Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Back to the Old Days

By Paul Gerald

FEBRUARY 2, 1998: 

If you’re like me, you’re one of those folks who wishes there was such a thing as a time machine. You might wish you could go into the future, grab the sports section of a newspaper, come back and place a few bets, and make a fortune.

Well, we can’t. But if you feel like going backward a couple hundred years, you can do that, in a place called Old Salem, which is in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. You can eat in a tavern that George Washington visited, munch fresh bread from a circa-1800 oven, watch 18th-century artisans at work, and buy their wares. And while you’re in the area, North Carolina has enough other stuff to do to entertain a whole family.

Old Salem was founded by a group of Moravians in 1766 – Moravians being one of the earliest groups of Protestants, some of whom came to America to found the town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. When they decided to do some missionary work in the South, they bought 10,000 acres of land and built themselves a town. The church ran the whole place, and everybody was divided up not by families but by age and gender. Unmarried boys and girls (“Single Brothers and Sisters”) had dorm-type houses where they lived and learned trades, and they were all raised by the church rather than by their parents.

By the time of the Civil War, Salem was no longer a church town. In 1913, Winston and Salem merged, and by the end of World War II the city planned to tear all the original buildings down and build a mall. It’s a fine thing they didn’t. A group was formed to save and renovate the place and turn it into what might otherwise be called Moravian World.

Today you can stroll around the neighborhood and admire the old buildings, visit the tavern for a period meal, and hit the gift shops to buy a host of Moravian goodies. There’s a high-dollar bed-and-breakfast in an 1844 building, as well as famous and beautiful gardens, the Home Moravian Church (built in 1800), and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts featuring art from 1600 to 1820.

A $14 ticket gets you into a half-dozen buildings that have been renovated to their exact state around the turn of the 19th century. In each one, modern-day Brothers and Sisters, all dressed in 18th-century clothing, give you tours and display the crafts of the time as they were done back then. They weave, sew, work pewter and wood, make shoes, display medical instruments of the time, and bake. Man oh man, do they bake.

I spent an afternoon wandering Old Salem, but the thing that stuck with me was the Winkler Bakery. I thought I might not make it out – either because I didn’t want to leave or because my girth wouldn’t make it through the door. The Moravians, for one thing, apparently discovered the secret to making the greatest cheese straws of all time. They don’t give up that recipe. They also make ginger and molasses cookies that are as thin as paper and as addictive as crack cocaine. The woman at Winkler’s cash register, who admired the amount of money I was spending, was nonetheless concerned by my hovering over the samples basket. In addition to cookies and cheese straws, I came out of there with a loaf each of honey wheat bread and Swedish rye, plus this thing called a Moravian Sugarcake. I think they left some of the cake out of it; it could have jump-started somebody out of a coma.

All of this comes out of the original brick oven, dated 1800 – the Winkler family ran the place from 1807 to the 1920s – and in all my travels I have encountered few experiences as pleasing as being in that room when the bread was coming out. That happens, for your reference, at about 10 each morning.

As long as you’re in the area, North Carolina has some fabulous stuff to do. Tanglewood, just outside Winston-Salem, is a 1,300-acre golf resort with two courses designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. Golf Heaven itself, also known as the Pinehurst area, has 35 courses and is 80 miles away. Grandfather Mountain is 117 miles off. The Blue Ridge Parkway is less than an hour, the Biltmore Estate is two hours away in Asheville, and Winston-Salem has a minor-league baseball team called the Warthogs. That last fact is of no real interest; I just had to get it in the paper somehow.

You can tour the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco plant, which is actually known as Tobaccoville and is actually an interesting, amazingly high-tech, and free tour. They can knock out 110 billion cigarettes a year there; that’s 8,000 a minute and one-fifth of the entire U.S. tobacco industry.

My main piece of advice if you’re headed to that part of the world is this: Just to make sure you get around to seeing everything else, go to the bakery in Old Salem last.

For more information on visiting Old Salem and the Winston-Salem area, call 800-331-7018

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