Recently we received an e-mail in which a patron mentioned that she had been told that her grandmother, after the death of her father, had lived and perhaps attended school and worked, maybe in a “candy factory” or store, in Salem in the late 19th/early 20th century.

We had little to go on and the usual sources were unhelpful. But then I realized that she might be talking about an orphanage of some sort and remembered that census takers in those times often listed residents of such institutions as “inmates”.

So I went to Ancestry Library Edition, selected the 1900 US Census, designated Forsyth County, NC and searched for the keyword “inmate”. The result was, shall we say, more than expected.

Up came several pages of people’s names in various areas of the county…Winston Ward 1, Salem, Old Town and Middle Fork townships.

The Salem entry revealed a sort of group home, at 823-29 South Main Street. The city directory listed it as the Salem Old Women’s Home*, but it turns out that it was more than that, because the residents were not all old at all.

According to the census listing, the head of household, or matron, was one Charity Hicks, age 40. There was also a cook, listed as Malissa Kominger, age 22 . A look at the actual census sheet tells us that that should be Malissa, or Melissa, Rominger. And there were a number of others listed, ranging in age from 30 to 91, almost certainly widows, with, perhaps, one struggling couple.

But the interesting part is the children: Minnie May & Thomas Maston (ages 9 & 5), Flora & Beatrice Longworth (ages 9 & 8), Lessa Doland & Bessie Oland Shaver (ages 9 & 7), Margaret Keeton (age 3) and Beatrice E. Wheeler (age 9). Were these all orphans? Possibly.

In light of our patron’s inquiry, there was a “candy factory” just a couple of blocks away. T.B. Douthit had for years maintained a grocery at 528 South Main Street. But if you look at his ads in the Salem “People’s Press” and elsewhere, it is clear that he manufactured a variety of candy products and, indeed, considered his business more of a “confectionary” than a simple grocery store.

All of this information has been forwarded to our patron. It remains to be seen if any of it will be helpful to her.

Other links from the Ancestry search led us to some interesting institutions such as the County Home and the County Farm, providing us with listings of the current inhabitants of those places.

And the one in Winston Ward 1, turned out to be the Twin City Hospital, the second hospital in our community, on Brookstown Avenue between Broad Street and Burke Street. More on that in a later post.

But the one that interested me the most was identified as the “convict camp” in Middle Fork township.


Forsyth County convict camp, early 20th century


We already knew a little about this institution through an interview with a man who, as a boy, lived across the road from the camp and delivered the Twin City Sentinel every afternoon to the guards and some of the inmates, and from a unique document held in our archives recording the memories of a woman who lived next door to the camp.

We knew where it was…on the hillside behind the soccer fields at Calvary Baptist Church on Country Club Road. But now we know who, in 1900, ran the camp and who was incarcerated there.

One Aquilla Bishop was the man in charge. James P. Fulton was the foreman, Joseph A. Sapp was the overseer and John N. Hedgecock was the driver. Rufus Roberson and James A. Caroll were the guards and Rufus Pegram was the cook.

The census lists the inmates as well, two white and 21 black prisoners ranging in age from 17 to 47. If you need their names, you can find them by using the same search method that I employed.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries North Carolina law allowed counties to use convict labor to build roads, railroads and schools. In some cases inmates were also rented out to private individuals. By the late 1920s, studies had shown that such procedures were inefficient and they were discontinued in North Carolina, but many of us can remember seeing chain gangs working on the roads in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi as late as the 1950s.

In 1916, as she neared completion of her country estate, Reynolda, Katharine Smith Reynolds wanted the road from downtown Winston-Salem to her estate paved. The state did not have the funds to do so, so she donated around $10,000 in materials and the state provided convict labor to do the paving from Summit Street along Reynolda Road to what is now Silas Creek Parkway.


Convicts paving Reynolda Road, c. 1916. In the full-sized version of this picture, it is easy to see that the man standing at the left in the hat and vest is holding a shotgun or sawed-off rifle.

In the early 1930s the state absorbed all county convict camps into the state prison system. Today, all of the former Forsyth County convict camps have been incorporated into the Forsyth Correctional Center on North Cherry Street. The FCF is designated as a transitional facility for prisoners about to return to civilian life, which means that most are involved in work release or study release programs.

I guess the point of all this is that is you have terminally undetectable ancestors, you might want to try the “inmate” search, which could well find missing widows, orphans and, yes, real inmates. You might think that you do not want to know about the last, but I have found that some of my most interesting ancestors were bad guys and gals.

* The Salem Old Women’s Home should not be confused with the Widow’s Home, which was maintained by the Salem Moravian Congregation, exclusively for members of that congregation. In 1900, that facility occupied what we now know as the Single Brothers House.