By Shay McNeal

Hunt this season with care, for tucked away just south of the super-slab known as North Carolina Business 40, one will find an honest-to-goodness time capsule. “Old Salem,” sometimes called Salem Township, but known more than 200 years ago simply as Salem, remains pristine. It was the trades’ town of N.C.’s Moravian community. Its continued existence in the middle of the modern capital of the tobacco kingdom known as Winston Salem strikes a stark contrast for the eye. Martin’s History of North Carolina, Volume I, notes the start of the Moravian community as follows: The Unitas Fratrum, or the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United Brethren, commonly called Moravians, made the beginning of its settlement in N.C. in the year 1753.

During the previous three centuries the Moravians had traveled a tortuous road. The Moravian religion evolved from the sermons of Jan Hus, a rector at Prague University, a philosopher and a Catholic priest ordained in 1400. Hus began to challenge the Catholic Church and hierarchy around 1402 and while preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague became the leader of the Czech reformation, pre-dating the likes of Luther and Calvin by more than a century. Hus and his followers are known for having paved the way for Protestantism. Unfortunately, Hus never lived to see the recognition of his reformation movement as he paid the ultimate price for espousing reformation notions. He was burned at the stake in 1415. Officially, the Moravian Church was founded in 1457 in Bohemia. Old Bohemia and Moravia are situated in the present day Czech Republic.

In 1722, Count Zinzendorf allowed a number of Moravians who had suffered great persecution to reside on his estate in Lower Austria. A first attempt to settle in America came in 1735 when a piece of land was granted to the count in Georgia. This attempt in Savannah failed. However, the settlers had made the acquaintance of George Whitfield (or Whitefield), an Anglican preacher whose fiery sermons led to the “Great Awakening” in Britain. After 1740 they settled on the land of Whitefield in Pennsylvania, where The Whitefield House still exists in the center of the Moravian settlement of Nazareth.

In 1753 the Moravians founded their soon-to-be multiple settlements in N.C. Count Zinzendorf had been titled Lord of the Valley Wachau in Austria; therefore, the nearly 100,000-acre tract was named Wachau or Wachovia. At this time, The Wachovia Society comprised of Brethren and friends helped to raise money for the development of the community. The hard working Moravians eventually established Salem, and Friedrich von Marschall was assigned to design the town. Marschall stated that Salem would be a settlement of tradesmen, not farmers and went about to design the well-planned time capsule that remains today.

Henry Laurens, styled in the Moravian records in 1761 as a “Colonel and Charleston Wine Merchant,” was much impressed with the Moravian community. He even asked his agent in Pennsylvania, Mr. William Bell, to have the Moravian cobblers make shoes for his plantation help. He traded with Traugott Bagge. Bagge’s man, Nathaniel Bibighaus, often visited Charleston for provisions for Bagge’s Salem store. Laurens offered a 2,000-acre tract located in S.C.’s Ninety-Six District to the Salem community so that they could establish a mission to the Cherokees and a trading center to serve even the Augusta, Georgia community. Mr. Marschall and Christian Benzien made a daunting trip in 1790 to finalize the terms of the gift. But Laurens’ business partner, John Gervais, opposed his largesse. Hence, the plan came to naught.

Retaining the character of life as it existed more than 200 years ago is no small chore; today a dedicated staff tends to Salem under the leadership of Ragan Folan, its president and CEO. Folan’s background is corporate, as she was for many years a sales executive with Lotus and IBM. Recently, during lunch, Ragan related her thoughts about Old Salem and her role therein. When asked how she came to Old Salem she said she had been involved in volunteer work and she developed a passion and love of the village. When they were in need of a CEO it just fell together. Her eyes light up when she starts to explain the exciting 250-year anniversary coming up in 2016 and that the capital campaign to fund the reimagined interpretation of the 1794 boys’ school is in full swing. “It is the flagship project,” she says. Moreover, she states raising money for Old Salem is not a hard sell. “I think our supporters are keenly aware of the importance and significance of what we are doing. We are one of the few authentic and original communities of that era remaining in the country. Our educational outreach is amazing. Hundreds of school children visit us each week of the school year.”

The next exciting project will be the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, MESDA, located in the Horton Center in the southern part of the village. Ragan’s hands move expressively when she explains that all the galleries have been redone for the weeklong celebration starting the weekend of October 23-24, 2015.

When asked what she thinks Salem was like 200 years ago, she wistfully allows that it must have been something unlike anything we know. Nothing was technologically driven. Today, she says a sense of peace washes over you when you visit the living museum and walk the square in a lovely neighborhood. It evokes a sense of what yesteryear must have felt like. By the way, she says, “The first public celebration of Independence Day in the United States occurred right here in Salem Square. Also, one of the first hydraulically driven water works in the 18th century was here in Salem,” she points out with no modest pride.

Here at Old Salem, Folan says, “We like to shine a bright light on building scholarship.” Scholarship is abounding in this Moravian community and at Salem College for Women — the oldest women’s college in the U.S. The archives are replete with a rich history of Moravians’ love of music. Additionally, there are so many detailed accounts of their attempts to educate and convert the Cherokees as they had attempted to do originally in Savannah with the Cherokees and Creeks. The record of their mission work at Spring Place in Northern Georgia reveals much about the lives of the Cherokees leading up to the Trail of Tears.

Robbie King, a native South Carolinian and director of facilities, says, “You have to be passion-driven to live or work here.” Indeed. Worth a visit? Ragan enthusiastically answers, “Absolutely, it is a little more than four hours from Charleston. Tour the village and stay at the Augustus T. Zevely Bed and Breakfast or the historic Brookstown Inn — you won’t regret it!”


Mercury newspapers can be found at the following locations:


Buxton Books

Caviar & Bananas

The Meeting Street Inn (Rack)

Clair's Service Station, Folly Rd. (Rack)

Harris Teeter, Houston-Northcutt Blvd. (Rack)

Mt. Pleasant Library, Mathis Ferry Rd. (Rack)

Pitt St. Pharmacy

The Square Onion, I'On (Rack)