Experience 250 Years of Heirloom Vegetables and History in Old Salem, North Carolina

March 8, 2016 by


From Winston-Salem’s vibrant contemporary urban center, Old Salem is just a 10-minute drive, yet it’s centuries away. Visitors to the North Carolina historic town travel back 250 years to experience 100 of America’s most authentic and comprehensive collections of eighteenth-century restored homes, buildings, and gardens.

leek-book-cloth-old-salemVegetables from the garden are prepared according to Moravian traditions. 

250 Years of Agrarian Traditions
2016 marks Old Salem’s 250th anniversary. I visited this historic enclave last fall when the leaves were turning and the change of seasons echoed the changes over the centuries from its original agrarian Moravian origins to the modern Winston-Salem of today.


Back then meals really were farm-to-table, when the yield from each of Old Salem’s heirloom gardens provided–and still does–the staples for dishes cooked in the hearth as I saw demonstrated in the Single Brothers’ and Miksch Houses and gardens.




compost-old-salemComposting at Old Salem

old-salem-butter-in-bowlButter is about to be added to the dish.

Precise Historic Documentation Leading to Preservation
Founded in 1766 by the Moravians, a group of Protestants from what is now the Czech Republic, Old Salem was the center of Wachovia, an area of about 100 acres where residents kept meticulous records of their lives, interactions, and the town’s architecture and landscapes as it developed into present-day Winston-Salem. Their diaries, documents, and stories provide detailed insights into the lives of those who lived and worked in Salem throughout its history.

old-salem-window-in-stone-wallNotice the little stick figure dolls in the window.

The Moravians’ accurate documentation helped preserve roughly three-quarters of the Historic Town buildings, original structures known for their builders’ attention to detail.


Known as a trades town, Old Salem produced essential goods such as tools, ceramics, furniture, metals, and food–much of which visitors can experience today during demonstrations utilizing traditional 18th and 19th-century practices in the town’s original buildings.

old-salem-ticks-in-woodTicks inscribed in wood beams were used to keep track of the pieces used during construction.

In the same traditional wood-burning dome bake oven used over 200 years ago, Brother Jeffrey was kneading, baking, and packaging Vedalia Sweet Onion bread when I visited the Winkler Bakery.

ols-salem-baker-with-bunsBrother Jeffrey poses with his just-baked Moravian sugar cakes: a blend of brown sugar, cinnamon, and butter.







Brother Christian Winkler bought the bakery in 1807. In 1827 Winkler’s second son, William took over the family business after which he and future generations of Winklers lived and worked in the bakery until 1926.

The Birthplace of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts
I was surprised to happen upon a plaque on the ground which told me Old Salem’s baking traditions continued well into the 20th century when in 1937 Vernon Rudolph began baking and selling his Krispy Kreme doughnuts there. Rudolph’s recipe came from New Orleans where he purchased his secret yeast-raised doughnut recipe from a French chef in The Big Easy.


The Single Brothers
Just as it sounds, unmarried men were called single brothers and they all lived, worshipped, ate, and often worked together in the Single Brothers’ House.


Single brothers operated a plantation and garden and ran a brewery, distillery, tannery, and slaughterhouse. Some were master craftsmen of trades including joinery, tailoring, pottery, and the dying of yarns and fabrics which they conducted in the building of the workshop behind the house.




Water Systems and Indoor Plumbing
Old Salem had one of the earliest piped water systems. Gravity and wooden pipes fastened together with iron collars transported spring water from northwest Salem into cisterns and wells throughout the town. Water was piped into the town’s homes where the kitchens had plumbing. The Moravians also employed rainwater cisterns and dug wells on individual properties. No wonder George Washington visited in 1791 to collect and bring back such ideas to Mt.Vernon.

old-salem-tileRoof tiles were made in the pottery workshop.

The Tavern in Old Salem
Part of my peek into Moravian history included lunch at the Tavern in Old Salem, whose seasonal menu replicates original recipes with ingredients harvested a stone’s throw from the kitchen. Constructed in 1816 as an annex to the original 1784 Tavern, current owners, Rick and Lori Keiper, and their sons Jared and Jordan serve dishes inspired by 19th-century Moravian family cooking but with a contemporary twist.

old-salem-peach-saladGrilled Peach, Candy Pecan & Goat Cheese Salad

The Keiper family uses herbs freshly picked from Old Salem’s gardens to flavor dishes such as the Tavern’s famous Moravian Chicken Pie and its grilled peach salad drizzled with house fig vinaigrette.

old-salem-chicken-pieTavern’s Moravian Chicken Pie

I’m not a chicken pie fan, having been forced as a child to sit at the dinner table until I consumed the frozen Swanson’s one my mother served (I would never finish it.) I changed my mind when I sampled the Tavern’s savory combination of chicken blended with mashed red skin potatoes, green beans, and light chicken gravy. This Moravian incarnation of chicken pie was delicious and bore no resemblance to the pre-packaged ones of my youth. 

pecan-bourbon-pie-tavern-old-salem Lori’s Bourbon-Pecan Pie, photo via Tavern at Old Salem.

It was a three-pie day at the Tavern. After the chicken pie, I was lured into to sampling the Heirloom Tomato and Goat Cheese Pie. Less a pie than a layered lasagne-like dish with a tad of crust, the dish was a delicious segue into a conversation about how the Moravians once believed, as others did in those days, that tomatoes were poisonous. Read on, because I’ll tell that tale later.

In the same type of dome bake oven found in the village’s Winkler’s Bakery, Mom and pastry chef Lori bakes all the Tavern’s muffins, desserts, and the chicken pie crust to which she adds just a hint of cornmeal. After indulging in Lori’s Bourbon-Pecan Pie and Apple Cranberry Crisp, I was thankful for stretch pants and a long walk back 250 years. Next stop: Winston-Salem’s earliest Moravian settlement.

old-salem-medicinal-garden-fruitFound citrus art, Bethabara garden.

Maintaining 250-Year-Old Gardening Traditions in Historic Bethabara 
The present-day community gardens in Historic Bethabara offer a modern-day glimpse of exactly how the Moravian people gardened 250 years ago. Bethabara’s is the oldest community garden in the country, and the only known reconstructed half-acre colonial community garden.

old-salem-community-gardenBack forty of the Bethabara community garden.

Gardeners renting plots there today must follow Moravian traditions, growing only those vegetables from an approved list and planting them diagonally across the garden’s rectangular beds. Missing from the list are tomatoes and corn. The Moravians, as well as many others in the 18th century, believed tomatoes were poisonous, and corn was considered suitable only for animal feed.

old-salem-medicinal-garden=butterflyThe garden’s Monarch Butterfly Way Station.

Hortus Medicus
Had a Moravian individual consumed a “poisonous” tomato, the physicians would have likely treated the patient with herbs harvested from the pharmacy of that era, the medicinal garden, or Hortus Medicus. Rescued from abandonment by local Master Gardeners in 2003, the garden was recreated according to Brother Christian Gottlieb Reuter’s 1761 map of the Hortus Medicus.  America’s oldest known medicinal garden, Hortus Medicus was originally planted in 1753 by the first physician for the new Moravian community, the tall blond Brother Hans Martin Kalberlahn, known then as “the Angel of Healing.” The garden quickly grew to become the area’s regional “medical center” and after Brother Kalberlahn’s death from typhus in 1760, Brother Johann Augustus Shubert planted the garden as it appears today.

old-salem-medicinal-garden-bloodroot-marker Adonis annua, aka Blooddrops was used as a cardiac stimulant.

The medicinal garden continues to function, not as a pharmacy, but as a living history demonstration and seed source. Some of the garden’s plants contain active chemicals with significant medicinal value and are part of modern pharmacopeia, while others can be toxic and even fatal. Dispensing of these plants required knowledge and care. According to Victoria Fulton, Historic Bethabara’s Park Director who walked me through the garden, adonis annua, aka Blooddrops, contains adonidin and was used as a cardiac stimulant. Ten times more powerful than the common heart drug digitalis, it can also be a powerful cardiac poison.


To-may-toes, To-mah-toes…Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off
Back to the previously-believed-to-be poisonous tomato: Was it because tomato leaves bear a close resemblance to deadly nightshade, part of the Solanaceae family of plants? Or perhaps because the fruit’s early nickname was “poison apple” and as K. Annabelle Smith wrote in Smithsonian.com, “…it was thought that aristocrats got sick and died after eating them, but the truth of the matter was that wealthy Europeans used pewter plates, which were high in lead content. Because tomatoes are so high in acidity, when placed on this particular tableware, the fruit would leach lead from the plate, resulting in many deaths from lead poisoning. No one made this connection between plate and poison at the time; the tomato was picked as the culprit.” At the time, the Moravians were still of the poisonous tomato mindset.

For more on the tomato and more quirky fruit and vegetable history and factoids, check out Evelyne Bloch-Dano ‘s book Vegetables: A Biography, where the author takes us on a fascinating tour through the history of vegetables, drawing on art, literature,  language, geography, genetics, and horticulture to create colorful narratives of some common plants.


Preserving Old Salem’s Agricultural Heritage
Resident gardeners today employ sustainable practices in and out of the garden to preserve Old Salem’s historical roots. Locals provide heirloom seeds, some passed down through generations, to a seed collection initiative, “Seeds with Stories,” for chronicling and even planting.


With practices like these, Old Salem can preserve and bring back to life its rich horticultural history by sharing the seed’s ancestry and the stories of the Moravian families who first grew them.


The Old Salem Horticulture Program’s seed bank collection includes seeds of over 45 heirloom vegetables, herbs, and flowers cultivated in the Salem area before 1850.


From plants that have gone to seed, the horticulture staff collects and saves the seeds for their future use and also shares them with Seed Savers Exchange.


Beyond preserving Old Salem’s agricultural heritage and much of its other history, the seed bank also rescues important varieties from extinction. By keeping its diverse seed stocks, the horticultural program also helps maintain the genetic diversity important to the future of our food supply.

Visit the Old Salem website for hours of operation and a calendar of events. Workshops are closed on Mondays.
Special getaway packages are available and many interesting events are planned in celebration of the 250-year anniversary, including the March 17th Garden Workshop: Adventures in 18th Century Cooking.

Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Robin Plaskoff Horton for Urban Gardens.

Disclosure: My trip to Winston-Salem and Old Salem was sponsored by Visit Winston-Salem. I was not paid to write this post; all opinions expressed herein are uniquely mine and not indicative of any sponsor opinions or positions.
















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    […] Experience 250 Years of Heirloom Vegetables and History in Old Salem, North Carolina […]

    — March 9, 2016 @ 14:41

  2. Guided Instagram Tour of the Global Urban Garden - Urban Gardens Pingback said:

    […] to Supper In the kitchen of the Miksch House and Garden at Winston-Salem, North Carolina’s Old Salem Museums & Gardens, costumed interpreters led an interactive living history demonstration of “seed to soil to […]

    — June 12, 2017 @ 19:53

  3. Guided Instagram Tour of the Global Urban Garden – Roosevelt hyde park Pingback said:

    […] Soil to Supper In the kitchen of the Miksch House and Garden at Winston-Salem, North Carolina’s Old Salem Museums & Gardens, costumed interpreters led an interactive living history demonstration of “seed to soil to […]

    — June 24, 2017 @ 06:20

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