The Wallace Brothers Herbarium, a fascinating and important Jewish enterprise in North Carolina’s economic history, is the subject of an online exhibit and a forthcoming museum lecture:
- The Iredell Museums exhibit, “The Wallace Brothers: Roots, Herbs, & Religion,” is available online
- The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences will sponsor a talk “The Wallace Brothers Herbarium” by Prof. Gary Freeze of Catawba College on January 5, 2022 at 12pm as part of its Lunchtime Discovery Series
David and Isaac Wallace—originally, Wallach—were German-born brothers who immigrated to North Carolina in the 1850s. Settling first in South Carolina, Isaac moved in 1859 to Statesville, a terminus of the newly built North Carolina Railroad. Isaac opened a store, drawing his brother David. They struggled during and after the Civil War; soldiers foraging their home once mistook Passover matzah for hardtack. By the 1870s their wholesale house was the region’s largest.
In the cash-poor economy country stores would barter for goods, and the Wallaces were paid with roots, herbs, and berries which they then brokered, shipping by rail to coastal ports. In 1871 they hired Mordecai Hyams, a Charlestonian of Jewish origin, who was an herbal expert, and built a botanical warehouse. Their clerk David Goldberg sailed to Europe to open new markets. Their inventory grew to some 2,300 herbs, and by the 1880s, their sales exceeded $100,00 a year.
Wagons arrived at the Wallace herbarium laden with herbs, fruit, roots and barks. Country pickers, often women, children, or broken men, gathered herbs taking them to country stores in exchange for salt or kerosene. After the Panic of 1873, the Wallace herb trade saved these merchants from bankruptcy. Railroad cars lined their depot. The brothers shipped more than a million pounds of herbs annually, including ginseng to China. One of three herbariums in the nation, it may have been the world’s largest.
At the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia the centerpiece of the award-winning North Carolina exhibition was a display of Wallace medicinal plants, mosses and roots. At the request of the U. S. State Department, the exhibit was sent to the Paris Exhibition of 1878 where it won another medal.
Commerce in herbs was racked by the Panic of 1893 and then again by prohibition as much of the business consisted of flavorings for alcoholic beverages and medicines. The business endured until 1950 but by then the Wallaces had become investors in real estate and textile mills. Beyond their business interests, the Wallaces were civic and Jewish community leaders, serving in the state legislature and local government. In 1883 the Wallaces led efforts to found Statesville’s Jewish congregation, which first met in Isaac’s home, and in 1892 were benefactors of the building of Congregation Emanuel, still in use.
The JHNC is helping to prepare an application to have a state-sponsored Highway Historical Marker erected at the site of the herbarium in Statesville.
To learn more about the Wallace Brothers Herbarium, see Gary Freeze, “Roots, Barks, Berries, and Jews: The Herb Trade in Gilded-Age North Carolina,” published in William Childs, editor, Essays in Economic and Business History (1995).
For background on the Statesville Jewish community, visit the JHNC website for our September 13, 2021 blog on the restoration of Congregation Emanuel or the JHNC Community Connect page on “Jewish Life in Statesville”.