Due to increased COVID-19 infections in Wake County, the museum is closed to visitors. Please check back for updates.
(CIRCA Magazine – A travel column from the Wake Forest Historical Museum)
Stepping into Old Salem is more than an experience, it’s a revelation. The air is clearer. The colors are brighter. The scent of fresh baked bread is everywhere. Also, it smells better than regular bread. It wafts from the oven at Winkler Bakery, where dough is tended in a wood-heated, dome-shaped brick oven that’s been in use for 200-years. The bakery produces Moravian treats of every stripe. Its shelves are packed with sugar cookies, sugar cake, ginger cake, Lovefeast buns, black walnut cookies, cheese stars, and loaves of all kinds. This is a good introduction to Moravian culture, which is widely known as industrious, friendly, and filled with love.
The Old Salem story goes back centuries. Breaking with the Roman Catholic Church in 1493, the first Moravians traveled throughout Europe in search of religious freedom. The journey brought them across the Atlantic to Pennsylvania, from whence they migrated to North Carolina, founding the village of Salem in 1766. They built a town that was postcard perfect, with a broad main street, shops, houses, church buildings, and fruit trees. When Salem merged with the neighboring community of Winston in 1913, Winston-Salem was born. By 1950, modernity encroached. The old buildings were at risk. Activists organized a nonprofit to restore the village, preserving its heritage, and this became Old Salem. The vast historic district covers a total of 87 acres. The main section is filled with museums, shops, private dwellings, the Moravian Church, and Salem College and Academy.
Our trip to Old Salem was undertaken in a single afternoon. With a drive time of just under two hours, we departed mid-morning and arrived in time for lunch. The first portion of our visit was spent wandering in wide-eyed wonder, taking in the surroundings. The village is comprised of approximately twenty buildings and gardens that meticulously recreate the way things looked from 1766 to 1840. Most guides and staff dress in period costumes, and many are trained craftsmen who work inside the shops making shoes, pottery, candles and more. Visitors can watch these demonstrations by purchasing tickets at the Old Salem Visitor Center.
We skipped the tickets, choosing instead to visit the shops that are open to the public with free admission. This took us through a series of gift and souvenir stores packed with goods of the jam and jelly, scented soap, and handmade craft variety. Our walk ended at the aforementioned Winkler Bakery. Saying it’s legendary doesn’t do it justice. It’s like venturing into the Land of Sweets ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy, but with everything made entirely of baked goods. We purchased so many breads, buns, strudels, and cookies that we had to trudge to the car to stow them all in the trunk. Then we headed back up the street for lunch.
For any Old Salem expedition that coincides with mealtime, it’s advisable to reserve a table at Salem Tavern. This recommendation came to us from every Salem fan we consulted, and it’s extremely sound advice. There are two reasons for this. First, it would be an extraordinary stroke of luck to be seated without a reservation. The place is not large. Built in 1816, it has two floors with rooms furnished in plain tables and chairs. Family operated with a wait staff costumed in historic attire, the tavern serves locally farmed food prepared in classic Moravian tradition. That’s the second reason for making a reservation. You don’t want to miss an opportunity to dine at the tavern. The lunch and supper menus are beyond tempting—pot roast, chess pie, pan roasted mountain trout, beer-boiled and grilled bratwurst. We were most relieved to bypass the crowd waiting on the front porch and move directly up the stairs to second floor seating. I can personally recommend the chicken pie with mashed potatoes, green beans, and gravy. For dessert, there’s a positively ridiculous chocolate pecan pie with bourbon whipped cream. Even our two teenagers, who were determined to spend the afternoon being completely bored, had a fabulous time with the food.
For reasons related to those teenagers, we drove home after lunch. This worked well for us. We enjoyed an affordable, educational, and pleasant experience—and still arrived home in time for dance class. Unfortunately, having a tight schedule meant we lost the chance to visit some other important sites. For those with more time, the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) is considered a masterpiece. Located at the south end of the historic district, this museum is open six days a week with guided and limited self-guided tours. Although MESDA does require an entry ticket, the exhibits are well worth the price of admission. “Solely dedicated to the preservation, scholarship, and connoisseurship of southern decorative arts and material culture,” it’s where you’ll find full installations of historic rooms removed from their original homes and completely rebuilt; antique furniture crafted by artisans from Germany, Africa, England, Scotland, and France; and collections specializing in southern silver, ceramics, paintings, and textiles.
Of course, many other wonderful opportunities exist in Winston-Salem. If you find yourself with even more time on your hands, there’s the historic Reynolda House Museum of American Art, the Home Moravian Church, and the Winston-Salem Children’s Museum. For those interested in our own local history, drive through the campus of Wake Forest University. Outfitted with architecture, plantings, and names taken directly from the school’s first campus in the Town of Wake Forest, it strikes a very odd note between the strange and the familiar. Gazing up at the towering steeple of Wait Chapel, you could almost swear you’re in the vicinity of Binkley Chapel—or an episode of The Twilight Zone.
Old Salem is south of downtown Winston-Salem. From Wake Forest: Start heading west on NC-98, take US-70 toward I-85/Burlington, then follow the signs for Greensboro merging onto I-40 to Winston-Salem. Exit at 193C. Turn right on Silas Creek Parkway, left on South Main Street, enter the roundabout and exit onto Old Salem Road. Find out more at www.oldsalem.org.