Colonial Agriculture

medical garden spring

The Bethabara Hortus Medicus is the oldest known, well-documented American Medical Garden.

Colonial Agriculture

Historic Bethabara Park contains archaeological and landscape evidence of the importance of agriculture in the life of the colonial Moravian settlement. The museum has reconstructed an early timber-framed barn, on an original 1765 Calf Barn site, where farm implements are exhibited. 

On the hill overlooking the Park from the west may be seen the outlines of the 1758 grape arbor, the earliest (though unsuccessful) colonial experiment in grape culture for wine in the North Carolina backcountry. The hill overlooking the Park from the east contains an example of a small apple orchard with varieties that may have been grown in the colonial period when Bethabara was the center for local apple cultivation. Later in the early 19th Century the surrounding Surry County became a major producing area for apples, more than likely based upon early Moravian stocks. Before the Civil War, Southern farmers migrated to the Middle West and carried these stocks with them to begin the great apple industry there in the later 19th and earlier 20th centuries. The 1803 Herman Buttner House in Bethabara is the oldest distiller's house in the United States and reminds us of the importance of apples and hard cider distilleries in the economy of early America.

As a part of our interest in colonial agriculture, Historic Bethabara Park has undertaken archaeology to discover the original sites of the 1759 Community Garden and the 1761 Medical Garden. Based upon maps drawn by the Moravian surveyor Christian Reuter, as well as his extensive plant list, these gardens demonstrate how European settlers created gardens in the New World patterned after those they had known in the Old. As far as is known, these documents represent the earliest extant garden plans with plant lists in America today. The two gardens have been reconstructed on their original locations as revealed by archaeology and illustrated in the maps. The reconstructed Community Garden is the only known, well-documented colonial Community Garden in the United States. The Medical Garden is the earliest known, well-documented American colonial medical garden. 

Medical Garden

Today, the Medical Garden is a reconstruction, based on Christian Reuter's map, garden list, and archaeology. The first medical garden (Hortus Medicus) was planted at Bethabara in 1756 for Dr. Hans Martin Kalberlahn. Reuter's map indicates the plants for each bed. Reuter's map [pdf/187kb/1p]

Community Gardens

The Community Gardens have been developed as a public education project. Garden plots are cultivated today by interested gardeners in the community. The Bethabara community gardeners plant either heritage plants or their cultivars from Reuter's plant list. The Community Garden today, an example of colonial gardening, is not an exact reconstruction. Both the Medical and Community Gardens contain reconstructed architectural elements, based again upon the archaeology, the maps, and old colonial drawings of the sites.

The Community Garden is surrounded by a hand-split picket fence and contains a reconstructed arched, wooden grape arbor and a timber-framed summerhouse, all based upon contemporary illustrations and examples of colonial designs. These reconstructions were built either by Wake Forest University students or as Eagle Scout projects. The summerhouse in the Medical Garden is an illustration of experimental archaeology. Documents indicate that the original was probably constructed by teenage apprentices working under a master carpenter, in preparation for the building of Salem in 1766. The modern-day construction of the summerhouse became an Eagle Scout project — a parallel to the colonial example.

Colonial agriculture at Bethabara is manifested in our reconstructions, which serve as living exhibits, and in our agricultural-related activities. Also to carry out the Park's mission, we hold an Apple Fest every fall to remind ourselves of our proud heritage, when the apples of Bethabara were the basis of an important distillery industry and when the orchards at Bethabara may have furnished the fruit stock for what ultimately became the great orchards of the Middle West.

Because the members of the Moravian religious community at Bethabara shared the effort of raising crops, herding cattle, and harvesting fruits, they were able to escape the subsistence agriculture that was the usual practice on the Carolina Backcountry frontier. Since through community cooperation a relative few members were able to raise food for the many, the community as a whole was able to suport a thriving group of over 30 different tradesmen and such professionals as doctors and ministers. At first this trade attracted non-Moravians to settle around the borders of the nearly 100,000 acre Wachovia Tract, and then it attracted trade from settlers as far as sixty miles away.

Kitchen Garden

The configuration of the Herman Buttner House kitchen garden is based on the original design of this 1803 house. An addition at the rear of the House was constructed in approximately 1938, when it became the parsonage for the 1788 Gemeinhaus (Bethabara Moravian Church).

The Buttner House would have had a kitchen garden from the time it was built.

The present kitchen garden has been a work in progress for over 100 years. In the 1980s, Jo Walker, an historic interpretive guide at Bethabara and a former member of the Garden Club Council, researched and restored 18th century plantings and maintained the garden. The Audubon Garden Club took the garden on as a project in the 1990s. Since that time members have been faithfully committed to maintaining the garden, providing both plantings and upkeep, with regular watering, mulching and weeding as needed.

The Audubon Garden Club is celebrating its 50th anniversary in June of 2006, and its members, under the leadership of Jean Sohmer, have chosen to undertake the rehabilitation of this historic kitchen garden as a special project to mark this event. The rock walls required stabilization, and replenishment of mulch and soil was needed in the garden’s three levels. The stones Mrs. Sohmer utilized to restore the three levels of the kitchen garden are native rock from the Bethabara site; the large, rounded and flat stones are similar to those used in buildings dating from the time of the early settlers in the 18th century.

Utilizing her experience as a sculptor, talented Club President Jean Sohmer devoted considerable time and energy to rebuilding the garden’s extensive rock walls, which had become loose and unstable over the years. Club members secured mulch and dirt, at the club’s expense, and replanted the three levels of the garden. They also cleared the original brick path leading to the steps at the back of the house, which had become covered with grass over the years. Heirloom kitchen vegetables and native wildflowers were taken from the Old Salem flower list and Christian Reuter’s 250-year-old plant survey. The research, hard work, and exceptional commitment to the preservation of this important garden evidenced by the members of the Audubon Garden Club is, we believe, worthy of recognition by the Forsyth County Historic Resources Commission with a 2006 Preservation Award.

The 1803 Herman Buttner Distillers House is a National Historic Site, and is included in the 1999 Historic Bethabara Park’s National Historic Landmark designation.

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