Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Fort New Salem

Fort New Salem is a collection of relocated log structures on a wooded hillside near Salem University above the junction of U.S. Route 50 and West Virginia Route 23. It began in the early 1970s as part of what was then known as Salem College. The original intent was for this to be an educational component of the college, but hard times befell Salem University, and by 2005 Fort New Salem no longer fit into their financial plans. However, community members from the area wanted to keep it going, so an independent 501(c)3 organization was formed.

The good folks who run the independent Fort New Salem Foundation work very hard to maintain this outdoor living history museum. Most of them are history lovers who enjoy passing on their passion for the past to the younger generation. My daughter enjoyed the Christmas-time visit we made back in the ‘90s when she was young, and I’m glad that Fort New Salem has been able to continue as a tribute to the frontiersmen (and women) who settled West Virginia for new generations of youngsters.

I recently attended their “Spirit of Christmas in the Mountains” which is held the last weekend in November and the first weekend in December. The cabins were open for visitors as docents explained various trades or other activities. Nearly all of these cabins had a warm fire in the hearth, and the fragrance of wood smoke surrounded the compound.

There was a blacksmith shop, a tinsmith, a print shop, the apothecary, the tavern, and more. A few of the cabins were demonstrating fireplace cooking. A dulcimer band in one building provided a musical background that could be heard throughout this little village.

Despite its name, Fort New Salem does not have the wooden stockade surrounding its perimeter that is often associated with the frontier forts. Aside from the lack of an exterior wall, Fort New Salem is somewhat similar to Prickett’s Fort State Park near Fairmont, WV. Both have numerous small cabins (14 at Prickett’s Fort, 18 at Fort New Salem) devoted to different activities where visitors get a first-hand experience with history.

Unlike Prickett’s Fort State Park, the folks who banded together to save this “museum” don’t have the financial backing that comes with being part of the state park system. The volunteer board members work hard to get some grant money here and there, generate some funds from admission fees, and use a lot of donated labor. Fort New Salem is only open for the special events that are held there, usually one weekend a month from April through December.

Life on the frontier of western Virginia two centuries ago was not easy. Although the challenges are vastly different, trying to maintain an outdoor history museum on a financial shoestring isn’t easy either. I’m grateful that folks in the Salem area stepped up to save this valuable resource. I hope they are able to keep it going for many future generations.

[This story appeared in the February 2015
issue of Two-Lane Livin' magazine

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