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Hidden History of Winston-Salem

Hidden History of Winston-Salem

Six stories from Forsyth County’s past you probably haven’t heard.

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Hidden History

A mystical coin, a forgotten road, a segregated park, an overlooked war, an oppressive ritual, and an obscure presidential visit—all fascinating stories from Forsyth County’s past that have, for one reason or another, rarely been investigated. In an effort to demystify our city’s past, we’re taking a closer look at these six under-told accounts, all of which provide insight to Winston-Salem’s captivating, complex history. 

Razing The Lot

How a controversial system in Salem pre-determined Moravian marriages.

To know the history of Winston-Salem is to know the story of the Moravians—a group of humble, hardworking migrants who established the town of Salem in the mid-1700s. Much of the Moravian life revolved around religion, as the church owned all the land and presided over all economic decisions. It was a simple, honest way of life, but it wasn’t necessarily a fair one.  Take, for instance, Salem’s controversial judgment system known as The Lot.

When confronted with decisions, Moravians sought divine guidance through The Lot, a tradition they brought South from Pennsylvania. Three slips of paper were put in a wooden bowl—one marked “yes,” one marked “no,” and one left blank. After a question was asked, church elders would select a sheet of paper from the bowl, and the answer would be accepted as the Lord’s will. If the blank sheet was drawn, it meant that the question was improperly or prematurely asked—or that it shouldn’t have been asked at all.

The Lot was used to determine a number of matters during Salem’s first few decades, including occupations. If, for instance, a man wanted to be a potter, he would go to the elders to ask permission. The elders would then decide whether Salem needed another potter. If not, they might suggest a different occupation—perhaps a carpenter—then call upon The Lot to affirm the suggestion.

The system was also used to arrange and approve marriages. Former preservationist William K. Hoyt once discussed the topic in a paper titled, “The Lot, the Youth, and the Schobers.” He explained that men weren’t allowed to propose to the girl of their choice without first submitting her name to the elders. “If the proposed marriage conformed to the rules of the congregation, the question was referred to the Savior through the Lot. If He approved, the proposal was made in the man’s behalf by the Elders to the girl or to her parents. She or they were at liberty to accept or reject the offer. If the Savior disapproved, there was no appeal.”

As Hoyt hints, marriages were never forced in Salem. They were simply approved or denied. The fact that all of Salem’s citizens could refuse proposals actually gave women a big voice in marital decisions, something not always common in those days. But when viewed with modern eyes, The Lot system seems archaic and oppressive. It also forced some couples to move away from Salem after their union was denied. Other couples who chose to wed in secrecy were asked to leave town.

The Lot hit a boiling point in 1809 when elders denied the marriage of two local lovebirds, Neiman Zevely and Sophia Schober. Sophia was the daughter of Gottlieb Schober, a North Carolina General Assembly member.  Mr. Schober wound up using his political influence to arrange a marriage between the two, despite The Lot’s commands. A short while later, The Lot was overwritten, and marriages of choice were allowed.

Even with the change, the young couple was asked to leave Salem. They ended up settling in the Paper Mill community of West Salem, just a mile or so away. A few years later, Neiman would build the couple a two-story home on Oak Street, just north of Salem. The structure was later moved to West End and turned into a restaurant, the Zevely House. It stands today as Winston’s oldest remaining house and is home to a popular eatery, Bernardin’s Fine Dining.

In the end, it seems The Lot couldn’t stand in the way of true love—and that’s a good thing for all of us. Had the couple’s proposal been approved, Winston-Salem might have been denied one of its most storied structures. Guess you could call it a case of mixed blessings.

—Michael Breedlove


The President’s Visit

Many know that George Washington once stayed in Salem, but few know the details of his visit.

In early 1791, as George Washington was nearing the end of his second year in office as president, the political divide between the northern and southern states appeared to be growing. His cabinet members — particularly Alexander Hamilton — had recently led a controversial measure for the federal government to assume all the debts that the individual states had incurred in the Revolution. They also worked to establish a tax on domestic and imported alcohol (the “whiskey tax”) as well as create the first U.S. Mint. Many Southerners, including Thomas Jefferson, feared these financial maneuvers signaled a new centralized federal power that favored the North over the South.

So, faced with reports of widespread dissatisfaction over his policies, Washington decided to gauge public opinion for himself and undertake a springtime trip through the South. His journey would take him on horse and carriage through Virginia, the Carolinas, and into Georgia. And, for two days toward the end of his trip, Washington visited the town of Salem, leaving a lasting impression on the nascent Moravian community.

In the 2010 biography “Washington: A Life,” author Ron Chernow wrote that “the southern tour was a hugely ambitious adventure. … In an era of primitive communications, he would be absent from Philadelphia for three months, making it hard to settle major policy disputes. Washington had never gone farther south than the northern part of N.C. and [many of] the roads were terra incognita... The whole trip was plotted out like a military campaign.”

Washington left Philadelphia on March 21, 1791, to begin his journey. Accompanying him was his senior secretary, Maj. William Jackson, and a handful of servants.

He visited Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, and Augusta before turning north in late May. On May 27, he crossed back into North Carolina, a few days later, at 3 p.m. on May 31 (according to Washington's own journal from the trip) he arrived in Salem. According to reports, Washington was looking forward to studying the town’s plumbing system, which was quite advanced for the time.

When entering the town, Washington chose to wear civilian clothes instead of his customary military uniform out of respect for Salem as a religious community. A journal entry details his initial impressions of the community: “Salem is a small but neat village; & like all the rest of the Moravian settlements, is governed by an excellent police – having within itself all kinds of artizans [sic]. The number of Souls does not exceed 200.”

Salem, at the time, was a much smaller community with perhaps just a dozen or so buildings. Washington and his entourage slept in the Salem Tavern, which was then at the edge of town. He had originally intended to spend a single night, but upon waking on June 1, Washington learned that N.C. Gov. Alexander Martin was riding to meet him in Salem that afternoon, and so he decided to extend his stay by an extra night. That afternoon, he took an extensive tour of the community.

“Spent the forenoon in visiting the Shops of the different Tradesmen. The houses of accomodation [sic] for the single men & Sisters of the Fraternity – & their place of worship. Invited six of their principal people to dine with me – and in the evening went to hear them sing & perform on a variety of instruments Church music.”

Washington’s southern tour would end a little more than a week later on June 11, totaling 1,816 miles. The journey was a success and had been accomplished without significant incident. More importantly, Washington came away with the impression that the South wasn’t as opposed to his policies as had been reported. He’d found that most in the South, for instance, weren’t apt to fight the whiskey tax. But, within a year, the country’s political divisions would be deepened, with a large part of the discontent stemming from southern legislators. Today, visitors to Old Salem can tour some of the buildings Washington toured more than 200 years ago and speak with interpreters about what life would have been like then. For more info, visit

—Andrew Rodgers


The War Within

Exploring Forsyth County’s internal conflict during the Civil War.

On December 29, 1860, just nine days after South Carolina seceded from the Union, a crowd of 800 stood outside the Forsyth County Courthouse to discuss whether North Carolina should follow her hot-headed sister. Among the speakers that day were two well-known local voices: anti-secessionist Constantine Banner, 61, a wealthy slave-owning farmer, and his neighbor John W. Alspaugh, 28, the editor of the Western Sentinel Weekly newspaper who was vehemently in favor of secession. The men may also represent the Forsyth County region in a microcosm—two very different viewpoints from two very different generations. 

Built on Moravian pacifist values, the region’s industry was thriving as a generation born in North Carolina—not Pennsylvania or Germany—came into leadership. For a variety of reasons, Forsyth was wary to encourage the dissolution of the Union. Many individuals, and even the church, owned slaves, says Chris Jordan, director of programming at New Winston Museum. However, unlike the plantation regions of the rest of the state where more than 50 percent of a county might be slaves, in Forsyth, they made up only about 14 percent with many free blacks in the community.

Twelve resolutions were drafted that day, essentially saying that secession was inappropriate for Forsyth County at that time. However, they directed local suppliers to start gathering resources. “Which side we’re on,” Jordan explains, “was not as important as ‘the storm is coming, and we must be ready.’”

Eventually, North Carolina did secede from the Union, nearly the last state to do so. But people were more pro-N.C. than pro-Confederacy. There were no battles in Forsyth County, though Union troops were sent to disrupt supply chains and to keep peace toward the end of the war.

As the federal forces approached the towns of Winston and Salem, both mayors went out to assure the Union officers their people would offer no resistance and asked that they be left in peace. It is said, in contemporary sources, that the people were told to do nothing to assault the soldiers. As the ranks marched through town, the locals simply stood and watched.

“It was dead silent as 3,000 Yankee troops came through but for the clop of horses and the creak of leather,” says Fam Brownlee, a local historian, “until a [Salem] Academy girl threw up her window and gave a Rebel yell.”

Food and certain resources became scarce as the war dragged on, and an impoverished Confederacy began assessing a tithe tax, 10 percent of a family’s goods, because the currency was worthless. Local newspapers began publishing recipes for making coffee from burnt molasses and bacon with less salt. There were calls for people to plant food instead of cash crops. Fortunately, Forsyth County’s early call for preparation and the area’s geography played a role in protecting it from the depravations suffered in other parts of the South.

Troops from Forsyth, both volunteers and draftees, fought in several units including the 33rd, the 45th, and the 55th N.C. infantry regiments, and they saw action in some of the war’s most horrific battles: Cold Harbor, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and others. While Tar Heel State soldiers comprised only about 10 percent of the Confederate population, the state provided a fifth of material supplies and provisions to the armies. One in every four Confederate soldiers killed on the battlefield was also from North Carolina.

In hindsight, Constantine Banner’s words at the Courthouse gathering ring eerily prophetic.

“It is known to us all that we are in the midst of a crisis, which may be but the beginning of the end. And, as bad and dangerous as the times are, it becomes us to avoid fear on the one hand and rashness on the other. … I suppose they [secessionists] intend to take shelter under a rickety concern to be called a Southern Confederacy, that will go to pieces in a few years.”

—Kate Rauhauser-Smith


The Old Plank Road

Exploring the state’s greatest road that never really was.

As more people settled into the North Carolina backcountry in the early 1800s, there was an increasing need for better transportation. Govs. Morehead and Graham both worked to find solutions in the early 19th century. Morehead proposed rail lines, which would eventually succeed but were expensive to construct. Graham countered by suggesting plank roads, which, at a tenth of the cost, were an easier sell than rail lines.

Plank roads—literally roads paved with wooden planks—had been constructed to positive effect in Canada and the Northeast before then, which encouraged the North Carolina State Legislature to follow suit. In January 1849, state officials chartered the Fayetteville and Western Road.

“It carried that name because it began in Fayetteville, and that was the head of navigation on the Cape Fear River,” says Andrew Frantz, a grad student from UC-Riverside who recently interned at Old Salem and researched the Plank Road. “The ‘Western’ part of the name is because they didn’t know where it was going to go.”

There were 84 plank road companies in North Carolina, but the Fayetteville-Western was the longest and costliest at an initial allocation of $300,000 in private and state shares. Three paths were originally considered but, in the end, terrain and resources determined the route. The road would be 129 miles, passing through High Point, Salem, and Winston en route to Bethania.

The Fayetteville-Western company would clear and grade the path, construct bridges, build the road with lumber they created on the move, and collect tolls. From that revenue, they would maintain the road, pay shareholders, and ideally make a profit. North Carolina State laws required plank roads to be between 8 and 60 feet wide, and that a secondary dirt road be built alongside the path for lighter traffic.

Work began in 1850 and reached Salem in January 1854 when it hit a snag. Community leaders were concerned that the noise of such a road, with wagons clattering over boards, would disrupt worship. They were also dubious about the practicality of wood lying on the ground in the Southern heat and humidity. Tentative permission was given, however, and the company set up a sawmill and got to work grading the proposed path. 

But despite the initial approval, no planks were ever laid in Salem. Frantz wonders whether the thrifty Moravians weren’t more clever than indecisive. The contract stated that the community could keep whatever timber wasn’t used. The Moravians decided against allowing the planking, but only after the timber had been cut. This, in turn, meant that all the timber was “left over.” Salem would also macadamize Main Street that year, laying stones over the path that the company had graded.

Despite the hold up in Salem, construction continued. The road picked up again at the Winston line, traveled down Main Street, left on what is now Fourth Street, and on to Bethania. This portion took a long 10 months to complete.

By the time it was finished, the enthusiasm for plank roads was waning, as it became evident that maintenance and tolls enforcement would make profit almost impossible. It was also clear that the North Carolina Railroad, which had recently been completed, was a much better choice for travelers. The Civil War was the final deathblow to the Plank Road, taking all the manpower and money for the enterprise.

In the end, the Old Plank Road could be called a victim of extremely poor timing. Even so, for a brief moment in history, this so called “farmer’s railroad” connected Winston and Salem with the major trade routes in the region, carrying 20,000 wagons each year. A historical marker in Bethania now commemorates the “Western Terminus” of the ill-fated roadway.

—Kate Rauhauser-Smith


A Park Divided

Why the beautiful grounds of Tanglewood have a uniquely blemished past.

As the brother of tobacco tycoon R.J. Reynolds, William Neal Reynolds was incredibly wealthy. He was also incredibly generous. He and his wife, Kate, gave hundreds of millions of dollars to support local charitable causes over the years. They also championed minorities, giving the lion’s share of funds necessary to build Memorial Hospital specifically to meet the needs of the local black community.

That’s why, given his caring nature, many are perplexed to learn of a request Reynolds made in his will: That his 1,100 acre estate, Tanglewood, be turned into a public park for the citizens of Forsyth County—but only the white citizens.

Of course, it was unremarkably common in much of pre-civil rights America for facilities such as schools, hospitals, and parks to be designated for the use of “whites only” or “blacks only.” Most of the local schools were still segregated at the time.

When Tanglewood was opened in 1954, several parks existed in Winston-Salem in black neighborhoods, but nothing that rose to the beauty or available facilities of Tanglewood. The estate, its petting zoo, kiddie rides, deer park, gardens, stables, restaurant, motel, and Manor House provided a bucolic setting for weddings, family outings, and recreation.

But as Justice Henry E. Frye, the first African-American to sit on the North Carolina Supreme Court, recalls, that beauty was not available to all. An Air Force veteran, Frye and his wife were once invited to picnic at Tanglewood with friends. The invitation had to be rescinded when his friend realized that while he, a Japanese national, could use the park, Frye, a North Carolina native, could not.

When the Civil Rights Act took effect in 1964, the trustees who oversaw Tanglewood were unsure how to satisfy both the requirements of the act which, among other things, outlawed discrimination at facilities that served the general public, and the stipulations of Reynolds’ will, which contained a provision requiring the county to dispose of the property and endowment if it failed to meet the terms of the will. The trustees closed the Manor House, pool, theater, motel, restaurant, and cancelled the annual steeplechase in an attempt to comply.

Though officials worked for a few years to find a legal solution, it would take a suit filed in federal court to force the desegregation of the park. In March 1970, in light of recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court involving, among other places, Stone Mountain Park in Georgia, the court ruled that Tanglewood must be open to all races or close. The judge stayed the order until May 15 to allow a work-around to be developed.

The solution was complicated. The park passed to the W.N. Reynolds Trust as an investment property as allowed by the terms of the will. The trust then leased the park to a nonprofit corporation, which operated the park just as before but made it available to all citizens. As a result, Tanglewood was officially integrated in 1971 following 20 years of segregation. The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, as had long been the case, continued to financially support the park.

While the solution was certainly welcomed, it put the park in danger of being developed in more lucrative fashion. So, after more legal wrangling—this time between the various trusts involved—the county offered to buy the park outright. In 1976, using $2.05 million in bonds and $3.2 million from the Smith Reynolds Foundation, Tanglewood finally belonged to the people of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County.

Today, more than 300,000 visitors enjoy the park each year, and few are aware of its complex and divisive past. It’s a history that mirrors our region’s growing pains as few things could.

—Kate Rauhauser Smith


The Joshua Coin

Did a mystical coin bring great fortunes—and misfortune—to the Reynolds family?

While many know R.J. Reynolds as a tobacco tycoon and brilliant businessman, most don’t know he had a superstitious side as well. For much of his life, Reynolds carried a renowned good-luck charm known as the Joshua Coin. The totem had an interesting history even before it belonged to Reynolds.

Square in shape and silver in color, the Joshua Coin was thought to be an ancient Peruvian coin that brought protection and good luck to its owner. Its namesake was Joshua Cox, a red-haired Englishman who stood 6-foot-6. Cox was captured by a native tribe during the French and Indian War, but because of his unusual physique, the natives spared his life. He would later escape captivity by swimming up a river for several miles while wearing the coin around his neck.

Cox believed the coin had saved his life, and it became an ancestral heirloom that was passed down from generation to generation. The coin came with one caveat, though. For its powers to work, it had to be possessed by a son of direct descent who was also named Joshua. If this link was broken, despair would result.

The coin was eventually inherited by Cox’s granddaughter, Nancy, who passed it on to her son, Richard Joshua Reynolds. Several decades later, when R.J. Reynolds began amassing incredible wealth, stories of the Joshua Coin began spreading. It was said that if you touched the coin to a man’s gold, it brought them good fortune. Reynolds would reportedly kiss it, rub it on stock reports, and even use it to protect others. When WWI erupted and several of his workers were drafted, Reynolds rubbed the coin on their gold coins and teeth fillings. It was a tactic that had worked before, as all those who were similarly touched during the Civil and Spanish-American War had survived.

Upon his death, R.J. passed the coin to his oldest son, Richard Joshua Reynolds Jr. (aka Dick Reynolds). Dick would later serve in the Navy during World War II, surviving the battle of Iwo Jima and multiple kamikaze attacks. At some point, rumors surfaced that the coin wasn’t of Peruvian origin but was actually one of the original 30 pieces of silver given to Judas as payment for betraying Jesus. As far-fetched as that sounds, some would argue the lucky coin had a dark side as well.

As fortunate as Reynolds family members were in business, they seemed to be equally misfortunate in personal matters. R.J. Reynolds died in 1918 of a mysterious stomach illness that befuddled doctors. His youngest son, Smith, was cryptically killed by a gunshot wound at age 19. His wife, Katherine, and his daughter, Mary, would also die relatively early in their lives. Even Dick was said to struggle with demons for much of his life. After three failed marriages, he moved to Switzerland and seemed to relinquish all responsibilities. The coin, meanwhile, wound up in the possession of his first wife, Blitz, following their divorce.

Years later when he learned of Blitz’s death, Dick decided to try and reclaim the prized coin. While he eventually obtained the heirloom, he was horrified to find that Blitz had cut a hole and placed a diamond in its center. Assuming its mystical powers were broken, Dick furiously tossed the coin aside.

No one really knows what happened to the coin after that. Some say it was thrown into the ocean. Others say it’s locked in a safe in Switzerland. Some even say it’s hiding somewhere in Winston-Salem. Until the coin’s resting place is revealed, it will remain one of the Twin City’s most mystifying tales.

—Michael Breedlove


Sources for these stories include “Wicked Winston-Salem” by Alice E. Sink and “Ghosts of the Triad” by Michael Renegar and Amy Spease.


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