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Moravian Church, local groups to celebrate Salem’s 250th anniversary
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Moravian Church, local groups to celebrate Salem’s 250th anniversary

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On Feb. 19, 1766, a group of 12 Moravian brethren from Bethabara and Bethania made a cold, eight-mile journey that would change the history of the future Forsyth County.

Their destination? A carefully chosen site near Salem Creek, Brushy Fork Creek and Peters Creek — a wilderness they had been tasked to transform into a town called Salem.

The site was envisioned as the commercial center of the 100,000-acre Moravian tract in North Carolina.

And so it became.

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the brethrens’ journey, and the Moravian Church, Old Salem, the City of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County are planning a year-long celebration.

Events include a Feb. 19 reenactment of the original trek, in addition to concerts, art, lectures and a children’s festival.

The Moravian story in North Carolina began with church leaders’ purchase of the 100,000-acre tract in 1752 from the British Lord Granville. The land was named Wachovia, a nod to the ancestral lands of the church’s patron in Europe. Moravians built their first settlement, Bethabara, in 1753 and a second settlement, Bethania, in 1759.

Bethabara, though, meant “House of Passage,” and the Moravian leaders had a grander plan.

In late January 1766, a group of settlers arrived, bringing the official word from church leaders in Europe that construction should begin on Salem.

Some of the residents of Bethabara were not happy about building a town to supersede Bethabara.

In the “Records of the Moravians in North Carolina,” the diarist recorded that church officials in Europe had been contacted in the of summer 1765 about building Salem. The message that the group brought from the leaders in Europe was, “We are to tell our brethren in America that the Savior wills that Salem shall be the town in Wachovia for trade and the professions, and they shall be moved thither from Bethabara.”

The work on Salem was originally scheduled to begin on Feb. 10 but had to be delayed because of a major snowstorm. The brethren finally got started on Feb. 19.

Advance work had begun in January on two cabins to house the workers as they built Salem. One cabin was for the Moravians; the other was for “the strangers,” workers who were not members of the church. The cabin that housed the Moravians stood until 1907 as part of one of the potter’s shops, until it finally fell down.

Richard Starbuck, the archivist for the Moravian Church Southern Province headquartered in Winston-Salem, said that Christian Gottlieb Reuter — the church’s surveyor and mapmaker — had looked at many spots in the area before deciding on Salem’s site.

“The first best spot was where Reynolds High School and auditorium are today,” Starbuck said. “It looks out over the Peters Creek Valley. The problem with the site was how to get water up to it.”

Another site that Reuter considered was where St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is today, on the edge of downtown Winston-Salem. He considered it for much the same reason as the first site — the view.

“Reuter liked scenic views,” Starbuck said.

Reuter and church leaders finally narrowed the selection down to two sites. One was about where present day Broad Street is near Fourth Street, and the second is the site where Salem is located.

Once Reuter and church leaders had finally decided Salem’s location, the next order of business was planning where the town square would be. After the square was measured off, construction on permanent houses and businesses could begin.

Salem’s upper street was called Church Street, because that’s where the church would be located, and the lower street was Main Street. The lots on Main Street were deep so that each house could have a kitchen garden. The building plan was that the houses would be about 66 feet apart to help prevent fire from spreading.

Of course, as with any major plan, there were a few hiccups along the way. On Jan. 13, the brethren took all the swine, 75 head, from Bethabara to the new town site because the fields around Bethabara were used up from the pigs rooting. One brother was left to guard the pigs until they became accustomed to their new home.

“On Jan. 15 and 16, the pigs hightailed it back to Bethabara because the ground was frozen so solidly that the pigs couldn’t find any food,” Starbuck said. “They didn’t like Salem, either.”

Church leaders decided that one of the conveniences that Salem should have would be running water to the buildings. This was the main reason President George Washington visited in 1793. The town built a waterworks, which were buried hollowed logs, from springs located on present Second and Spring streets, about a mile away.

Washington was not the first important visitor to Salem. In 1767, Gov. William Tryon, the royal governor, had heard about the building going on in the Northwest wilderness. He and his wife made the journey from New Bern to Salem to see what the Moravians were doing.

“His lady, Margaret, was very taken with the choir system,” Starbuck said.

The choir system was the way that the congregation was divided by their stations in life. The single sisters and older girls lived together, the widows lived together and the single brothers lived together.

The Tryons stayed at Bethabara during the visit.

“She sat down and started playing the organ,” Starbuck said. “The single sisters and girls joined in and soon were they were singing hymns together.”

While Tryon was talking with the church leaders, he suggested that they use the port at Wilmington instead of Charleston.

“They told him they had tried Wilmington, but got a better deal in Charleston,” Starbuck said. “The roads to Charleston were better. Henry Lawrence, a merchant in Charleston, offered them better prices and 500 pounds in credit.”

The governor went back to New Bern disappointed, his economic development plan had failed.

Initially, the town’s residents were the workers building the town. They would work in Salem, then go back to Bethabara or Bethania to plow and do other work.

By 1770, Salem had grown to 37 people, 14 more than just two years before. There were four married couples with two children, two widowers, 18 single brothers, three youth and four boys.

Through the years, Salem had several firsts. It held the first official July 4th celebration in 1783. It had one of the first distillers and breweries in North Carolina. The fire department was one of the first organized in America.

In addition, St. Philips Moravian Church, constructed in 1861, is the oldest standing African American church in North Carolina. The Vogler Gunsmith Shop is the oldest operating gunsmith shop in the country. Salem Academy and College, founded in 1772, is one of the oldest women’s schools in the country.

For its first 90 years, Salem looked outward, Starbuck said. It was the hub of Northwest North Carolina, the place that would eventually attract outside entrepreneurs like R.J. Reynolds.

In 1913, Salem merged with Winston, the town that had been created in 1849 to be the county seat when Forsyth County was carved out of Stokes County. It was the third time that the idea of merging the towns had been floated. By 1913, though, Winston and Salem had become so intertwined, that it made sense for the towns to consolidate.

“It became Winston-Salem because when you looked at a map, you saw Winston, then Salem,” Starbuck said.

The Moravian influence remained strong in the community, however, and the story of Salem’s founding has proven intriguing to future generations of historians.

“It’s amazing that they had the foresight for Salem,” Starbuck said.

mhall@wsjournal.com (336) 727-7308

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