Winston-Salem, a Company Town

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.

Distinctive saw-tooth roofline on the historic Shamrock Mills facility is downtown Winston

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.

Original rear facade of Hanes property with ultra-modern gallery addition

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.



Diggs Gallery

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.


Our Rental

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.


10 thoughts on “Winston-Salem, a Company Town”

  1. Cigarettes and underwear! As if those weren’t enough for a perfect post, you indulged me (and others, apparently) with great pics of the interior of your rental digs. It looks very nice, and it’s roomy to boot. Love the old buildings back east, and it’s fun imagining being one of the residents of a big, luxurious mansion. Sorry you got skunked on that hike, but it looks like you are situated perfectly for plenty of urban hiking and exploring!

    • The rental is pretty nice! The modern and functional interior is a nice contrast with the historic exterior and surroundings. And the location is superb — I am loving how many interesting things are within walking distance.

      The historic houses around here are quite impressive, especially the large number of them that are still in use in one way or another. In an interesting twist of fate, the economic drivers of the area (ciggies and undies) went away as large employers not too long after the homes were built, so there was little pressure to tear them down and build something newer and bigger. Timing is everything!

  2. You may have “whiffed” on a couple things, but it still seems like a great visit. I just think college towns are your jam and you need to find the right one for the long term. I am with you 100% on that issue, by the way. My first love is big cities. My second is college towns. Both afford the particular type of energy and diversity that I enjoy, and I sense you do too. (While the art may be too weird for words, it’s still fun to check it out and see what the kids are up to on any given week.)

    Love the Air BnB – a nice mix of character and convenience.

    • There’s no question that the energy of college towns is incredibly appealing. We’re not really big into the nightlife, but things like farmers’ markets, interesting restaurants and coffee shops, breweries (of course), and cool art exhibits and performances are definitely fun for us. The community-wide sense of being willing to try new things is palpable. Plus, I find that college towns tend to have a higher-than-average number of multiuse (bike and pedestrian) paths. We are getting so much use out of the greenway system here, especially since we can access it from right outside the door of our rental.

  3. Winston-Salem looks like a very cool town! I know you’ve been back many times for brief visits since you graduated from law school, but having an entire month there to explore in-depth sounds like fun. I always like seeing historic buildings being repurposed instead of razed (like the miniature Reynolds Empire State Building). I have two questions: Have there been a lot of changes since you were in school there? And have any of the conferences you’ve attended been at the Graylyn Estate? Because they should be.

    We would enjoy that exhibit by the Peruvian artist at SECCA. I find it fascinating how many indigenous cultures survived by blending their traditions with whichever Western religion arrived to “save them.” Catholicism in many places, of course, but also evangelical Christianity in the South. By the way, thanks so much for the art book recommendations!

    You seem to have a natural instinct for choosing great Airbnbs. I’m going to ask you to vet my future choices. 😂😂

    • I am definitely enjoying exploring parts of the city that I never saw when I was a student here. Of course, the city has changed a lot in that time, almost entirely for the better. I’ll probably talk more about this in the next post, but Winston-Salem really suffered in the 1980s and 1990s when textiles and tobacco manufacturing mostly moved overseas. What has really saved the city is the importance of knowledge work and especially medicine in the modern economy. Having a large number of colleges plus a major medical center is what made the city vibrant again. In short, the city has changed quite a bit in 30 years and I’m thrilled to see it. I’ve had a few meetings at Graylyn but I’ve never had the pleasure of staying there (I am too cheap). It’s a really neat property with a fabulous blend of historic (or faux historic) architecture and modern conveniences.

      There are quite a few interesting museums here and we’re doing our best to hit most of them! A month seems like a long time for a city visit but, just like in Asheville, we are definitely not running out of things to do.

  4. I hope y’all will be able to get back up to Doughton before you head home. As I shared before, it’s a favorite of mine. You should also try to eat at the Bluffs Restaurant while you’re up there. It reopened a few years ago after being closed for a long time. I remember eating there as a child.

    I’m glad y’all made it to SECCA, too. That’s where Greg and I had our wedding reception. Guests started in the house with passed hors d’oeuvres and wine while we finished up photos at the church, then we all moved into the modern wing for dinner and further festivities. A friend of ours was a curator there at the time and told us that he’d be glad to take down any art we didn’t like, but we got super lucky: the exhibition was African-American photographer Carrie Mae Weems’s “The Louisiana Project, 2003.” A gorgeous collection of oversized black & white photographs made for a stunning backdrop. Here’s her work: I like modern and contemporary art and am grateful SECCA brings thought-provoking exhibitions to town!

    • We are definitely plotting a return visit to Daughton, but I need to figure out a better way to get a handle on the weather conditions there. It was gorgeous! Just too wet to hike.

      I really enjoyed visiting SECCA — I can’t believe that this was my first visit despite having spent so much time in Winston — but I was also amused by your story. I see that the curators are aware that some of the material is a bit edgy. That current Rojas exhibit, for example, is most definitely NSFW and probably not something you’d select for a wedding backdrop. But you absolutely lucked out because those Weems photos are breathtaking as well as ideal for a wedding or, really, any event. I like that the SECCA exhibits challenged us, though I had no particular desire to own pieces like the ones we saw. 🙂

  5. Winston-Salem: I enjoyed experiencing this city and surrounding areas through your eyes and writings. Several my high school classmate attended Wake Forest as undergraduates. One returned to this town as the first Orthopedic Surgeon. Thank you for the pictures of the great place that you rented. Your iPhone 11 has a very good camera.

    You have sparked my interest in the history of Tobacco in the world, USA, and NC. Many of my relatives in NC grew tobacco if the farms were large enough to have an allotment. I worked in it some in high school. (yuck) Columbus threw if overboard after the natives gave him a gift of dried leaves. During the Civil war the South used tobacco to guarantee the loads from France. The USA included cigarettes with other rations for our soldiers in WWI and WWII. This guaranteed that most returning troops were addicted for generations to come. Marketing to women by 1935 ensured the children could not escape 2nd hand smoke. NC became dependent on the tax dollar for the State. I have seen surgeries for lung, mouth and throat cancer etc. from tobacco use. Tobacco = cash. Is the USA any different from Countries that grow Poppy?

    • Wake Forest has a strong history of North Carolina students in the undergraduate college. At one point the tuition was actually free for children of Baptist ministers so there were quite a few NC Baptists in the student body. But like a lot of other colleges, there is so much interest from students around the country and around the globe that the student body has become much more diverse.

      Tobacco has a long history in the US as well as places like Cuba — the tobacco empires helped build most of the cities of North Carolina, but many other American colonies as well. It’s quite interesting to delve into the whole background of the industry, the marketing, and how societal views have evolved.


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