Old Salem gunsmith shop dates back to 1831

CorrespondentJanuary 8, 2014 

Be careful crossing the cobble stones leading to the two-room Timothy Vogler Gunsmithing Shop. It’s a cold December day and inside the fire crackles as you slip back to 1831 when guns played a significant role in daily life providing sustenance and protection.

Bill Bailey, 71, beams a welcome, his cheeks rosy, his tortoise eyeglasses round, his mustache pepper and salt. He wears a buttoned vest, white shirt and a leather apron.

Behind Bailey at a workbench that runs the length of the room, Blake Stevenson, his white shirt rolled to the elbows, crouches over a long narrow piece of curly maple chipping away the inlays for lock and butt plates of a Vogler rifle. His only source of light, the sun, is beaming through the windowpanes. He adjusts his suspenders then gently tosses another log on the fire. Overhead, hidden above the rafters, a giant bellows is ready to fuel the forge in the backroom.

The gun shop was established in Old Salem in 1831 and is ecognized as the oldest active gunsmithing shop in America. Stevensone started here in 1998. Bailey’s been gunsmithing at Vogler since 2005. Between the two, they produce four Piedmont long rifles a year in contrast to Vogler’s annual output of 12 to 20 rifles during the 19th century.

“We’re not in the gun manufacturing business,” Bailey said. “We’re here to relay and interpret the significant part these rifles played in history. Ninety-five percent were never fired in anger. They’re hunting guns.”

Curly maple and walnut remain the woods of choice for the rifles, which range from 32 to 62 caliber. During the Vogler era these rifles sold for $20. Today they fetch between $2,500 and $8,000 depending on the number of inlays.

“They’re all of the same quality. The difference is the amount of decoration,” Bailey said.

The gun shop’s purpose since it was reestablished 12 years ago “is to demonstrate the fine artistry of gunsmithing, including a working forge for metal work, woodworking and tooling. It interprets the important trade of gunsmithing as it was practiced by several individuals in Salem ...”

Bailey calls the long rifle, also known as the Salem rifle, an American treasure that played an important role in taming and settling the nation.

“The Moravians brought a gunsmith with them when they came here in 1753; that’s how important it was, one of the critical trades. Without these rifles, I can’t imagine the process of settling this area or the western migration,” he said.

Bailey can recount many a story about Old Salem and gunsmithing. Here is a sampling: “When Timothy opened his shop in 1831 it was the beginning of the end of gunsmithing because of the Industrial revolution. He stayed at it for 51 years and by the end of his career he was doing more gun repairs and locksmithing than making guns ...

“Back then in North Carolina there were buffalo and elk, deer and bears and small game, turkeys and squirrels. You’ve heard of Bear Creek, not far from here. Daniel Boone killed 100 bears along that creek with a 62 caliber flintlock. His daddy Squire Boone was a farmer in this area and a gunsmith in the winter. He’s buried with his wife in a 10-grave cemetery on the north side of Mocksville about 20 miles up the road…

“A youngster like Timothy would come into the gunsmithing trade at age 13 and apprentice for seven years. The American Eagle was a Vogler rifle signature item at the crown of the patchbox. Guns were made out of a solid piece of wood cut out with a handsaw then chiseled with a wooden hammer. Fowlers were used for hunting quail and duck. Rarely was one made around here. They came from Europe at half the cost.”

Today, 500 to 900 adults and school children stream through the Vogler shop, listening to Bailey’s tales and watching Stevenson slowly craft a rifle in the background. At the other end of the workbench, Bailey also has a rifle in progress. The stock is made of black walnut harvested six years ago out of a tree growing in Timothy Vogler’s backyard.

Collectors and hunters desiring one of these reproductions wait six to eight months. Proceeds help keep the museum vibrant.

Bailey, whose first interest in guns and hunting was sparked when he was an Indiana farm boy, started gunsmithing as a hobby in the 1970s.

“The first gun I made was a terrible, terrible attempt,” he said. “I hope it’s a tomato stake somewhere now.”

Bailey equates learning the long gun craft with learning to drive a car.

“You learn from others, listening and watching. You make mistakes but you stay at it and ask questions, hanging around gifted gun makers and the black powder culture,” he said.

The Vogler Gun Shop is located in the heart of Old Salem just south of downtown Winston. Hours are 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1-4:30 p.m. Sundays. It is closed on Mondays.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service