When the sun is barely rising on the cobbled streets of Old Salem, Bobby James and Jeffrey Sherrill open the creaky wooden door to Winkler’s, and, working by candlelight, begin to mix the dough and build the fire in the dome-shaped oven as old as the town itself, in preparation for baking the daily bread and sugar cake this peace-loving community has become known for. The bakery, started by Christian Winkler and his wife, Elizabeth, in 1807, is one of a cluster of buildings that make up the village of Old Salem, a historic settlement in North Carolina founded in 1766 by the Moravians, former exiles from the (now) the Czech Republic.
Bobby James (left) and Jeffrey Sherrill (right) have been baking typical Moravian pastries at Winkler’s Bakery for the past 15 years. Image by Joshua Ruffner.
While Winkler’s Bakery is one of the first destinations for many who come to visit this settlement, the entire village is a living history museum and draws thousands of guests year-round—though no season is more poignant than Christmas. From the Candle Tea on December 1 where the heritage art of beeswax candle-making is demonstrated, to the lighting of the Christmas tree, the singing of carols accompanied by an 1800 Tannenberg organ, and the candlelight tours of historical buildings, the town comes alive with an old-fashioned Christmas spirit. Fence posts and doorways are draped in fresh pine; candles glow in the windows; and each home displays the Moravian star, symbolic of the celestial guidance that led the Wise Men to Bethlehem.
And then there are the ghosts who like to haunt the village; “happy ghosts”, as the bakers call them, who reportedly take pleasure in snuffing out candles, banging doors, or laughing in the attics of the buildings, many of which date to the 1700s. There is a certain magic in the air as one walks past Salem Tavern where George Washington spent several nights in 1791. There’s a feeling of time travel when nibbling on sugar cakes during a Love Feast at St. Philips African Moravian Church where freedom was announced on May 21, 1865, by a Union Army cavalry chaplain. And there’s a surreal sense of peace when walking along the neat paths of God’s Acre where flat, marble headstones mark the graves of over 7,000 Moravians buried there since 1771.
The spirit of Old Salem carries a sense of serenity and quietude, reminiscent of a simpler time when life was unhurried, one had time to chat with the neighbors, and everyone in a community played a vital role, from the humble candlemaker and baker to the doctor or gunsmith. If you find yourself in this quaint little town when the clock strikes noon and the stones in Winkler’s Oven have heated to 400 degrees, you can be sure Brother James and Brother Jeffrey will have sugar cakes and bread to sample, in the hospitable tradition that carries on the spirit of this old village.