Winston celebrates 150 years

• City outgrew its humble beginnings and became an industrial power in N.C.

By Martin Kady

In 1849, all it took was $256.25 and a public-land auction to create a town that would become an industrial power in North Carolina.

City leaders yesterday celebrated that simple exchange of land, which opened the door to the tobacco and textile industry, a population boom and the eventual merging of Winston and Salem.

Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the creation of Winston, and the occasion was marked with a celebration more fit for a small town than the bustling industrial city Winston became.

A high-school band played in a gazebo, with red, white and blue bunting hung on the rails; politicians and neighborhood leaders gave short, patriotic speeches; and the attendees ate cake and ice cream under the shade trees of Grace Court on Fourth Street.

Event organizers also disclosed plans to build a free-standing ''millennium'' clock in the park in West End.

It was an anniversary that almost slipped the minds of many in this city. Many people are aware of the 1753 founding of Salem. And 1913 was the year of the all-important merger between Winston and Salem.

But the significance of 1849 was pretty much forgotten, until West End resident Eric Elliott decided to organize a little party of sorts.

Mayor Jack Cavanagh used the occasion to talk about the city's changing identity. He also echoed his theme of calling Winston-Salem a ''soon-to-be renaissance city.''

''We are searching for rebirth and renewal . . . We are looking for a new destiny,'' Cavanagh told the crowd of about 50. ''We are no longer a tobacco town. We need to move on and create that new identity. This history is part of the dynamic this city needs.''

Winston's birth came about from the cleaving of Forsyth County from Stokes County in 1849. Forsyth needed a county seat, and Salem, as the largest village in the new county, was a natural choice.

But the Moravians who dominated Salem weren't sure whether they wanted that role for their town. For one thing, the Moravian church objected to whipping -- a frequent punishment in those days -- and didn't want whipping posts in Salem.

So they decided to sell land for the new county seat. Some people wanted the seat a few miles away from Salem, so as not to corrupt the Moravian way of life.

But the prevailing view was to build it close to Salem, to take advantage of any commercial benefits the new town might bring.

On May 12, 1849, the church sold 51 acres to the new Forsyth Board of County Commissioners, including a tract of land for a courthouse. Winston was born.

Well, sort of. For more than a year, the new town had no name. On Jan. 15, 1851, the General Assembly passed a law naming the town Winston, for Joseph Winston, a local Revolutionary War hero. Forsyth County is named for Benjamin Forsyth, a veteran of the War of 1812.

Little did the original settlers know that the new kid on the block would soon begin overshadowing the village of Salem.

''All that happened 150 years ago was an exchange of paper,'' said Elliott, who is president of the West End Association. ''Who would have known that Winston would become the internationally known city of commerce?''

Published: May 13, 1999