It’s one of the things you do when you’re in Winston-Salem. You see the giant coffee pot. You eat some Krispy Kreme Donuts. You take a picture of the big downtown building that looks like a penis. And you stroll around Old Salem, or in our case – given a mom that doesn’t get around like she used to and a still gimpy dog – you drive.
Since we were at the Moravian Graveyard, or God’s Acre, anyway — to place some flowers on the grave of a great aunt — Ace, mom and I decided to cruise around Old Salem, a restored Moravian settlement that, like a smaller scale Williamsburg, features old-time craftsmen and shops staffed by people in period garb.
Before Winston and Salem became one (in 1913), there was Salem to the south and Winston to the north. After the merger Winston-Salem became, for a while, the most populous city in the state, and enjoyed a major boom powered by tobacco and textiles.
In some ways, it’s still bustling; in some ways it’s sleepy. Its tobacco-based economy has given way, ironically enough, to a health-care based one. Hospitals, it sometime seems, are taking over the town. There’s a thriving arts scene. Still, overall, the pace is slow.
Even though I knew that, even though Old Salem is a pedestrian experience — and I mean that in terms of people walking — I was surprised to see the speed limit that was posted in Old Salem: 2.5 miles per hour.
I’d never seen a speed limit that low, and when I tried to drive 2.5, it was nearly impossible. It’s just a smidge, or a skosh, above being motionless. But, laws being laws, I did my best, creeping along like a snail in my red jeep, traffic gathering behind me, mother beside me and Ace in the back seat wondering, I’d guess, “What is this? Are we stopping or not?”
As we crept along, my mother showed me the house my sister born in, and, nearby, the building at Salem College where she worked in the public relations department. As we left, I insisted on pulling over to take a picture of the speed limit sign, for by then – even though I’m all for playing it safe and slowing down in life — I’d concluded that the the 2.5 mile speed limit was one of the most ridiculous things ever.
By that time, I needed a strong cup of coffee, for driving 2.5 makes one sleepy at an amazing speed.
I settled for the coffee pot, just a couple of blocks away and one of Winston-Salem’s best-known landmarks.
The coffee pot is 12 feet high, 16 feet in circumference and was made by tinsmith Julius Mickey in 1858. In the town then known as Salem, Mickey opened a grocery store and, in its loft, a tinsmith shop.
The tin shop turned out to fare far better than the grocery. It was the source of cups, plates, pots, pans, coffee and tea pots, buckets and lanterns and more — items in such demand that a second tinsmith opened just down the street.
To distinguish his shop from it, Mickey built, of tin, an enormous coffee pot, large enough, it is said, to hold 740 gallons of coffee. He placed it on a wooden post in front of his shop on the side of the street -– in a way that it actually extended into the street. Over time it became banged up by horse-drawn buggies that bumped it.
By the time Mickey sold his shop to another tinsmith, L. B. Brickenstein, the pot was considered both a town symbol and a nuisance.
In 1920, a horse and buggy driver struck the pot, knocking it off its wooden post. According to a 1966 article on the coffee pot’s history, published in the Winston-Salem Journal, the pot landed across the sidewalk, and just missed hitting a woman and child who were walking by.
The Winston-Salem board of alderman – the two towns having become one by then — ruled that the pot was a traffic hazard and a violation of a town ordinance regulating advertising signs. The board ordered it taken down. It was stored, but only briefly. After an outcry from those who saw it as an important landmark, it was put back up — just a little further away from the street.
In 1924, the Vogler family bought the old shop, and decided to leave the coffee pot standing, even if it didn’t exactly go with their expanding business — a funeral home.
In the 1950’s progress dictated — and progress does have a way of dictating — that the pot must go. Interstate 40 was coming through town, and the route went right through where the coffee pot stood. Suggestions that the highway be rerouted to skirt the pot were overruled.
Instead, the coffee pot was removed from its location at Belews and Main Street and, early in 1959, relocated to an expanse of grass at the point where the Old Salem bypass enters Main Street.
Coffee pot lore is abundant, some of it possibly even true. One legend has it that the pot served as a mail drop for spies during the Revolutionary War – a little hard to swallow considering it wasn’t built until 1858.
Still percolating as well are accounts that, during the Civil War, the coffee pot, which does have a trap door built into it, once hid a Yankee soldier (caffeinated version), or a Confederate soldier (decaffeinated version).
People do move slower in the south, and I think that’s a good thing.
In my travels with Ace, I’ve found that decreasing one’s pace, avoiding a schedule, allows one to see more, hear more, experience more, meet people more, and make fewer misteaks. (If you didn’t catch that, you’re reading too fast.)
Maybe I’m getting old, or maybe I’m getting southern, but I think we’d all be well served by not trying to do everything so fast — even if it does cut into the profit margin. We’d be better off — and I’d bet the average tinsmith agrees — to do our jobs more slowly and carefully, not to mention walk a little slower, talk a little slower, eat our Krispy Kreme donuts a little slower, even drive a little slower.
I’d highly recommend it — just not 2.5 mph.