OUR GUIDE to the restored village of Old Salem, Candace Owens, is dressed in vivid red, her skirt a gay splash of color hanging to her ankles and the matching vest laced in a sprightly blue. Only her starched white apron and matronly bonnet suggest this was once the Sunday church attire of a deeply religious sect that settled in the wilds of North Carolina two centuries ago.
Unlike other, more-austere immigrants in search of religious freedom, the Moravians--Protestants whose origins were in 15th century Bohemia--could hardly be considered drab. Church-goers they were, but, says Owens, they also enjoyed "good food, good music and good bedding." On last Easter Sunday morning, in a ceremony reaching back 211 years, a 500-piece Moravian brass band greeted the sunrise.
Amiable, peace-loving and industrious, the Moravians made their way from Europe via Bethlehem, Pa., to the hilly woods of western North Carolina in the mid-1700s, eventually founding the town of Salem (from Shalom, the Hebrew word for "peace") in 1766, a community dedicated to the arts of commerce.
Threatened with demolition 34 years ago (to make way for a supermarket), the remnants of the original settlement have been preserved and restored as Old Salem, a dozen or more blocks of 18th-century homes, shops and gardens surrounded by the downtown heart of 20th-century Winston-Salem. The inevitable comparison is Colonial Williamsburg, but Old Salem is smaller, more a country village than a bustling royal capital. It charms in the quiet of its shaded streets and lawns.
Of the 111 separate properties acquired by the Old Salem Inc. organization, 60 have been restored and nine--including a functioning bakery--are open to the public. Guide Owens has a headful of fascinating history to serve our tour group, but there is no way we are going to pass by the bakery without a stop. Inside, the breads--thin cookies and sugar cakes baked from old Moravian recipes--make a lovely sight, and the costumed clerks are hard put to keep up with the demand. I choose a half-dozen pumpkin muffins, and on we go.
But almost immediately, there's another pause for refreshment, this time at the water pump on the edge of the town square, a grassy expanse crisscrossed by stone walkways. One person grabs the heavy wooden handle to pump, while the rest of us line up hesitantly to slurp up a drink as the water spills into our hands from a long metal spout. "It's all right," assures Owens, "it's city water."
The Moravians were avid diary keepers, and their thick journals provide an unusually detailed description of their lives on the frontier. Residents of Salem were divided into "choirs" (meaning place in life) according to age, sex and marital status. Boys of 14 were apprenticed for seven years to learn a skill in the Single Brothers House, a rambling log and brick structure built in 1769. Today, a major attraction at Old Salem, it houses demonstrations of colonial weaving and cloth dyeing, tin and wood working, cabinet making, gun making and other crafts.
In a small assembly hall upstairs where the Brethren gathered for evening vespers and song, Owens insists that our group of 14 sit for a moment as the Moravians did in church, the women (12 of them) on one side and the males (2 of us) on the other. The segregation of sexes and ages continued into death, and at God's Acre, the exquisite hillside cemetery, church members are still buried not by families but by "choir," male children in one section, female in another; single men here and married women over there. Simple stones, all the same for rich or poor, except in the wording, reflect a belief in the democracy of death.
A highly skilled people (a large percentage of the settlers were master craftsmen) with a reputation for honesty, the Moravians initially prospered selling crockery, household implements and other crafts goods to settlers flocking to the Carolina piedmont. Eventually, the very nature of their highly regimented, church-governed society doomed the community. Only a hilltop away, Winston, founded in 1849, thrived on the tobacco and textile industries. It's expansion ultimately overtook Salem, and they officially merged as Winston-Salem in 1913.
The Moravian church itself has grown, however, and today there are about 56,000 members in the northern and southern "provinces" of the United States (there are 17 provinces worldwide). Surrounding Forsyth County has 41 congregations alone, including Home Moravian Church in Old Salem, many of whose 1,800 members have been active from the beginning in the restoration work. (The church is off to one side of the town square in a less-prominent position than originally planned. Apparently, the Single Sisters Choir complained that its proposed walls would shade the green where they bleached their linen.)
And through the church, several old customs survive, including the Easter sunrise service, which draws crowds of up to 18,000 nowadays when the weather is favorable.
In the early morning dark between 2 and 4 a.m., brass bands representing 13 Moravian churches in Winston-Salem tour their neighborhoods, says the pastor of Home Moravian Church, the Rev. Dr. D. Wayne Burkette, "announcing the arrival of Easter Day." A service of readings and hymns begins at 5:30 a.m. in the square outside his church. The congregation then walks quietly up the slight hill to the cemetery, where the ceremony concludes with a triumphant concert of the brass bands, assembled in a mass of 500.
On the Fourth of July, a 9 p.m. torchlight parade through Old Salem is the main event of the festivities, reenacted this summer in the manner it was observed for the first time 200 years ago in 1783. The day will begin with a church service at 8:30 a.m., a town meeting at 11 a.m. and a traditional Love Feast (a ceremony of singing and "a simple meal of buns and coffee") at 2:30 p.m. The program includes the hymn "Song of Joy," composed for Old Salem's first independence celebration.
Old Salem is a pleasant place to spend a spring afternoon, with a few surprises. At one end, a small forest of native trees--scarlet oak, American beech, American holly and chestnut--has been planted to recreate the woods from which early Salem was carved. The woods were very important to Salem commerce, and the cutting in the early days was carefully managed.
At the northern end, a giant metal coffee pot, atop a slender perch, stands sentinel in a field. It is a city landmark, built by two Salem tinsmiths to advertise their business. There is a story that a Yankee soldier fleeing a band of Confederates shimmied up the side, popped open the lid and dropped inside to escape his pursuers. In Old Salem, they like to believe it.
And then there are the chickens, just a few of them, strutting unpenned across the brick sidewalks or fluffing their feathers in a little dust bowl they have worn for themselves on the sunny side of a weatherboarded log building. A rooster crows across the garden, and another responds. Some things in Old Salem haven't changed at all.