Museum Showcases The History of Wake Forest And The Region

Exhibits about the town and local region and visiting exhibitions can all be experienced

Wake Forest… but not the college. 

Although many still associate the town with the university, Wake Forest has more to offer than just its name. 

Inhabitants, tourists and history buffs alike are recommended to dive deeper into the rich history of the town. This history can be further discovered at the Wake Forest Historical Museum, which is located at 414 North Main Street. 

“We have been a museum for almost 50 years, and for the first half of that, we were so focused on the college. The people in town got the feeling that if you weren’t associated with the college, and you weren’t interested in the history of the college, then there was no need to come to see the museum. However, there was a lot of truth to that because everything in Wake Forest focused on the university when it was here. Once we built this building a dozen years ago, the focus slowly changed. This building was built to highlight the history of the whole area, not just the town of Wake Forest, but the geographic area surrounding it,” Ed Morris, the museum’s executive director said. 

Wake Forest was originally started as a plantation in 1820 by Dr. Calvin Jones. The land was later purchased by the North Carolina Baptist Convention in 1834 in order to start Wake Forest University.  Around the area, buildings began to arise in order to accommodate the needs of students and faculty.  However, when the university moved 110 miles away to Winston-Salem, many inhabitants of the town went with it. 

“It was a true college town, and everything was built to provide food, clothing and entertainment to everyone involved. In 1956, when it left, everything was threatened, but because it was a very strong and close-knit community, it survived. And I think people need to know that strength and determination are what carried it on,” Morris said. 

Now, the Wake Forest population has climbed to 51,097 in 2022, with a 3.54 percent annual growth rate, and the cost of living is down 4 percent compared to the national average. Many people flock to the town due to the rich history, good schools and convenient location. 

“I really like Wake Forest because it has a small-town feel, but all of the resources and amenities of a big town. I also love being connected to Raleigh, and I love being within driving distance of Durham. It is both big and small,” Sarah Soleim, the museum’s manager of community and academic learning said.

The Wake Forest Historical Museum is located in the middle of the National Register of the Historical District of the Town of Wake Forest. In front of the museum sits a white plantation house with a large front yard that once belonged to Dr. Calvin Jones. However, the back of the museum resembles a train station in order to subtly honor the railroad’s significance to Wake Forest. Since the buildings are both located in the historical area, architects had to follow rules and guidelines while designing and building the museum. 

“So, when we designed this building, it had to fit into the landscape and not be obtrusive. So, the architect got the idea that we would build the building behind the house. He wanted to make the building resemble shadows of the farm buildings that would sit behind the original plantation houses. So, that is why the front of the building looks like it is. You see this pretty 1820s plantation house, and you don’t realize that there is a modern museum sitting behind it,” Morris said.

The museum offers many exhibits, a large archival collection, a library with historic and rare books and an artifact collection.  Also, there is a new mapping exhibit that is open to the public that is called “You Are Here, Mapping Wake Forest.” The new exhibit explores how the town has changed since the 1700s by looking at maps, as well as the geographical changes Wake Forest has gone through.

“My favorite artifact is our smallest artifact because it is one of a kind in the fact that it was lost for almost one hundred years,” Morris said. “The fact that it was even found was a miracle because it was located about where we are here, the day before the bulldozers came to clear this lot for this building. It would have been lost forever. It was a small, little lapel pin. The original Wake Forest college mascot was the Tiger, not the Demon Deacon. The pin is of the Wake Forest College tiger. We have a written inscription of it from the 1890s, but we had never seen the image until this little, tiny pin was found buried in the dirt right where this building is standing.”

With Wake Forest being a small town and the fact that its museum is somewhat hidden, the museum has to rely on social media and word of mouth for publicity. 

“So, I think that because we are small, a lot of the news gets focused on the big blockbuster exhibits that are coming to Raleigh. However, we do bring Smithsonian exhibits here. Every week we have folks that are local here or local to the Triangle that have never been here before and come to visit. I think that as our programming expands and we do more reoccurring events, we start to see people come back multiple times a year, which is new for us,” Soleim said.

The Wake Forest Historical Museum has a lot of insight into what used to be. Walking inside the building, you never know what you might discover. Regardless if you are a Wake Forest University alumni or a Wake Forest resident, digging deeper and understanding the complex history that our town has to offer is possible at the museum. 

“I hope that people come to the museum and see Ed and me, and see people who are really interested in this work, and are doing research all of the time and creating new programs all of the time. I would love more people to come to the museum and see that part of us, the part that is always creating.  We need them to see that,” Soleim said.