Season 1, Episode 4
A Discussion with Dr. Michele Williams of Historic Bethania
From why the location of the town was chosen to what the town is like today, Dr. Michele Williams of Historic Bethania presents information about Bethania not discussed in episode three. How was the community planned? Why were the specific families chosen to live in Bethania? How did this mix of Moravians and non-Moravians living together in a community affect the development of Wachovia?
Dr. Michele Williams
Announcer: James Landolf
Transcript for A Discussion with Dr. Michele Williams of Historic Bethania
Announcer: This is Moravian Mornings. A podcast discussing the history surrounding the Moravians who settled in Wachovia.
Casey: Good morning. Welcome to this week’s episode of Moravian Mornings. This week we are speaking with Dr. Michele Williams of Historic Bethania. Bethania is often one of the lesser talked about settlements in Wachovia. We thought speaking to Michele would be an excellent opportunity to learn more about Bethania. Before we get started, Michele would you mind introducing yourself?
Michele: My name is Michele Williams. I have an undergraduate degree in botany from the University of Michigan and then a master’s and PhD in paleoethnobotany, just say archeology, from Washington University in St. Louis. I’ve been here in the town of Winston-Salem for about five years, and I’ve been the manager of the Bethania Visitor Center for about four years. I am not a historian, and I don’t have a background in Moravian religion, so every day I come to work I learn a little something new.
Maizie: I think I’m right in that boat there with you cause I’m new to Bethabara, so I’m learning stuff each and every day as well. How was the community of Bethania planned?
Michele: So, it’s interesting because Bethania was the second community as you know after Bethabara, and what happened, as you know as well, that there were a lot of non-Moravians that started coming to Bethabara for the protection and for the resources, cultural, religious, and all the reasons they came. When it came time to start building a second community, the issue came up of we’re going to have to make this a mixed community in order to relieve some of the pressure on Bethabara. They came up with several plans, all of them based conveniently on German medieval villages. Isn’t that exactly what you would do if you were building a town in the frontier of nowhere? Decide to build another Moravian medieval village.
They designed the town based on these very classic medieval systems with a town square and a line of houses, very close together. In the fields that were associated and supposed to be the subsistence for these people were then located outside. When they did this, it did a couple of things. One, it made the town very defendable which could become an issue with Bethabara. Secondly, it made a town that everybody already knew. I mean, what would be better coming home to a town you had already left in Germany or in other European nations. The town was based on this very simple, what’s called a linear agricultural village, which is why Bethania to this day is the only medieval agricultural village left in the southeast United States.
Casey: Oh wow.
Maizie: I think that’s something we saw in our research.
Michele: The community was planned based on the land that was here, so one of the important things that Christian Gottlieb Reuter saw here was the combination of soil, water, and ground that could be farmed. Being a map geek like I am, I actually took one of Christian Gottlieb Reuter’s maps and then rubber sheeted it on to the USGS soil maps. He did a really good job of picking out a place that had a diversity of soils because the kind of land that grows good figs doesn’t grow good peaches, doesn’t grow good potatoes. They talked about the walnut bottoms here, which is why we have a walnut festival. Those walnut bottoms were a place where the creeks, including Muddy Creek, overflow up against a bluff, and so it put in real nice soul. If you live in Winston-Salem, you’ll know that we don’t have soil, we have clay.
We actually have soil in Bethania, so those walnut bottoms were a reason that this place was picked, along with the water which saw they for drinking water but also a source of power for when they started making the mills. Christian Gottlieb Reuter was a good architect, a good surveyor, but in my heart, he was a botanist, and he was interested in – when he talks about the walnut bottoms, he didn’t give a hoot about the walnuts, he gave a hoot about the soil under the walnuts. People come here interested in whether or not we still have walnut bottoms, and we do, but that’s not why it was picked. In fact, the black walnut trees put off a chemical in their roots that make it difficult to farm. The first thing you had to do when you came to a walnut bottom was get rid of them stinkin’ walnuts. That is how this town was selected and our, fortunately and yet unfortunately named Black Walnut Festival. I never get to explain why is both fortunate and unfortunate.
Casey: We talk about a little in the previous episode about the eight Moravian families and the eight non-Moravian families who were chosen to live in Bethania. Why were these specific families chosen?
Michele: The Moravian families it really looks like they were looking for people who had very specific trades. There were these eight families in Bethabara, the refugees of the Indian Wars, who wrote a document asking to be considered to be part of the church and also asking to be allowed to move to this new town because of the overcrowding. So, there’s this whole checklist of how to be a good non-Moravian in a Moravian town that was developed, and people had to sign those documents. If you try and follow the timeline of when each family got here, there was also a number of single men that came here because there was a lot more single men than there were families. It was a mix of folks that ended up occupying the place.
Casey: Did they ask the Lot after they selected the eight Moravian families based off of their trades?
Michele: My guess is they were selected off of the trades. The documents that I have that have been translated for Bethania don’t specifically say that a Lot was drawn. That’s just based on the documents I have available to me today. They did draw Lots to determine which pieces of property would go to people. There were then lots drawn because the farm fields were divided into three sections: gardens, house lots, and then orchard lots. They also used the Lot to decide how those were going to be.
Maizie: What did this mix of families mean for the Moravian faith in Wachovia?
Michele: I think that was an interesting time for the faith because it was also that moment when Count Zinzendorf, Spangenberg, and the whole church from its highest levels down was changing what they expected to happen in these outposts. There had been a very strong and very specific vision of the faith in the early 1700s. By the mid- and late-1700s, powers shifted, people moved, and all of a sudden, some place like Bethania became a real example of what could and could not happen within the faith. There was a real emphasis on making sure that people acted the way they were expected that they kept within – that everybody colored within the lines. My guess, that allowed the faith to really change the options for towns that came after Salem even.
When you talk about Friedberg, Friedland, and Hope, those kind of communities then had a slightly different option rather just being another Bethabara or Salem. They could be communities that were more economically based rather than just faith based. The other thing I often times tell visitors is that mixing the community did some really good things because the Moravians coming over here were people of great faith but maybe not the best backcountry farmers that anyone had ever seen. By mixing the community, it allowed there to be a broader array of crafts that were going to be practiced in the town and also a better array of people who could help each other.
Maizie: So, you discussed some of the differences between Bethania and Salem and Bethabara, so how does Bethania differ today from Salem and Bethabara?
Michele: The community today is still – the seventeen-hundred homes are still occupied. Importantly, unlike Salem and Bethabara, we do not have a historic overlay in the community. We have a very active historical association that helps the landowners in the area make good decisions about preserving those homes. That has a lot to do with that independent spirit of Bethania. While the community still sees itself as an important historic contribution to the overall area, it also sees itself as a dynamic living thing. It is less of a museum or an archeology site and more of a beautiful little community that people live in these houses and modify the houses and try and make them come together as a community and take care of their needs as individuals well. I think that really summarizes that first day of Bethania. We’re a community, but we’re also individuals as well.
The way the three places are organized is very different. Bethabara is a park and it’s being managed as a park and as an important resource. Old Salem is a not-for-profit and a gorgeous contribution to living history, just like Bethabara is. Now Bethania, it’s an independent municipality. We have our trash service, and so, there is today under my tutelage and part because of my interest, a lot less emphasis on reenactment and a lot more emphasis on things like our trail system. When Bethania became an independent municipality, there was a concern that these fields that had been used and designed by Christian Gottlieb Reuter and used by the Moravians here for hundreds of years would become subdivisions or otherwise become developed. Community members and the Board of Commissioners worked with the Piedmont Land Conservancy and the Audubon Society to have those lands purchased, and developed, and donated back to the state and developed as conservation lands.
Maize: We would like to thank Historic Bethania’s Dr. Michele Williams for joining us today and expanding our knowledge on Historic Bethania. As always let us know what you think of this week’s episode, and if anyone has any further questions on Historic Bethania, email us or message us on Instagram, and we will do our best to gather up some information and answer those questions for you guys.
Announcer: This has been an episode of Moravian Mornings, a Historic Bethabara Park podcast. If you have any questions or would like our hosts to discuss certain topics, please email us at Moravianmornings@gmail.com or message us on our Instagram page, also titled Moravian Mornings. Thanks for listening. Auf Wiedersehen.
On my Way to Work by Lobo Loco (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/)