Sunday before last, the Winston-Salem Journal ran a story about the discovery of an artifact by a crew working to clean up a cemetery in Happy Hill, Forsyth County’s first black neighborhood, dating to around 1800. Thanks to the diligence of architects David Gall and Bill Brake, the piece was identified as a part of the ornamental molding from the 1892 Winston Town Hall. It is a great find, and deserves a place of prominence in the future of our new New Winston Museum.

By coincidence, I happened to be working on a new blog post about a series of spectacular incidents centering on the Town Hall in 1894-1895, when it was still a brand new building. Since the Journal has limited space to devote to such matters, I thought that I would add some interesting information about the Town Hall. The story of the spectacular incidents will follow in a day or two.

When Forsyth County was created by the state legislature in 1849, the Moravians in Salem sold some acreage north of Salem to the new county commissioners to serve as the county seat. For a while, the new town had no official name. Most people called it either Salem, or the “county town”. But it was soon named for Colonel Joseph Winston, a local hero of the American Revolution.

In 1859, Winston was incorporated as a town, but for its first couple of decades, Winston was not much of anything except a place that served as the site of the county courthouse.

Then, in the early 1870s, a series of events began to transform the town. First, Edward Belo and Henry R. Fries, both Salem men, and others from Winston, worked to establish a spur line of the North Carolina Railroad from Greensboro to Winston and Salem. Then Thomas Jethro Brown, a native of Davie County, established a tobacco sales warehouse at the end of that spur. Then Pleasant Henderson Hanes, another Davie County man, and Richard Joshua Reynolds, from Patrick County, Virginia, opened tobacco factories near Brown’s warehouse.

When Reynolds left Patrick County, he told his father that he was going to open a tobacco factory in Winston, make $80,000 dollars and retire. That later became a family joke.

By the 1880s, Winston had nearly forty tobacco factories and was undergoing a population explosion. The city fathers realized that if Winston was to continue to prosper, certain changes needed to be made. In 1884, they created one of the first free public graded school systems in the South. In 1890, they followed Asheville’s lead and built the second electric street car system in North Carolina. That same year they authorized the construction of a grand new town hall and moved toward a new charter to convert the town into a city.

The new Town Hall, designed by architects Glenn Brown and Willis Hall, and built by the local firm Miller Brothers at the then dizzying cost of $45,000, opened in 1892. It was by far the most spectacular public building ever erected in the area.

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The new building was designed as a multi-purpose civic center, housing all of the city government functions in one place, including the mayors office, meeting spaces for the city commissioners, police and fire services, plus the local telephone exchange, a city market and the headquarters of the local militia, the Forsyth Riflemen.

The clocks on the tower marked the time for two generations of city dwellers. If you were out of sight of the tower, the bell rang the time, and was also used to signal community emergencies. The fire department had several horses, two of which were kept at the station at all times. The others were used to do maintenance on the streets and other government infrastructure, but when the bell began pealing, they would race back to the fire department to pull the steam pumper and the ladder wagon to the site of the fire.

The 1895 Sanborn insurance map shows the functions of the various areas of the building. Red indicates brick, yellow wood frame. The two yellow areas running along the left rear of the building were a part of the market, coops for chickens and other fowl and stalls for fresh vegetables.

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And this early 1900s photograph shows the building in its context as the center of city life. At the left is the second Forsyth County courthouse, designed by famous southern architect Franklin Pierce Milburn and built in 1897. At the center on the far side of Fourth Street is the Brown, Rogers Hardware Store, later Brown, Rogers, Dixson. The entire top floor was occupied by Brown’s Opera House, which hosted traveling dramatic productions, many famous singers and vaudeville acts, plus local events. The large, low building beyond the Town Hall was Brown’s Tobacco Warehouse, which was also used for events requiring more space than the opera house could provide. Around the time of this picture, the famous evangelist Billy Sunday held a week’s worth of revival meetings in the warehouse, drawing huge crowds. The Winston-Salem Journal printed each of his sermons in full in its pages. In the distance on the left can be seen the steeples of the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church on Liberty at Sixth Street and the Methodist Protestant Church on the corner of Seventh Street. Those two would later join forces to become Centenary United Methodist Church.

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But the 1892 Town Hall had a relatively brief life, because by the time it was finished, economic forces had already made it virtually obsolete. The Hanes and Reynolds tobacco companies were expanding so fast that they could not find enough workers. Reynolds began sending recruiters to the South Carolina cotton fields to bring new workers to the city.

Then, in 1900, the Hanes brothers sold their operation to Reynolds and started over in the textile business, which also began a major expansion. By 1920, Winston-Salem had grown from a sleepy backwater of 1,000 or so residents in 1870 to North Carolina’s largest city, with a population of about 47,000.

It was the “Roaring Twenties”, and lest you misunderstand what that meant, by 1926 Winston’s population had increased another 66% to 71,000, yet had already been surpassed by the roaring growth of Charlotte.

So in the early 1920s, the city fathers began to plan for a new city hall. That was completed in 1926, and a year or so later, demolition of the 1892 City Hall began to make way for a new office building for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, to this day the grandest building constructed in the city.

As reported by the Journal, a Reynolds executive, who was a member of the brand new Calvary Moravian Church on Holly Avenue, purchased the clocks and the bell from the old Town Hall and had them installed in the belfry of the new church. If you are walking downtown near Calvary today, you will hear their bell strike the hour, with a single strike on the half hour. There are actually two bells in the tower. The old Winston Town Hall bell rings the hours every day of the week, and a larger bell is used to summon the congregation on Sunday morning. I thank my much-missed late friend Ham Horton for that information.

There are other downtown churches whose bells strike the hour and the half hour, among them First Baptist on Fifth Street and St. Paul’s Episcopal on Summit Street, but none can match the 120 year old historical sound of Calvary’s ancient town bell. The shape of the bell (yellow arrow) in its original home can be dimly seen in this blowup of the above picture.

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