collection of boutiques, restaurants and gardens.
The main house, Reynolda, offers the opportunity to view significant works of American art — landscapes by Frederic Church and Thomas Cole, portraits by John Singleton Copley and Mary Cassatt — in the relaxed setting of a family home. The collection, mostly paintings, spans the 18th to 20th centuries, with highlights from Childe Hassam, Joseph Stella, William Merritt Chase and other shapers of the American vision.
Reynolda’s natural surroundings are arguably as beguiling as the art within. Taking advantage of the glorious natural setting — the rolling fields and gracious tall trees of inland Carolina — Reynolds’ landscape architects created acres of formal gardens, where flower bloom amid ponds and greenhouses. Trails wend through shady forests and restored Southern wetlands.
The modern world hustles on just a few miles away, but in a few well-preserved precincts of Winston-Salem, the past is just around the corner — and the Old South is even older than you might suspect.