Old Salem, North Carolina

Winston-Salem is a city in North Carolina that preserves and honors its history while carefully transforming itself into a modern city with a great deal to offer residents as well as visitors looking for a weekend getaway. Today we’ll look at fun Instagram spot, stop at a visitor’s center that is a destination unto itself, walk through Historic Old Salem, and wrap up with a savory, world-famous treat from North Carolina.

As you complete your drive to Winston-Salem, you may need to stop for fuel. If this is the case, your first stop should be a real gas station. Your next stop should be the Shell Oil seashell gas station.

Fill’er Up

Located just off interstate 40 near Winston-Salem, I pull into a seashell-shaped gas station that looks like a full-service station of yesteryear. I almost expect an attendant to come out and greet me. Eight of these stations were built in the 1930s as part of a Shell Oil campaign to increase brand awareness. This particular gas station was in operation into the 1950s and is now the last remaining station of its kind. After taking a few selfies, it’s time to get to the Winston-Salem Visitors Center.

Winston-Salem Visitors Center
I have always been more of a “figure it out myself” kind of traveler, but I’m starting to appreciate all the resources and guides available at visitor centers. The Winston-Salem Visitors Center is located in a renovated and repurposed textile mill from the 1830s and a cool destination unto itself.

Salem Cotton Manufacturing Company and Arista Cotton Mill was built in 1836 by Salem’s Moravian congregation. It is the oldest physical reminder of the textile industry in Winston-Salem. In 1880, Arista Mills added a second complex to this facility which played an important role in the industrial revolution. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and now houses the city’s visitor center as well as the Historic Brookstown Inn which you may want to consider for lodging.

There was a sweet lady that showed me around the place and helped arm me with brochures and maps to inform today’s visit as well as more in the future. After spending far longer than anticipated at the welcome center, it is time for the main attraction – Old Salem.

Old Salem

History aficionados will be drawn to Winston-Salem to visit Old Salem. The entire Old Salem area is designated as National Historic Landmark district. It comes with its own visitor’s center, tours, an app with narration for self-guided tours, period re-enactors, and shops. You can walk the streets of Old Salem anytime but access inside most buildings is limited to specific hours of operations. Walking across the bridge from the visitor center, you step back in time over 250 years.

The area now known as Old Salem was settled in 1753 by Moravians (German protestants) fleeing Roman Catholic Church persecution. This was the first settlement in the wilderness area known today as the piedmont region of North Carolina which is nestled in between the mountain and coastal regions. Almost 200 years after Salem was first settled, the area was purchased by preservationists in 1947 to protect Salem from the commercial development that was threatening to destroy its unique history and to restore the historic landmarks.

While the entire Old Salem district is a National Historic Landmark, there are two building specifically designated as National Historic Landmark Buildings. The first is the Salem Tavern built in 1772 and rebuilt (after fire) in 1784.

The Tavern offered accommodations and meals for visitors to Salem. President George Washington visited the Salem Tavern in 1791 as part of his Southern tour. Another bit of trivia connected with the Revolutionary War: the first publicly held Independence Day celebration in America took place in Salem, North Carolina on July 4th, 1783. This event was recorded by the Moravian Church and is the earliest documented July 4th celebration in America.

In Salem, single adult men lived in one home called the Single Brothers House. Single women had a similar arrangement with the Single Sisters House. The second building designated as National Historic Landmark is the Single Brothers House. The image below captures the original wing of the Single Brothers House and the workshop behind the home.

Women at the Single Sisters House began an educational program for young girls in 1772. By 1805, the educational effort had evolved into a boarding school for young women with an initial class of 30 girls. The school advanced to become an academy and ultimately a fully-accredited college – the first all women’s college in the South. Today, Salem College is oldest continuously operational all-female college in the United States.

I arrived in Old Salem during a period when it was closed for tours. Even so, with map in hand from the Winston-Salem visitors center located a few miles away, I was still able to walk the streets, admire the historic buildings, and reflect on the history all around me. I look forward to coming back for a more immersive experience when Old Salem is open for business and tours. Since I couldn’t satisfy my sweet tooth and coffee craving in Old Salem, it was time to look elsewhere.

Krispy Kreme Doughnuts
The company we know today as Krispy Kreme Doughnuts opened its first location in what is now Old Salem, North Carolina in 1937. The original secret recipe was purchased by the Rudolph family (father and two sons) from a French chef in New Orleans. One of the brothers, Vernon Rudolph, first sold his savory treats to local grocery stores in Salem. The morning scent of those cooking doughnuts drew attention and requests from passersby. Soon, Vernon was selling his original glazed doughnuts from the bakery to locals through a storefront window. A marker of this site sits at the corner of Main and Academy streets in Old Salem.
Krispy Kreme’s flagship store (shown in the photo below) is located a few miles from Old Salem and its world headquarters is also located in Winston-Salem.

Krispy Kreme’s website (2021) lists about 360 stores with the heaviest concentration being in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia. Spot checks for locations in other states include New York, Michigan, Texas, and California. Along with stores across America, Krispy Kreme is approaching 700 stores operating internationally and has an estimated market value of $3.6 billion. Not bad for a bakery that started in Old Salem, N.C.

When you are wanting to experience a Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut at its mouth-watering, melt-in-your-mouth best, look for the “Hot Now” red light on the store front which indicates the doughnuts are coming out hot and fresh from the oven. There’s even a Krispy Kreme app that will send “Hot Now” notifications from nearby stores.

I have only scratched the surface of all that Winston-Salem has to offer and look forward to sharing more from this up and coming North Carolina city.

Leave a Reply