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Established in 1772, the town of Salem was built by the Moravians as the main town of the Wachovia Tract. The Moravians started building the town in 1766, although plans for a center of Moravian trade had been circulating since the early 1750s. Although Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf had developed a circular city plan, Fredrick William Marshall, administrator of the Wachovia Tract, and Christian Gottlieb Reuter, surveyor, developed a grid plan.

Salem soon emerged as “the economic center of the North Carolina backcountry” (Powell, p. 998). For nearly a hundred years, the Moravian Church controlled Salem’s industries through the lease system, but the church gradually relinquished its influence on the town’s trade and production. In 1856, the Moravian Church abolished the lease system. Manufacturing, particularly textile production, became a large part of Salem’s economy for the next half century.

In 1849, while Salem was still operating under the lease system, North Carolina established the new county of Forsyth. The town of Winston was established just north of Salem as the new county’s seat and the town grew quickly, mainly due to the tobacco industry, eventually rivaling the textile industry in Salem. After the Civil War, many wanted to consolidate Winston and Salem but residents could not agree on the new name. Yet, in 1888 a chamber of commerce bulletin promoted Winston-Salem, and by 1913 the city officially became known as Winston-Salem.

Although Salem had merged with Winston, the Moravian cultural and historic preservation continued, and in 1947 The Citizens Committee for the Preservation of Historic Salem was formed to preserve Salem or Old Salem. The committee developed a zoning plan that was enacted in 1948 and it set a Salem historic district separate from the rest of the town. The creation of a historic district was a relatively new idea, but the North Carolina General Assembly mimicked much of the Salem process in 1965 by forming legislation conducive to preserving other historic areas in North Carolina (Griffin, pp. 28-29).

In 1950, Old Salem, Inc. was established to restore, preserve, and reconstruct old homes in Salem. Old Salem has and continues to rely on the detailed Moravian Church records to restore the town as accurately as possible. Workers restored the Eberhardt House in 1951 and Old Salem had finished over 60 restorations by 1985. The popular Salem Tavern Dining Rooms (built in 1816) was remodeled in 1968 and the Winkler Bakery (1800) was restored in the same year. One of the most important buildings of Old Salem, the Single Brothers’ House, was restored in 1964, and today serves as a waypoint for tourists wishing to observe Moravian trades demonstrations.

Today, Old Salem, Inc. (doing business as Old Salem Museums & Gardens) operates a living history museum in the historic district of Salem ( The organization’s core funding comes from endowments and income derived from admissions.


“Salem.” William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC 2006).

“History.” Old Salem website. North Carolina Digital History provided by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (accessed January 26, 2012).

Frances Griffin. An Adventure in Historic Preservation (Old Salem: Winston-Salem, NC 1985).

By Jonathan Martin, North Carolina History Project

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Related Commentary: A New Light "Infestation": Charles Woodmason on Colonial Piedmont Religion
Related Lesson Plans: A Missionary of English Civilization to the Piedmont: Backcountry Religion and One Man’s Perspective, Can God Be on Both Sides?: The Role of Religion and Politics during the North Carolina Regulation
Timeline: 1664-1775 , 1776-1835 , 1836-1865 , 1866-1915 , 1916-1945 , 1946-1990 , 1990-present
Region: Piedmont Plateau

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