The year was 1753. Fifteen men from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (near my hometown of Kintnersville) made their way along the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road to North Carolina. After hacking through the wilderness for a couple miles off the trail they came to a small abandoned cabin. This cabin would serve as their home until they could construct a larger structure.
Why were they there? The men were sent by the Moravian Church in Bethlehem to create the beginnings of a Moravian settlement in the North Carolina wilderness.
Bethabara (pronounced beth-ab-bra), is the early village established as the precursor to the permanent Moravian village of Salem only a few miles away. The original fifteen Moravian men were eventually joined by others from their church, including women and children, and a temporary town was constructed. Skilled craftsmen provided services to the townspeople and non-Moravians throughout the area. Trades such as a blacksmith, a tailor, and a potter were found by out-of-towners, along with doctors and skilled workers.
With trade comes a need for a hotel or inn, which was constructed for people visiting the town on business.
A medicinal garden was filled with plants used in the treatment of the sick and infirmed.
As French and Indian War raged in the area, the Moravians constructed a fort as protection from attacks by local native tribe. This fort provided a safe haven for Moravians and non-Moravians alike as the French and Indian War continued and hostilities increased. Reconstructed on its original site in the village of Bethabara, the fort stands today as a reminder of the past.
Central to the Moravian society was the church, or Gemeinhaus. The second church constructed in 1788 stands on the site today.
Eventually forgotten, it was a small miracle the town was found, as most of the structures fell in disrepair after the town was abandoned and eventually the basements were filled in and the area was used as a field for farming.
Fortunately, the Moravians kept detailed records which survive today, and thanks to those records archeologists were able to determine where structures were located. They were subsequently excavated and today Bethabara is an open air park in Winston-Salem.
Walking the grounds you can see the basements or spring houses that were located under the structures, as well as reconstructed buildings, the medicine garden, church and Potter’s House. It’s hard to imagine putting all this work into a bustling town, only to move it several miles away to Salem a few years later.
This 183-acre city park includes the historic town of Bethabara, the old cemetery, an old mill stone, and a walking trail that walks you past archeological sites, wetlands, a bog and stream, the mill pond and through the forest. Leisurely walking around the park allows you to read the signs posted throughout. On a crisp, sunny day in winter it’s a great way to spend an afternoon outdoors.
Take a picnic, or as in my case, a sugar rise donut snack from Donut King Donuts in Asheboro, and have a seat on any one of the benches in the park. Sit a spell and take it all in-history from centuries ago right before your eyes.
If you’re lucky you’ll have the entire park to yourself, save the cars that cut through the middle of the park to get across town. I was able to take my time to view and read the markers while walking the grounds in utter silence. This peace and quiet with a little bit of home (PA) sprinkled in for good measure spelled out a good day indeed.
If you’d like to see more historic Moravian settlements take some time to visit Bethania and Salem. Bethania, only a few miles away, has historic structures as well with one big exception: the town is still viable and houses many families today.
Salem, of course, is a day trip on its own. The permanent settlement that followed Bethabara is on par with historic Williamsburg, VA, but on a smaller scale. Working craftsmen take you on a journey back in time.
For me, each of these places reminds me of walking through Bethlehem, PA, near where I grew up, giving me a sense of nostalgia. The only thing missing is family. For this Yankee girl in a Southern world, I’ll take these small gifts when they’re offered. It’s what keeps me tied to the good memories of my past, never letting me forget home.