MESDA and Historic Old Salem
Up until the second quarter of the 19th century, the large population contained in the southern states, half the population of the new Republic, was distributed widely into rural communities isolated from the north and even each other. Only Charleston, South Carolina, could be considered a principle city. Land was not wanting for men and woman, but they for the land. Just as creativity flourished in the northern colonies, due to their isolation from Europe, necessary self-reliance fostered remarkable craftsman in the south. In the mid-Atlantic shorelands of the tobacco-wealthy "Chesapeake" region, mahogany tea tables were fashioned rivaling anything made in Europe or Philadelphia. In the eastern "Low Country," including the great port city of Charleston and extending to southern Georgia, sophisticated British design was adhered to in a way almost unique to the New World. In the southwestern "Backcountry" the Deutshch and others who traveled down the great wagon road of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and outward fashioned cherry chests for storing sugar, and beautiful paint-decorated dower chests, and religious watercolors called frakturs, and decorated redware vessels of unparalleled whimsical design. It is amazing that this important chapter of American history was almost lost from memory.
When I visited the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina last year, I was told and interesting story by a tour guide. Back in the early 1960's, a gentleman named Frank L. Horton and his mother, Theo, wished to learn more about their substantial collection of southern-made antiques. So they traveled north, I believe to Philadelphia, to a major seminar concerning early high-grade American furniture. Several days of lectures ensued. Scholars spoke of kettle-shaped Boston bombe furniture, and fancy rococo carving from 18th century Philadelphia cabinetshops, and blockfront masterpieces from Newport Rhode Island, and other such topics. To their dismay, not one word was uttered concerning Frank and Theo's heirlooms. Frank finally brought the subject up. "Sir, why has no mention been made of antiques created in the South?" he said to a speaker. "Because young man," the gentlemen replied, "nothing of quality was ever made south of Baltimore." A lady from Kentucky stood up. "Sir, do you speak out of ignorance, or prejudice, or both?" she snapped. Flustered, the lecturer replied, "A little of both, I guess." In that hall, Frank Horton discovered his lifework.
Within a few years, Frank, his mom, and some of their friends, had converted a dilapidated Kroger store into a mustard seed of a museum. Now, MESDA is home to thousands of southern-made examples of furniture, silver and other metal objects, ceramics, textiles, and visual arts. Pieces from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, eastern Kentucky, and eastern Tennessee are exhibited in nineteen period room settings and six galleries. MESDA, with a stated purpose, "to collect, exhibit, and study southern decorated arts so that their impact on American material culture can be better understood," is located adjacent to the small boundaries of a beautiful restored Moravian village that, 30 years ago, appeared like just another old street. Old Salem, Inc., is similar to Colonial Williamsburg and Old Sturbridge Village. Historical interpreters acting out early North Carolina life present a distinct culture, though.
If you're planning a trip to the southeast this year, I suggest you visit MESDA and historic Old Salem. Maybe you'll meet Mr. Horton working away in the research center, as I did on my visit. If you do, shake his hand. Thanks to Frank, and his mother, Theo, and their associates; that which was once forgotten will forever more be remembered. Frank L. Horton is a man of history.
For more information about MESDA and historic Old Salem, dial them toll-free at 1-888-OLD-SALEM.