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NC TRAVEL: Old Salem Offers A Living Glimpse Into Colonial History

Photo: Telegram.

By The Raleigh Telegram

WINSTON-SALEM, NC – Many people are familiar with Old Williamsburg in Virginia where visitors can take a look at life in America between 200 to 300 years ago, but there is a closer example of early colonial life that is a just short drive from Raleigh.

The Old Salem historic district in Winston-Salem offers a glimpse into a living and working example of history in the German Moravian community as they settled the area in the late 1700′s and early 1800′s.  

The city of Winston-Salem is only about an hour and a half west of Raleigh on Interstate 40 and Old Salem is located in the downtown area in a special district with centuries-old houses and businesses.  The area has quaint cobblestone sidewalks, beautiful stone walls, and is overall reminiscent of the era in which it was founded.  

While history museums have static displays, unique to Old Salem is the chance to see what life was like in person through working businesses that are still in operation including a bakery, tavern, flintlock rifle shop, and more.  With a history dating back to 1766, there is plenty to learn in Salem, one of the oldest continually inhabited communities in the state.

Guests can also talk with Old Salem history interpreters who are dressed in period garb and who can answer questions about the Moravian community that first settled in the area.  

The area is open to the public and you can certainly visit some of the businesses without a ticket such as the bakery, tavern, hat shop, and gift shops.  However, you do need a ticket to visit the historic buildings such as the print shop, old tavern, flintlock rifle shop, and other places where you can meet and talk with history interpreters and take tours of the buildings.  It’s an interesting look into the past and we recommend getting a ticket to enjoy the full experience that Old Salem has to offer.

Old Salem still has Christmas decorations through January 1st, New Year’s Day in case you missed visiting before Christmas.

For more details on tickets and hours, visit their website at: oldsalem.org

Below, we have highlighted some of the interesting buildings and spots in Old Salem that you shouldn’t miss.  

THE OLD TAVERN: There is a new tavern that is open to the public for lunch and dinner, but to learn about the center of life in the village be sure to visit the old tavern building.  Inside, our history interpreter told us that the tavern was often the place where business was done and where travelers could rent a room.  In the main hall, there were conversations held over drinks and hot food served to weary travelers.

Payment was often made in different currencies or even “bits” of state-issued dollars which were Spanish coins cut in quarters.  It is interesting to note that the Moravian church actually owned the tavern which served beer.  Beer which was the drink of choice back then as water quality was sometimes an iffy proposition unless it was boiled and beer was seen as a connection to their German roots, which took pride in brewing.

Downstairs on the way out, you can visit the beer cellar and working kitchen where a fantastic history interpreter is there to answer questions. She talked to us about making coffee over an open flame using the tin coffee pots that were handmade in Old Salem as well as the value of such items such as imported white sugar.  Such items may be commonplace at your local grocery now but were not so easily obtained back then.

THE BAKERY:  No stop to Old Salem is complete without visiting the Winkler Bakery which has been around for almost two centuries.  The working bakery uses a wood-fired stone oven to make the most fantastic bread you’ve ever eaten, along with cakes, cookies, and more.  It’s always busy and they frequently sell out, so if you go to Old Salem and wish to get some of their treats you might want to go early.  Above the bakery is the Mayberry Ice Cream shop which has sandwiches and ice cream in case you get hungry during your visit.

GOD’S ACRE:  Some of the photos below show the sweeping views of hundreds of headstones of Moravian church members who have passed away over the years and are buried at Old Salem.  The beautiful passages on the headstones reflect the community’s strong ties to religion and also some insight into each person’s life.  This quiet and reflective cemetery is often overlooked by visitors but is definitely worth a visit.

TIMOTHY VOGLER GUN SHOP:  A working gunshop where flintlock rifles are still hand-made to this day is part of the ticketed tour at Old Salem.  In the colonial days, guns were an important part of life as they often meant putting food on the table especially during winter months. In the same process used today as centuries ago, at the shop, the rifle stocks are hand-carved from dried maple stocks that take as long as two to three years to cure.  Similar to the shop that existed in nearby historic Jamestown, the black powder rifles in Old Salem were extremely heavily built guns that were meant to last.  Similar to an artist adding his own signature to each painting, each maker had his own style of decoration including carvings or inlays that identified it as being from that shop.

THE PRINT SHOP:  Before the TV, radio, and the Internet, there was the printed word.  It’s interesting to see all of the type-setting and labor that went into producing a simple document but to the colonial communities, it was an essential and irreplaceable form of communication.

THE MUSEUM OF EARLY SOUTHERN DECORATIVE ARTS:  A new addition to the Old Salem experience is MESDA, which houses artifacts including furniture, crafts, and other items dating back to the 1600′s.

OTHER WINSTON ATTRACTIONS: After your visit to Old Salem, be sure to visit downtown Winston which has seen a resurgence in recent years.  There are plenty of great restaurants like Mellow Mushroom, horse and carriage rides, bars, the Foothills Brewery, theaters, art attractions, and other fun places to visit within a short drive of Old Salem.  Free parking on weekends and weeknights after 5pm.  ::

Article Posted: Friday, December 28th, 2012.

PHOTOS: View 50 photos from Old Salem below (*may take a while to load)