Winston-Salem spreads wide cultural net

Arts, sports, historical venues provide ample entertainment options


March 9, 2006 3:00 AM

Many college towns are exciting places to be, with the weekends offering young folks a multitude of activities. But sometimes the action dies down once the school year concludes in May. That isn't the case in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Winston-Salem, home to the Winston-Salem Warthogs and Wake Forest University, is a vibrant, active city of more than 185,000 people in western North Carolina -- and offers more than enough entertainment all year long. With attractions ranging from the rustic (Old Salem colonial village) to the urbane (Reynolds House Museum of American Art), Winston-Salem provides an eclectic mix of options for locals, college students and travelers of every stripe. And they have a pretty good baseball team too.

The Warthogs helped make Winston-Salem nights more fun last year, when they were one of Minor League Baseball's best teams and winners of the Carolina League Championship in September. First baseman Leo Daigle had the fans at Ernie Shore Field jumping out of their seats as he mashed his way to a Carolina League MVP Award. Leading the league with a .341 average, 29 home runs and 112 RBIs made Daigle just the second player in Carolina League history to claim the Triple Crown.

Being able to watch a good baseball team is always fun, but when you can unwind from work for a few hours beforehand, it makes the whole experience even better. The Alive After Five program was created as a way for young professionals, who work for local companies such as the Wachovia Corporation, Branch Banking and Trust (BB&T) and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, to kick back and start the weekend a little early.

The festivities provide patrons with a huge outdoor party in the Downtown District, complete with food, beverages and live bands, every Thursday from the beginning of May to the end of September.

"Basically, it's a group of young, outgoing people having a great time," Warthogs general manager Ryan Manuel said. "It works out well for everyone, because a lot of people that go to Alive After Five usually find their way over to the ballpark, so their night is pretty much planned for them ahead of time."

Alive After Five isn't the only weekend fun Winston-Salem has to offer. Friday turns into 4th Street Jazz and Blues night, as restaurants pour out onto 4th Street so diners can relax and enjoy their meals while listening to live performances by various jazz and blues artists. The weekend festivities continue the following night with Summer on Trade just a few blocks north in the city's Arts District. Saturday nights find the area's galleries setting up displays throughout 6th and Trade Streets, and live bands playing everything from salsa to bluegrass.

As these organized festivities make apparent, the arts play a prominent role in Winston-Salem. In fact, Winston-Salem's cultural heritage is such that the city is often referred to as the "City of the Arts." That's partly thanks to its having been the first city in the United States to establish an Arts Council, which still hosts events such as the RiverRun Film Festival and the National Black Theatre Festival.

World-renowned poet and author Maya Angelou also has ties to the area, as Wake Forest University appointed her the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies in 1981.

In the broad landscape of American arts, Winston-Salem's crown jewel is the Reynolds House Museum of American Art. Originally built by R.J. Reynolds (founder of the Reynolds Tobacco Company) back in 1917, the 64-room, two-story country home is the site of one of America's largest private collections of artwork. Each year, tens of thousands of people visit the Reynolds House, which is the centerpiece of a 1,067-acre site that also features its own village and model farm.

North Carolina has some of the most fertile land on the East Coast, which has long helped the cotton and tobacco industries prosper. What isn't as widely known is that this hilly region supports high-quality wine-making, with 18 different vintners producing more than 500,000 gallons of wine each year in the Yadkin Valley just to the west of Winston-Salem.

The cityscape of Winston-Salem's Downtown District towers far above the tree line with gleaming contemporary buildings. But just underneath its shadow lies Old Salem, one of the original settlements from the mid-1700s, established by the Moravians, a Protestant Christian group from central Europe that predates even Martin Luther's separation from the Catholic Church.

Bordered by Route 40 to the north and Route 52 and the Norfolk Southern railway to the east, the Old Salem village is one of the country's most authentic colonial restorations, offerings visitors a peek into what life was like during America's early years. The Children's Museum and Toy Museum give children a chance to play while learning how kids like them had fun before the arrival of the Internet, video games and even baseball. Not all of Old Salem is strictly for show and tell, as the Moravians still practice their faith and house administrative offices in the area.

It should come as no surprise that auto racing has a presence in this North Carolina city. The city, in fact, manages Bowman Gray Stadium, a NASCAR-sanctioned venue from March until August that undergoes a radical transformation in the fall so it can host the NCAA Division II Winston-Salem State University Rams football team. But during the summer, drivers still seek to emulate racing greats such as Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt -- who ran laps around the tiny quarter-mile flat track as they climbed the professional racing ladder -- much as their counterparts over at Ernie Shore Field continue striving to prove they have what it takes to make it all the way to the Major Leagues.

Michael Echan is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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