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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

One of several house vegetable gardens at Old Salem, planted for self-sufficiency

Michael Schuman

The shoemaker explained what made his lasts last, and the tavern's public room was set up for a congenial checkers match. But when we saw the tavern owner’s wife sitting at a table practicing an art known as fraktur, and when we spotted the ceramic tile stoves that heated 200-year-old buildings, we realized that Old Salem in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is a living history town unlike Colonial Williamsburg, Old Sturbridge Village or others you may have visited.

Sure, there was the same metallic scent that permeated the gunsmith’s forge, but the homes and trade shops are named for the Winklers, the Voglers, the Miksches and the Blums, not the Charltons, the Wythes, the Geddys and the Randolphs. The colonial settlers here were of German, not British, descent, and the furnishings and stories of family life have Teutonic roots.

Boxy tiled stoves usually seen in castles on the Rhine River, not familiar potbellied stoves, slowly ate up the wood in the Old Salem living spaces and trade shops.

And fraktur? It is a German folk art, sort of a combination of calligraphy and painting, and the tavern owner’s wife had several samples with images of birds and flowers on a table. She explained that they were given to young children for school achievements the way gold stars are awarded today, and to commemorate births, weddings and deaths.

These colonial Germans were members of the Moravian Church, and they came to these shores for the same reason others did around that time: to escape religious persecution in Europe. Moravians’ roots date to the 15th century when a Catholic priest from Bohemia named John Huss challenged the church a good century before Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a Wittenberg church door.

After first settling in Pennsylvania, in 1753 the Moravian Church purchased land in the central Carolina wilds that they called Wachovia. Salem was the third town established in Wachovia. Its name was adapted from the Hebrew “shalom,” meaning peace. Salem soon became Wachovia’s center for commerce, trade and professions.

A step inside the building called the Single Brothers’ House offers insight to the Moravians and their nonconformist ways of life. The Single Brothers’ House was basically a village in a village with a meeting hall, dormitory rooms, kitchen and resident craftsmen, including a tailor, shoemaker, dyer and weaver, inside its walls.

The shoemaker’s shop in the Single Brothers’ House is pleasantly cluttered with lasts, or shoe forms, and scraps of leather, paper and wood. The craftsman showed us how he added padded leather to lasts to conform to a man’s feet and how he hammered bull hide to make the soles. In time, Samuel Shultz opened a second shoemaker’s shop to accommodate women so they would not have to awkwardly enter the Single Brothers’ House to buy their shoes.

The fact that tradesmen worked out of the Single Brothers’ House was hardly unusual. In colonial Salem, most tradesmen ran their businesses from inside their homes. The Vierling House, home of Dr. Samuel Vierling and built in 1802, is separated into residence and business sections.

Like most Moravians, the Vierlings loved music, as evidenced by the curious wooden quartet music stand in the parlor. Across the hall, an interpreter stood in the apothecary — the doctor also served as a pharmacist — and discussed how opium was used for a while to ease pain but ultimately failed due to severe blood thinning. Then he demonstrated such prehistoric medical devices as an ear trumpet, a tooth remover (ouch!) and an ancestor of today’s stethoscope: a crude, hollowed out wooden tube narrowed in the middle like an hourglass.

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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