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Books We Like

Published 6/9/2016 by Don Dwiggins

Books We Like

This month we take an in-depth look at Winston-Salem's Historic Salem Cemetery written by our own Molly Grogan Rawls, a Librarian in our NC Room and manager of our Photograph Collection.

From the first few pages of Winston-Salem’s Historic Salem Cemetery any preconceived ideas the reader may harbor concerning a book about a cemetery are quickly--ahem-- buried deep in the cold, cold ground. This is a book about the city’s best known cemetery but the author deftly positions the story within the context of sharing a little bit of history about several individuals who are interred there.

The idea for the book was the result of another project Rawls was working on with J.R. Snider of the City of Winston-Salem. “He wanted photographs of all the mayors of Winston-Salem to be put in City Hall. Mayors at that time only served two years or in some cases less. There would be holes in his list and he would wonder who in the world was that, “ says Rawls.

Hitting dead ends in an effort to identify and learn a little about the missing mayors Rawls turned to a resource that yielded results. “One of the best ways to find out about people would be to read their obituary. But some of these people pre-dated 1913 when you had to have a death certificate. So we started looking through the cemetery records put together by the Forsyth County Genealogical Society.”

As Rawls combed through cemetery records the shroud of mystery began to lift. “Many of these mayors were buried in Salem Cemetery. These records gave us a death date and then we could look up their obituary. So I made an extra copy of the obit I was looking up and started amassing a collection of people. I then started putting all the Salem Cemetery obits together and others in another file, says Rawls.

While the list of mayor began to grow so did another list that may be a surprise to many people. “Not only mayors are buried in Salem Cemetery but also one governor. Robert B. Glenn that we lay claim to. Then you have the tobacco manufacturers, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and then you get into the Hanes family, the Gray family. And then just a lot of people with schools named after them, streets named for people, just a variety of people, including a lot of people who contributed to the city who we may never have heard of,” says Rawls.

Salem Cemetery itself is laid out on about as unlikely section of ground as you could imagine. The dips and rises of the ground would seem to make burials there less than ideal. “To me it is an unlikely place to have a cemetery because of the rolling landscape. It’s very rolling very hilly. And also because of the variety of graves there. There are vaults built into the hillside, vaults scattered along the hillside,” says Rawls.

One interesting side note. As anyone who has visited the cemetery or driven by knows, it sits near God’s Acre and Home Moravian Church. Many Moravians have eschewed burial in God’s Acre for interment instead in Salem Cemetery. Why? In God’s Acre family plots are not allowed as they are in Salem Cemetery.

For all the challenges with the contour of the land Salem Cemetery was still a desired burial locations for a wide spectrum of prominent figures and also everyday citizens in the city’s past.

Anyone unfamiliar with the people who laid the foundation for Winston-Salem’s early success and long term growth will find the book difficult to put down as the author unfolds summaries of the life and contributions of many people whose names you will instantly recognize and others whose names may be unfamiliar but whose work and legacies you will know. For those who are more familiar with the city’s history, the book is guaranteed to expand your base of knowledge and more than likely add a few things you probably didn’t know.

Winston-Salem’s Historic Salem Cemetery overflows with capsules of personal stories and histories of fascinating people who called Winston-Salem home.

As you read the book it’s interesting to see just how many people during the late 19th century and early 20th century came to Winston-Salem from places around the state, country and world to find work and then in many cases build a business themselves, several of which are still around today.

“When they came here they started in very menial jobs. They started doing something the liked. Or maybe they had an opportunity through families, or some relationships. They came into the city and took a job and they built it. They weren’t necessarily handed a grand position but they stayed at it. Even what we would consider the well-to-do families today did not necessarily come with a lot of money,” Rawls explains.

One such personality profiled in the book is Captain John Jacob Sigg (1854-1926). Sigg, born in Switzerland immigrated to the U.S. around 1873 and started work in a Philadelphia textile mill. When the mill decided to operate day and night the company installed a lighting system. Sigg took charge of the electrical machinery behind the lighting system. He devoted himself to the study of electricity working for several electric companies where he earned a reputation as an excellent electrical engineer. He came to Winston-Salem around 1903 to work for the Fries Manufacturing and Power Company. Sigg also managed Nissen Park, owned by Fries Manufacturing, where he introduced the first moving pictures at the Park. He was also an expert botanist, responsible for many of the wonderful plants and botanical splendor found within the Park.

While cemeteries often solve mysteries associated with genealogical questions about an individual, they sometimes can create them as well. Consider the case of one Virginia, Bell “Snookie” Dyer Vanden Boom. As Rawls tells the story, “my interest in her came while I was looking through cemetery records and just happened to see this name Snookie Dyer. I looked up her obit in the paper and couldn’t find it. I thought that was curious but that happens sometimes. But I did see one for a little girl name Virginia Bell Vanden Boom, She was about the same age, her mother came from Virginia, father had passed away.”

It was on a winter’s day after a snowfall that Rawls decided to snap a few photos of a snow covered Salem Cemetery that the mystery of “Snookie” was solved by happenstance. “I was taking a picture of the Shaffner vault. There is a stained glass window in this vault which you can see from the front door. I wanted to see what it looked like from the back. So I walked around and I saw the Dyer monument. And sure enough there was a little stone that said “Snookie,” That’s all it said. On the other side between some trees there was a large stone that said Vanden Boom. There was a stone that said Adrian and another for Virginia Humphrey.

What had happened was the Genealogical Society had seen this marker for ‘Snookie’ right at the Dyer family plot. They had given her the last name Dyer since she didn’t have a last name on her stone.”

Throughout the book are stories that paint an indelible portrait of Winston-Salem’s early days, the people and families who laid the foundation for a city to grow and prosper well into the future.

Families such as the Fries who built and operated several textile mills around the turn of the century. The Shaffners who were medical doctors and real estate professionals. Edward O’Hanlon, a local druggist who saw the need for more office space in a growing Winston-Salem and built the O’Hanlon building which still stands today. Charles Edward Norfleet who was instrumental in developing Memorial Coliseum and the fairgrounds and was credited with building Smith Reynolds Airport. Tom Davis who founded Piedmont Aviation that later became Piedmont Airlines. Alexander Miller, born in Oklahoma he came to the city at an early age. A successful businessman he was a major civic benefactor who donated land in Ardmore for what would become Miller Park. Urey Kevil Rice, born in Kentucky he came to Winston-Salem in 1921 to open the Robert E. Lee Hotel. He later became manager of the Carolina Theater and Mary Sapos Chamis. Born in Greece she came to Winston-Salem in 1921. Mary and her husband William established the popular Town Steak House No. 1 on Lockland Avenue and later Town Steak House No. 2 in Thruway Shopping Center.

The roll of names goes on and on, a veritable who’s, who of leaders of business and industry, government and civic institutions. And there are individuals who did nothing more extraordinary than roll up their sleeves and go to work everyday, day-in-and-day-out, forming the foundation that marked the city as an economic success across the state.

“Everyone has a story,” says Rawls. ”Whether you are a well known person or not. We all have a story to tell. I could have written about many, many different people who had interesting stories. A lot of the book was photo driven. I wanted to show the individual’s photos instead of just monuments or markers. If I had chosen to do more markers I could have told more about ordinary, everyday people. That would have been an interesting story also. To me that’s the most important thing, telling the stories of these people.”

The interesting stories told in Winston-Salem’s Historic Salem Cemetery were not simply the fortunate convergence of people, place and time. History is nothing more than a journey through time. A journey we all take and the legacy that endures tells not just our individual story, but collectively that of our community. As so wonderfully told in Winston-Salem’s Historic Salem Cemetery, everyone does indeed have a story.

Photographs from Winston-Salem's Historic Salem Cemetery.