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In One Downtown's Shadow, Life Moves Slowly

  • Ted Landphair

This is a pleasant part of downtown Winston-Salem in the Winston part of town.

This is a pleasant part of downtown Winston-Salem in the Winston part of town.

Old Salem in North Carolina revisits simple Moravian ways

Across the United States, there are several places where two independent towns grew together to become one city — but kept both their names.

Winston-Salem is one of them. It's a mid-sized city in what's called the Piedmont, or plateau, between the Atlantic Coast and the inland mountains in the state of North Carolina.

The Winston part is a relatively new place, founded early this century. It's a textile center and home to the nation's biggest open-air tobacco market.

The giant R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company's headquarters is in Winston-Salem, and Winston is the name of one of Reynolds' best-known cigarette brands. Fast-growing Winston soon surrounded the much older town of Salem, so in 1913, people in the area voted to combine them into a single place.

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From a historical and tourist point of view, Salem, or Old Salem, as it's called today, is the interesting and unusual part of town. The Single Brothers' House was the Moravians' dormitory for young, unmarried men.

The Single Brothers' House was the Moravians' dormitory for young, unmarried men.

Salem was founded in the 1700s by the Moravians, a strict Protestant sect originally from what is now the Czech Republic and eastern Germany. The Moravians spoke German, and their community was religiously based, with single men and single women living apart in what were called choirs or separate dormitories.

The Moravians greatly valued women's work and brainpower. In fact, one of the nation's oldest boarding schools for young women — the Moravians' Salem Academy founded in 1772 — is still in operation. But Salem became so worldly that, except for the academy, a beautiful church and a graveyard called God's Acre, Salem lost its Moravian character. Old Salem has not only preserved historic houses but also re-created the kinds of gardens that were an extension of every household.

Old Salem has not only preserved historic houses but also re-created the kinds of gardens that were an extension of every household.

Over the years, Salem deteriorated and, by the 1950s, it was a slum. That all changed, though, when a nonprofit group began to rehabilitate the historic area. These days Old Salem is what's called a living history museum, with exhibits, music, and tours of 18th-Century houses, taverns and Moravian dormitory buildings just seven blocks from the tallest skyscraper in Winston-Salem.

The historic community is thriving again. Just as R. J. Reynolds is taking in millions of dollars making cigarettes across town, Old Salem is generating about $15 million a year in tourism revenue and donations.

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