If you are craving a great place to spend an afternoon, where beauty, history and an opportunity to broaden one’s education conjoin, make sure to pay a visit to Bethabara (located at 2147 Bethabara Road), the site of the first Moravian settlement in North Carolina. Located just north of present day Winston-Salem, on November 17, 1753, Bethabara (from the Hebrew, meaning “House of Passage”) was founded by German-speaking Moravians from Pennsylvania at the behest of the Moravian Church. The idea was to lay ground for an economic venture which imagined a place where both religion and profit might successfully meet in the middle. This first European settlement in the North Carolina Piedmont made its home on land that the Moravian Church had purchased from Lord Granville, an area known as Wachovia.
Bethabara was effectively the first of three settlements in Wachovia, with two others – Bethania and Salem – following in future succession. The group of 15 Moravian men were sent down the Great Wagon Road with high hopes, united in their commonly and deeply held religious convictions, to develop a community which would thrive. From the far reaches of Pennsylvania, they counted among themselves a doctor, farmers and various types of tradesmen whose skills, together, might ensure the successful development of a community. In the beginning they lived in a small abandoned cabin located in the northwest part of the 99,000-acre tract of Wachovia, surrounded by indigenous peoples along with ever-present wildlife which both often presented possible danger. The women folk would arrive sometime later and families would form.
Although Bethabara was originally only meant to be a temporary settlement to create a foothold in the Piedmont of North Carolina for the Moravians, it ultimately became an important economic center on the North Carolina frontier. According to the Historic Bethabara Park website, as the population grew and settlers from other regions arrived, “Several money-making ventures were attempted … from growing silkworms (silk cloth) to grapes (wine) but none were successful. Bethabara became a profitable venture when the town began taking part in the fur trade, purchasing furs from trappers in exchange for goods made by Bethabara tradesmen.” Ultimately, furs would then make their way to the port cities of Wilmington, North Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina, where a handsome profit was turned for the Moravians.
After the French and Indian War in 1754, church leaders, apparently happy with the apparent prosperity of its Bethabara “boomtown,” sent instructions to the community to begin construction of a new entity, to be called Salem, in the center of the Wachovia tract. By 1820 most of the buildings in Bethabara and its inhabitants were gone, having moved on to Salem and elsewhere. The first Moravian settlement in North Carolina had ended and it was not until 1856, when the Church finally relinquished all governance of the larger municipality, that it became secular, although it continued to bask in its former historical glory and long-held traditions.
In Bethabara, you have the wistful feeling of nostalgically stepping back in time. One of its real beauties is the fact that it is a veritable living history museum. On its grounds you can enjoy so many things – extensive walking trails, activities like birding or kite flying, having picnics or simply taking photographs – all under the backdrop of a history which keeps that focus in clear and resilient view. Today historic Bethabara Park and its caretakers lovingly preserve the legacy and heritage of the “Old Town.” Importantly, in 1999 it was designated a National Historic landmark, thus elevating it to greater public recognition which came to include the awareness of its gorgeous 183-acres of wildlife preserve, wetlands and expansive parks. Also included in this historical gem are what remains of the original village, such as the excavated foundations of the original buildings, the restored Gemeinhaus ( the oldest Moravian Church in North Carolina) and colonial gardens.
Be sure to check out the Visitor Center (open in April), the Palisade Fort, which was built in 1756, the 1782 Potters’ House, 1803 Brewer’s House, Krause-Butner Pottery-Dye Shop and the 1816 Log House. Additionally, there are often free demonstrations involving blacksmithing, pottery, colonial medicine, woodworking, textiles, and even about Moravian star ornaments. There are frequent festivals (like the Apple Festival and Scottish Highlands) and historic reenactments. Walking the grounds of the park, you can almost envision how in June 1771, Governor William Tryon encamped his army nearby after his victory over the Regulators at the Battle of Alamance or how during the Revolutionary War in February 1781, Lord Cornwallis marched his English battalions through Bethabara. One “feels” the omnipresent history in the Park which will surely touch your heart and soul.