T.S. Eliot had something of a negative attitude toward getting old. But that does not have to be. We, the village of Salem, the town of Winston, the city of Winston-Salem, the Twin City, the Camel City, are getting really old. But we should not be worrying about eating a peach…instead, we should be enjoying the glory of becoming a ripened peach. I don’t know about you, but the mermaids sing to me every day, and every day, I enjoy it more.
Life is really complicated, whether it be the life of the universe, the life of our solar system, the life of the Earth, the life of tribes and nations, or simply a single individual life. Yet life can also be quite simple. I have chosen four images that I think do a pretty good job of summing up the life of our fair city.
First house in Salem, the “builder’s house”
Forget all you’ve heard about “the great wagon road”. It was only called that for the first few miles, certainly never in North Carolina. Somewhere in Maryland, or at best northern Virginia, it became not much more than a trace, sometimes faint, up hill and down dale through some pretty rugged country. The first members of the Unitas Fratrum who made the journey from Pennsylvania to the promised land walked every step of the way. They got lost. They encountered hills so steep that they had to put their shoulders to the wheel and push their wagons up and over. It was an all male party, but you cannot have a civilization without women, so a few years later, a bunch of Moravian women made the same 850 plus mile hike. As you might expect, we know every detail of the men’s journey, but very little about the women’s. The main thing is that they got here, only to find the area immersed in the Seven Years War, with French surrogates, including the Cherokees, on the warpath. That is why you see a fort at Bethabara. There was another one at the nearby Bethabara mill. Once all that got hashed out, the brethren were free to go about building their new town. They had a brilliant plan which had the church at the center, surrounded by concentric ring roads with connectors radiating as spokes from the church. But the hilly land…have you noticed how hilly Winston-Salem is?…killed that project. Finally, after 13 years of searching, on January 6, 1766, the brethren went to work building the town of Salem. The first building that they built is seen above. It was generally called the builder’s house, because that is where the builders lived while they were building the beginnings of Salem. It was not intended to be a permanent place, but somehow it survived for 140 years. We are told that it “fell down” in 1907.
The first Winston depot, ca 1873
In the 1850s, the state of North Carolina began planning the first serious railroad, to run from Goldsboro to Charlotte. Every wide awake townsman in the state was out lobbying to get the railroad to come through their town, except for the Rip van Winkles in Salem and Winston. So the railroad eventually ran from Goldsboro to Raleigh to Durham to a brand new railroad town called Burlington to Greensboro to another new town called High Point to Salisbury and on to the Queen City. Sometime after the Civil War, a few local folks realized that if they did not have direct access to the railroad, their businesses would die and Winston and Salem would become yet another piece of the backwaters of the nation. So some of the top businessmen in the two towns…Fries and Belo and Gray and T.J. Wilson among them… asked the NC Railroad to build a spur line to Salem and Winston. That was greeted with condescending laughter. So they created their own railroad company and built a line from the Pomona junction in Greensboro. As it turns out, that was the most important single thing in the history of the Twin City. In the spring of 1873, the first train from Greensboro backed over the Salem Creek trestle (they were not sure the trestle would hold up, so were unwilling to risk an expensive engine) and the party began. The new railroad line attracted such entrepreneurs as Thomas Jethro Brown, Pleasant Henderson Hanes and R.J. Reynolds, all of whom would otherwise have gone elsewhere. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Reynolds Building, 1929
Not much needs to be said about this.
Bowman Gray Medical Education Building, which will open in the fall of this year on Vine Street in the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, as seen from the new Bailey Park
All that is needed here is an understanding of irony. RJR Tobacco at its height employed about 25,000 people in the W-S area. Of course, they made those demon tobacco products. But the money generated brought first the Wake Forest Medical School, then the entire college, to Winston-Salem. Now Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center is the top employer in our area, and Wake Forest is using former RJR Tobacco plants to build the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, which is the present and the future of our city. You couldn’t make up a better story.