Old Salem: A taste of Moravian culture in Colonial America

By Michael Schuman

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, June 8 2014 8:00 a.m. MDT

If anything was almost as important to the Moravians as music, it was bread. Bread was so important to daily life in the mid-18th century that a baker was one of the first settlers who came here. Christian Winkler ran the bakery one can step inside today. Its gaping domed oven is still used, and one can often see interpreters baking bread and pastries while taking in the familiar warm aroma.

Across the road from the bakery are the Miksch Gardens and House, here since 1771 and the best place to get a sense of Old Salem family life. Matthaeus Miksch sold tobacco he grew in the family garden, one of several historically accurate Salem gardens. His wife, Henrietta, made candles and gingerbread she sold in a small shop. The Miksches were considered equal partners in their businesses. In fact, the Moravians encouraged education for both genders at a time when schools for girls in the South were sparse.

Inevitably, when the topic of history in the American South is broached, the conversation often turns to questions about slavery. Initially, the Moravians lived in an integrated society, but before long, Southern institutions worked their way into the Moravians’ lives; Salem became segregated and landowners bought slaves. Inside the reconstructed African Moravian Log Church, visitors can listen to actors reading passages based on slaves’ diaries.

Phyllis, a slave belonging to Dr. Friedrich Schumann, "said" through a headset, “For a change, I feel pretty good today. My family belongs to Dr. Schumann on his plantation across Middle Fork Creek, behind the church. But after all our work is done, we mostly come and go as we please. I’m 21 and can read and write. I’m a good student. Everybody says so. I have a beautiful son to take care of now.”

In 1836, eight years after Phyllis wrote those words, Dr. Schumann emancipated his 17 slaves and paid for their voyage to Liberia.

Before leaving Old Salem, take a look at the tin coffee pot on steroids at the northern end of the historic district. The Mickey brothers, 19th-century tinsmiths, used it as an advertisement and shop sign. So after you leave Old Salem and are driving along a contemporary highway, if you pass a furniture store with a humongous chair in front, or a tire shop with a tire the size of a Ferris wheel on its roof, keep in mind that over-the-top advertising is nothing new.

Michael Schuman graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 1975 and received a MFA in Professional Writing in 1977 from the University of Southern California. He lives with his family in New England and can be reached at mschuman@ne.rr.com .

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