The Coffee Pot

One of the City's Widely Known Symbols

This article appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, April 10, 1966, Bicentennial Edition

By Chester Davis, Staff Reporter
(printed on this site with permission)

Contrary to the impression of outsiders the symbol of this city is not the Camel, an English Prince named Albert nor even the golden leaf of prime bright tobacco. The city's symbol is unrelated to any of these except in the fact that it, too, is a member of the extensive family of very pleasant minor vices.

It is a coffee pot.

To be specific, it is the enormous -- 16 feet in circumference and more than 12 feet in height -- coffee pot erected as a mark of his craft by tinsmith Julius Mickey in 1858.

Few, if any coffee pots are larger and there very likely are none with a more colorful history, some of which is true.

The story begins in 1803 when the town board of Salem, in a move marked more by crass commercialism than good taste, decided to permit a meat market to be located on the Main Street side of the here-to-fore tasteful Salem Square.

Half a century later -- in 1856 to be exact -- another Salem town board, this one with a keener eye for the verities of design, voted to remove the market from the square as well as the fire house, which later, had been added to it.

It so happened that in this same year Julius Mickey, a vigorous --"fun loving" is the phrase they used to describe him -- young merchant was seeking (1) a place to locate a grocery store and (2) a way for erecting a building on that place.

The town fathers solved bother problems for him. They sold the Salem Square market building to him and told him that he had permisssion to move the old building to a lot located on the southwest corner of Main and Belews streets.

There Mickey opened his store and, because there was vacant space in the old building's loft, a tin shop as well.

In rather short order, Julius Mickey discovered that his services as a tinsmith were in greater demand than his tins, crocks and barrels of groceries.

In part this was true because he was a first rate craftsman. Then, too, there was the fact his location -- diagonally across Main Street from Winston and Salem's public camping ground which was set aside for visitors who came to town to sell their tobacco and to buy in the shops of the two villages -- was near ideal.

More important, however, was the fact that in those years before the Civil War tinware enjoyed a demand that was brisker than even that of aluminum today. The tin shop was the source of cups, plates, pots and pans of all sizes and types, coffee and tea pots, buckets and dippers, cake cutters, candle sticks and moulds, lanterns, buckets and pails and a variety of other kitchen and dining room ware. The tinsmith even provided bed warmers and spectacle cases.

In rather short order Mickey's tin shop, begun as a second thought, was wagging the entire business. But there were problems.

One of the most disturbing was the fact that down the street there was another tinsmith, a somewhat unscrupulous fellow who did not hesitate to capture any person who came along and inquired where he could find the Mickey Tin Shop.

To put an end to that sort of nonsense, Julius Mickey built himself an enormous coffee pot. Contemporary records -- and some not so contemporary -- agree that this pot holds either 740 cups of 740 gallons of coffee. This reporter inclines to the gallon point of view despite claims that the Moravians traditionally have favored extraordinarily large coffee cups.

This pot, in the European manner, was situated on a wooden post placed hard against the street. So hard in fact Mr. Mickey's pot extended into the street and was something of a traffic hazard. The pot was equipped with a trap door in the bottom. Both facts -- the hazard to traffic and the door -- have bulked large in its subsequent history.

In time Julius Mickey passed on and his shop passed into the hands of another tinsmith, L. B. Brickenstein. And by this time the coffee pot had become (a) rather a town symbol of Salem and (b) something of a public nuisance.

This was true even in the day of the horse and buggy. There are recorded instances where teams -- some of them run-away teams -- careened into the coffee pot causing mutual damage.

But it was not until one day in 1920 that the dangers posed by the pot became clear. On this day a driver, racing along at speeds that exceeded 20 miles an hour, struck the pot briskly, knocking it from its wooden post and across the sidewalk where, by the narrowest of margins, it just missed smashing down on a woman and child.

This accident -- and near catastrophe -- caused the Winston-Salem board of alderman to bubble with righteous indignation. They ruled that the pot could not be restored to its post. It was, they said, a traffic hazard and besides that, a blatant violation of the town ordinance regulating advertising signs.

So the old pot was taken in its battered state to the rear of the store and left there to moulder as one more tribute to civic progress. But it did not moulder for long.

Henry Fries, a man who devoted a great part of his life to causes of the more unusal variety aroused the Wachovia Historical Society.

"We must preserve this landmark of our past," said Fries and in this he was joined by the late -- and very influential -- Edward Ronthaler, Bishop of the Southern synod of the Moravian Church.

The outcry was such that the aldermen soon confessed that they had been hasty. They said that the coffee pot could be re-placed but this time, please, place it a bit father back from the street.

In June, 1924 W. N. "Will" Vogler and F. E. "Gene" Vogler, in expanding their mortuary, acquired the old Mickey store and shop and the coffee post as well. Being an old family with a sense of the past, the Voglers cared for the coffee pot kindly and it remained in its accustomed place, always more and more the symbol of the town, until, once again, the automobile came its way.

This time the problem was the eastern section of Interstate 40. The projected route of the new expressway ran directly through the center of the 740-gallon pot. The engineers treated as frivolous all suggestions that I-40 be bent slightly in order to skirt around it.

It so happened, however, that James A. Gray, now the full time executive of Old Salem, Inc, was at that time a member of the State Highway Commission. While Jim Gray didn't favor putting a bend in I-40, he did think it feasible to move the coffee pot to a new location.

In this decision he was assisted immensely by Sentinel Reporter Gene Whitman who wrote an article (which contained at least 740 gallons of tears) to the effect that the city's past (i.e. the pot) was about to be sacrificed on the altar of automotive progress.

The upshot of all this was that the coffee pot was removed from its old place at Belews and Main Street and, early in 1959, tastefully relocated on a grassy plot at the point where the Old Salem by-pass enters Main Street. And there it sits to this day.

While the Mickey coffee pot properly can be described as a land mark and as a symbol of this city, it is an even better example of the imagination of our citizenry.

Over the years it has become the center of more legends than R. J. Reynolds, the peppery Taylor brothers, testy Roy Haberkern and others of our more colorful past put together.

It is said for example:

-----That the coffee pot provided a place of concealment for a Yankee (one version says Confederate) solider in a time of peril.

-----Akin to that tale is the report that when Gen. Stoneman's federal troops rode through Salem in 1865 they were greeted at the town limits and led to the pot where they were served hot coffee.

-----It was commonly believed that the coffee pot, when it stood in its original location, makred the boundary between Salem and Winston.

-----The trap door in the coffee pot is believed by some to have provided an early mail-drop for a British spy in the Revolutionary War. (Persons who date the pot back to this time are also inclined to believe that the troops of Gen. Cornwallis were served coffee from the pot when they marched through Salem.)

-----Visitors in Salem often are told that the coffee pot serves the Moravians at East Sunrise Service time and during Love Feasts as a place to brew coffee in wholesale lots.

Perhaps no one group can tell more tales about the coffee pot than the men who grew up in Winston and Salem at the turn of the century. For them the great pot held a fascination which, particularly at Halloween, was over-powering.

The stories of pranks which centered on the coffee pot are endless, and some of them are true.

There was one Halloween when a group of teen-agers, using black powder and a dynamite fuse, fashioned a fire cracker of almost atomic potential. The story is that they "blew up" the coffee pot although this is somewhat of an exaggeration.

The fact is they battered it and spilt its seams to the point it required a find of $3 each for the 18 youngsters involved to repair the damages.

The coffee pot has survived recent Halloweens without incident, and those who cherish this city's past would hope that this will continue to be the case. And it should be noted as well that in these inflationary times a $3 fine, even for as many as 18 pranksters, would not begin to cover the probable costs of repairing any damage caused by another such tempest in the coffee pot.

Beyond that, and much more important, is the fact that over the years the city, through a process of adoption, has taken the old tin coffee pot as its symbol. With its perky snout the coffee pot rather speaks of an earlier, friendlier and more gracious day; a day which was an important part of our past and, we hope, will again become a part of our future. For when it comes to easy going, neighborly hospitality there is nothing, even today, quite the match of a coffee pot.

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