Just a few blocks from downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the Old Salem Museum and Gardens takes visitors on a journey through time. The attraction is comprised of three separate museums: the Gardens at Old Salem, the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) and the Historic Town of Salem.
The complex spans 30 hectares or 74 acres, and is one of the most comprehensive historical attractions in the United States. With its painstaking restoration and recreations, a day at the Old Salem Museum and Gardens is like spending a day in North Carolina in the late 1700s.
The town of Salem was founded by Moravian Protestants, a church movement that originated in what is now the Czech Republic, in 1766. The settlers of the region were meticulous and exacting record keepers, a habit which has enabled the accurate restoration of the Old Salem Museum and Gardens today. The town has been well-maintained through time, with nearly three quarters of the original buildings still standing. Over the years, the town was recognized both for its architecture and its gardens.
After several centuries of life, work and history, a group of steadfast volunteers created Old Salem, Inc. in 1950, as a means to restore and preserve the town. Their efforts have resulted in a growing complex of buildings and gardens, today known as the Old Salem Museum and Gardens in the Historic Town of Salem. This network of Museums has preserved the history, crafts and charm of this pre-revolutionary war town.
The Old Salem Museum and Gardens is first and foremost the preservation of the historic town of Salem, with many of the original buildings from the turn of the nineteenth century still standing. For example, the Boy's School, built in 1794, was the primary center of boys' education at the time. The Market-Fire Engine House which was built in 1803, was a combination of a fresh meat market and storage area for the town's fire equipment.
Constructed in 1802, the Vierling House was the home of Dr. Samuel Benjamin Vierling, and today showcases not only an example of a private home from the time, but also medicinal and apothecary exhibits of health care at the turn of the nineteenth century. The St. Philips African Moravian Church is the oldest African American church in all of North Carolina, which was constructed for the African American congregation in 1861. Winkler Bakery, originally built in 1800, was operated by the Winkler family from 1807 until 1926.
These buildings are just a few representations of the 22 buildings including as part of the Old Salem Museums and Gardens. The Museum Center, opened in 1965 houses the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, and the Visitors Center includes the ticket office, souvenir shop, candy shop and auditorium, home to the more than two hundred year old David Tanneburg Organ.
The Exhibits at the Old Salem Museum and Gardens feature a variety of topics that educate and enlighten visitors about life some 250 years ago. These include art galleries, the permanent collection of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, the Salem and the Civil War exhibit, and a variety of rotating exhibits in the Douglas Gallery. Rotating exhibits include such topics as Needlework in Salem and Karsten Petersen & Sons: A Trade Shop in Transition.
Salem & the Civil War
The Museum is part of the Civil War Trails Program, which chronicles the Civil War at sites in North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, West Virginia and Maryland. The Salem story highlights the emancipation, which was announced to Salem residents at the St. Philips African Moravian Church. Markers found in the area highlight Salem's role in the war and the process of emancipation in North Carolina. The Museum's website provides additional information on the war and Salem's role in it.
A Large and Handsome Assortment of Earthenware
Showcasing the earthenware style brought to the area by its Moravian settlers, this exhibit is showcased in the Single Brothers' House. It features a variety of everyday objects such as food storage containers. Also on display in the House are a potter's wheel and glaze mill, which were in use by potters of the area at during the eighteenth century.
As the people of early Salem became known for their gardening and landscape work, so did artists begin to chronical their efforts. The Salem Landscapes exhibition, located in the J. Blum House, features 16 prints, drawings, and paintings illustrating the landscapes of Salem. Works in this collection span the late 1700s to late 1800s, and provide a glimpse as to what Salem looked like through the centuries, changing and remaining constant all at the same time.
Permanent Collections: Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA)
The permanent collections of MESDA are a particular feature of interest at the Old Salem Museum and Gardens. This includes exhibits showcasing ceramics, furniture, paintings, paper, silver, and textiles. Working to collect, research, exhibit art and everyday objects from the early South, MESDA houses one of the finest collections of southern decorative arts found anywhere in the United States.
A particular highlight of any visit, the gardens and landscape areas of Old Salem have been a point of pride for the town for centuries. Today, the complex includes the Miksch family backyard garden, the sprawling garden of the Single Brothers' House and more.
The Garden of Miksch House exemplifies early gardening at the time, and the central role of the garden in the 1700 and 1800s. The House, built in 1771, was originally owned by Matthew Miksch, who was trained in the old European gardening techniques. Gardens were organized in large squares that were planted with seasonal vegetables.Fences were fashioned from espaliered fruit trees, and beds were bordered with flowers and herbs.
Garden on the Triebel Lot
Although the home this garden belongs to no longer stands, the Triebel Lot Garden was designed according to 1759 records. The records are some of the oldest garden plans in the country and are housed in the Museum's collections. The plots are arranged in squares, with the plants laid out in diagonal lines across the squares. Also known as a kitchen garden, these were usually planted with a variety of vegetables and herbs, with fruit trees lining the back of the house lot.
Single Brothers' Garden
First laid by the Single Brothers' Choir in 1769, this garden is located at the back of the Single Brothers' House and Workshop. It was originally used to feed the dozens men and boys of the choir who lived there, and is another example of a kitchen garden. Its award winning restoration includes apple and cherry trees along the perimeter, as they once would have been, as well as squares sown with seasonal produce such as beets, cabbage, peanuts, melons, oats and buckwheat.
Family Gardens of Salt Street
A collection of gardens recreated along Salt Street, these backyards represent what the average family might have had growing prior to the mid-1800s. These examples vary, from the Leinbach Garden which had room and crops for the livestock kept there, to the Cape Fear Bank Garden, a banker's family garden which was planted more with flowers than with vegetables. This variety shows the transitioning times and variation of lifestyle present in the area at the time.
The educational efforts at the Old Salem Museum and Gardens focuses on remembering the past in many ways. From the MESDA museum showcasing the art and crafts of the past, to the Civil War Trails Program, a trip to the Historic Town of Old Salem educates visitors about the history of the South. Although the past is an obvious focus for the Museum, there are forward looking efforts, as well. The Old Salem Horticulture Program strives to preserve heirloom varieties of plants through seed saving practices and sustainable agriculture.
Educating visitors on the importance of seed saving to preserve horticultural variety, particularly for historic varietals of fruit and vegetables, is a key mission of the organization. The Old Salem Horticultural Program works to research and restore the gardens using plant varieties that would have been in the area in the 1800s. Visitors can support the cause through the purchase of heirloom seeds and plants at the Museum Garden Shop. Old Salem Horticulture is not only preserving the seeds themselves, but their stories as well through their Seeds with Stories program, collecting seeds and the stories behind them that have been passed down from generation to generation.
Events, Activities, & Workshops
The Museum's calendar of events, available on the organization's website, is bursting with activities. From Sounds of Summer Organ Concerts to special holiday events, there is too much going on to list it all here. Seasonal and one off events are offered regularly, and bring the town to life.
In addition to these special events, ongoing activities, demonstrations, tours, and workshops made every day educational as well as entertaining. Garden events vary throughout the seasons, from tree tours, to farmers markets to hands-on workshops. Additionally, an annual seed swap furthers activities of Old Salem Horticulture, promoting the cultivation of heirloom plants, while bringing the community together for a good old fashioned potluck.
The Old Salem Museum and Gardens is a collection of activities, events, workshops and even relaxation, enough to fill a day or even a long weekend. Street parking is available in the surrounding streets, and the complex is easily accessible from freeways.
Restaurants and cafes provide tasty treats, and also a bit of history, with some showcasing historical recipes, dishes and even beer. An abundance of shops feature arts, crafts, seeds, plants and seasonal offerings. Visitors are advised to review the Museum's website prior to visiting, particularly to view the events calendar to take advantage of the variety of happenings each season.
600 S. Main Street, Winston-Salem, NC 27101, Phone: 336-721-7300