The Development of Early Commerce in Forsyth County
When the first permanent settlers established Bethabara in 1753, they used the only path worthy of being called a road â€” the Great Wagon Road, which extended all the way back to Philadelphia, Pa. â€” to reach what would not become Forsyth County until nearly 100 years later. Native Americans may have left footpaths and artifacts, but were mostly gone from the immediate area when the Moravians arrived.
Before long, that road, and others that reached eastwards to Cross Creek (later Fayetteville, N.C.) or followed the rivers southeast to Charleston, S.C., became vital routes to aid the success of the industrious craftspeople of Salem and, later, Winston.
While the Moravians of Bethabara, Bethania (1759) and Salem (1766) sold some products to nearby non-Moravian settlers, they sought markets for their quality crafts far beyond the immediate area, too.
Within six years of Salem’s founding, Conestoga wagons would be filled and sent in various directions from the frontier town, carrying deerskins, beeswax candles, dried peaches, grain, butter, tobacco and earthenware goods. Normally, the wagons would return loaded with other products needed by the townspeople and the town store. (The tobacco exports were aided by the arrival of Matthew Miksch in 1772. Miksch manufactured and sold snuff and tobacco.)
Salem’s significance to the western half of North Carolina was that, for this small town, it boasted a large number of skilled craftspeople. Whether it was the pottery of Gottfried Aust and his successor, Rudolph Christ; the Voglers’ guns (Christoph, John and Timothy); tin and coppersmiths Johann Christoph and Jacob Reich; hats from Adam Butner; or silver goods and early daguerreotype photos from Traugott Leinbach, items from Salem, if not unique, were rarely found in an area still close to a wilderness well into the 1800s.
It was perhaps no coincidence that the first trade-related object installed in the first room of the First House of Salem was a loom to create textile products, though the town never really excelled in linens and other clothing goods until the mid-1800s. Nevertheless, a 1793 letter in a newspaper notes that the county had 100 looms plus those in the towns, a fulling mill, a number of tanneries for leather products, 14 grist mills, and a paper mill created by Gottlieb Shober, who was also a tinsmith.
Better roads helped the region’s crafts and other goods to be sold profitably to coastal cities and elsewhere, but business remained chiefly one of individual craftspeople until the church opened Salem Manufacturing Company in 1837, an early cotton mill to make yarn, sheeting, bed ticking and napkins. Using multiple laborers, including non-Moravians, it marked the region’s first sign of the Industrial Revolution.
Francis L. Fries, who learned at the cotton mill, started his own large textile mill in 1840, a business that stayed healthy until well into the 1900s on the site of the present Brookstown Mill buildings. Forsyth County was formed in 1849, creating the adjacent county town of Winston north of Salem. But the county, still on the frontier, continued to face challenges in moving its products to other markets.
A significant change in transporting products came in 1852-1854, when the Western Plank Road (also known as the “farmer’s railroad” and the “Appian Way of North Carolina”) was opened, running from Fayetteville to Bethania by way of Carthage, Asheboro, High Point and right through downtown Salem and Winston. In 1858, some of the planks in Winston were removed and the road was macadamized.
For nearly 20 years, wagons and stagecoaches had a faster route to and from the Cape Fear River. Many of those wagons came from the Nissen and Spach/Spaugh Brothers wagon makers.
The area’s growth continued slowly up until and through the Civil War. In 1850, manufacturers in the county employed about 62 people; by 1860, that number increased to 195, including 76 women, mostly working in woolen and cotton goods.
In 1872, however, the town’s first permanent tobacco warehouse was established. Even more importantly, a 28-mile-long railroad spur from Greensboro arrived in 1873, and R. J. Reynolds came to town the next year. Now, products could move by rail as well as by road, and business would change dramatically in a very short time indeed.
Winston-Salem: A History, by Frank V. Tursi, John F. Blair, Publishers, 1994.
Winston-Salem: A Pictorial History, by Fambrough L. Brownlee, Donning Company/Publishers, 1977.
Forsyth: The History of a County on the March, Revised Edition, by Adelaide Fries, Stuart Thurman Wright and J. Edwin Hendricks, 1976.
The Moravians and Their Town of Salem, Dept. of Interpretation, Old Salem Inc., 1997.