Judging by today’s numbers, Winston-Salem doesn’t seem like a powerhouse in North Carolina. With a population of about 250,000, it ranks as the fifth-largest city in the state and isn’t even the largest in its immediate region, with Greensboro taking top honors in the Piedmont Triad. But today’s population figures obscure the significance of Winston-Salem during the city’s golden era of about 1910 to 1940, much of which was due to the development of a few important local industries.
The most notable of these was eponymous tobacco company founded by Richard Joshua Reynolds. The son of a Virginia tobacco farmer, R.J. Reynolds brought knowledge of the product and a keen business acumen to Winston when he started his own tobacco manufacturing company in 1875. With innovation in products and marketing, R.J. Reynolds soon became a leading manufacturer of chewing and plug (pipe) tobacco and caught the attention of the Duke boys. Over in Durham, James Buchanan Duke and his brother Benjamin were consolidating as many tobacco companies as possible under the umbrella of the American Tobacco Company, which eventually controlled virtually the entire American tobacco industry. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company became part of the American Tobacco trust in 1899, but was able to operate somewhat independently so long as RJR stayed away from the Dukes’ core business of pre-rolled cigarettes. Selling an addictive product under monopoly conditions is a pretty straightforward recipe for profit, and R.J. Reynolds prospered greatly. However, RJR’s greatest success came after 1911, when American Tobacco was dismantled following prosecution under the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Now free to explore new markets, in 1913 R. J. Reynolds developed and launched the Camel cigarette. Its unique combination of Turkish and Virginia tobacco, along with aggressive pricing techniques that RJR probably learned from the Dukes, led to the sale of 425 million packs of Camels in the first year. The profits kept rolling in despite the untimely death of R.J. Reynolds in 1918, and by 1920 the Reynolds Company was the single largest taxpayer in the state of North Carolina, manufactured 2/3 of the cigarettes in the state, and owned about a quarter of the land in the city of Winston-Salem. The Reynolds headquarters building, completed in 1929, was the tallest building between Baltimore and Miami (my post) at the time. If it looks like a miniature Empire State Building, that’s because it is — the architects explicitly used it as a proving ground for the design and construction techniques that would later be used on the much larger New York City landmark.
Meanwhile a few blocks away a completely different line of business was taking shape. Brothers John Wesley Hanes and Pleasant Henderson Hanes were originally in the tobacco business, but eventually buckled under the pressure and sold their business in 1900 to the RJR division of the American Tobacco trust. They used the proceeds from the sale of the tobacco company to set up two textile operations. Shamrock Mills, later known as Hanes Hosiery Mills, specialized in knitting socks while P.H. Hanes Knitting Company specialized in men’s underwear. Both companies thrived, expanded their offerings, and eventually merged in 1965 under the second generation of family leadership, and Hanesbrands is still going strong today.
These key businesses were not perfect employers, and labor relations were not always smooth, but there is no question that the prosperity of the Reynolds and Hanes companies utterly transformed Winston-Salem. The Reynolds family, the Hanes family, and the other senior executives of prominent local businesses like Wachovia Bank worked and lived in Winston-Salem, earning it the nickname “city of a hundred millionaires.” Workers populated the busy downtown and inner suburbs, while the wealthiest citizens built stately homes on country estates located a few miles outside of town. One such home, the Norman Revival style property known as Graylyn Estate, was built by RJR CEO Bowman Gray and is now operated as a hotel and conference center owned by Wake Forest University.
Just down the street from Graylyn is the country home of James G. Hanes, son of John Wesley Hanes. At his death he donated this property to what was then known as the Winston-Salem Gallery of Fine Art, and the property has been transformed into…
The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) is a free (voluntary donation) museum that hosts rotating exhibits from leading contemporary artists from around the world. The designers of the museum chose to add a very contemporary museum space directly onto the traditional, historic home, making for an extremely interesting contrast in styles.
The current exhibits on display were definitely a bit “out there” for us, but we thought the explanatory materials posted about the artists and works went a long way in enhancing our appreciation of what we were seeing. The more accessible exhibit was a series of ceramic sculptures by Peruvian artist Kukuli Velarde melding indigenous and Catholic imagery, designed to be carried in a religious parade and complete with colorful banners. Her theme is that indigenous stories, themes, and personalities have survived by blending into Catholic saints, and we had fun picking out the familiar iconography.
The second exhibit of works by performance artist Emilio Rojas was a little harder to engage with. The artist is Mexican, of indigenous and Spanish descent, and much of his work focuses on the meaning of the US-Mexico border. Performances are often challenging, and I have trouble getting into a video of a guy making a statement about the artificiality of borders by shaving off half his hair. My favorite piece was a video montage of a months-long project in which the artist walked around European countries that were home to the main colonizers of the Americas (England, Netherlands, France, Portugal, Spain) while wearing a jumpsuit emblazoned with the words “Go Back to Where You Came From” and carrying a 2-foot-long wooden replica of the Columbus ship La Santa Maria. He concluded the piece by setting the little ship on fire in the very harbor from which Columbus departed in 1492. I guess I like a piece that ends with a bang.
We’ve been seeing a lot of different art this summer, and I have to give a shout out to my summer book club for deepening my appreciation for contemporary and abstract art. Our fiction work, Portrait of a Thief by Grace Li, was a fun romp that also deals with important issues including plundered art. Our non-fiction work was ArtCurious: Stories of the Unexpected, Slightly Odd, and Strangely Wonderful in Art History by Jennifer Dasal. This delightful book used fun facts and snappy writing to increase my understanding of and appreciation for modern abstract act. While artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko didn’t choose the name, the title “Abstract Expressionists” given to the circle of 20th century painters is helpful to me. I think I can now be more confident that art is meant to express (and evoke) emotion, and representational forms are not always necessary to do that. Our experiences in Asheville and in Winston-Salem have helped me evolve my appreciation, even if I don’t love everything we see.
A Whiff and a Hike
Early in the week we headed northwest to Daughton Recreation Area along the Blue Ridge Parkway with plans to explore one of the area’s many highly-regarded trails. A day with a 0% chance of rain in the forecast seemed like a perfect day to enjoy long-range views from the Bluff Trail. Except that as soon as we arrived, we found ourselves in a misty cloudbank. Rain started in earnest after we made a short walk out to an overlook, and that was the point when we decided we needed to postpone. The wildflowers in the area looked great; I just wanted to do more than see them through the rain-splattered truck windows.
To make up for whiffing at Daughton, later in the week we made the short trip to Pilot Mountain State Park. The highly visible granite knob has been used for centuries as a regional navigation aid, and today those craggy faces are a popular spot for rock climbers. Like many North Carolina hikes, the parking area and trailhead are close to the summit and offer great views with little effort. Because of the shape of the mountain, most of the hikes involve a fairly steep grade down and then returning to the start. I was glad that we only attempted this relatively short trail because the steep stairs on the return to the summit were a killer.
Universities often have unique and compelling museums, and I was particularly interested in seeing the Diggs Gallery at Winston-Salem State University, a public HBCU that is within walking distance of our rental along the Salem Creek Greenway. I was intrigued to read on the gallery’s website that it is considered a top-10 gallery for African-American art and has been identified by the Smithsonian as a major regional center for exploring contemporary African art. What the website failed to mentioned, however, is that the gallery was severely damaged during the Christmas 2022 freeze event and remains closed indefinitely. So instead of seeing the gallery we chatted with some apologetic staff and strolled around campus admiring the architecture, public art, and some monumental murals by noted artist John T. Biggers in the main atrium of the library. I guess this was our second whiff of the week, but it’s always a pleasure to see a college campus in the fall. Hearing the marching band practice and watching the flag corps get ready for fall sports reminded us that the campus is about to come back to life.
It turns out that our rental is coming off the market and the AirBnB listing is no longer publicly available. But some readers asked for photos of the interior of the place we are staying. Since we aim to please over here at Zamia Ventures, here are photos from the original rental listing — which we have found to be an accurate portrayal.
Despite a few bumps in the road, during our second week the city of Winston-Salem continued to keep us engaged. While I’ve found exploring the history of the area to the fascinating, the real heart of current-day Winston is the surprisingly diverse group of colleges that make the city a vibrant college town ….. which will be a topic for next week.