Town History (from town website)
In May of 1893, a group of Waldenses, from the Cottian Alps of Northern Italy, settled on land located near the Catawba River in eastern Burke County in North Carolina, between the towns of Morganton and Hickory. The center of this community became the town of Valdese.
The Waldenses were pre-Reformation Christians with a religious ancestry that dates back to at least the 12th century. For centuries these Waldenses were persecuted by armies from both the governments of Italy and France and the official church. This tiny religious sect was forced to take refuge in the Valleys of the Cottian Alps of Northern Italy and remained secluded in the rugged mountains until they received their religious freedom by the Edict of 1848.
With this new peace their number grew rapidly until their Alpine farms could no longer support them. They looked elsewhere and began establishing colonies in other parts of Europe, South America, and the United States. They migrated to New York City, Chicago, Missouri, Texas and Utah, as well as Valdese. The Valdese colony became the largest Waldensian colony in the world located outside of Italy.
In the beginning, the Valdese settlers tried to make their living off the land as they had in Italy, but the poor soil would not produce. They turned instead to manufacturing, and with the same spirit of survival and determination of their ancestors, began to prosper. Today, Valdese has a solid manufacturing economy because of their efforts.
The Town of Valdese incorporated in 1920 and elected its first mayor, John Long, who was also the groom in the first Waldensian wedding in Valdese.
The story of the Waldenses is vividly told in the outdoor drama, "From This Day Forward" presented by Old Colony Players each summer in the Old Colony Amphitheater in Valdese.
Learn more about the history of Valdese and the Waldenses by visiting our local tourist attractions: the Waldensian Museum, the Waldensian Heritage Wines Winery, and the Trail of Faith.
Valdese celebrated its Centennial in 1993 and the Centennial Park and Fountain was opened on Main Street to commemorate the event.
At the 2001 Waldensian Festival, a clock tower (shown at the top left corner of this page) was dedicated to commemorate the new millennium.
The history of the Waldensians is a big subject. Probably just too much to try to attempt to place here. It began as a Christian spiritual movement in the later Middle Ages, and later became part of the much larger Protestant Reformation. The name "Waldensian," most believe, came from the man who seems to have founded what could be considered the origin of the movement: Peter Waldo. He began preaching "without official Church authorization" in Lyon, France in 1177. The vast majority of Waldensians were French, in the southern part of France. However, some were Piemontese, hence the translated Italian "Valdese." It was Piemontese Waldensians who founded the town of Valdese. The movement spread to German-speaking states and Bohemia.
Even though the town history didn't wish to get down and dirty into the subject, the truth is that the Waldensians were persecuted terribly for centuries. The Church designed charactures of Waldensians as witches, and made an endless slough of unconditional condemnations against them. There were even a number of massacres, including one particularly brutal one instigated by the Duke of Savoy in Piemonte. Although the persecution did die down some, many Waldensians emigrated to North and South America starting in the latter nineteenth century. Italian Waldensians migrated to Argentina and Uruguay, and to Valdese, North Carolina. Other Waldensians migrated to America, in places as diverse and New York, Texas, Utah, etc.
The city of Valdese, very much like Tontitown, is part of our heritage in America. In fact, both towns have very much in common. Both were founded by Northern Italian immigrants, both were in the rural South, both established themselves in the wine industry, and both were successful only after much sweat and toil. Tales of immigrants who had absolutely no assistance at all. You need some lumber? Chop down a tree, and start sawing. Need a job... some money? Go harvest some grapes. Start tomorrow at 5:30 AM. In Tontitown a lot of people actually died building that community, many from malaria.
Actually, there are also a lot of similarities with Genoese and other Northern Italian settlers in Northern California, especially during and after the Gold Rush. The settlement in Asti, California certainly comes to mind. The point is that they took the initiative themselves to create and build something. For example, a nineteenth century wilderness was soon transformed into a settlement with roads, houses, a schoolhouse, a small lumber mill, farms, vineyards, gardens, crops, ranches, a glass maker's shop, a blacksmith, horses, carriages, a small churchhouse, a grocery market... all constructed themselves. I may have lost it, but if someone has the story of Olivietta "Grandma Rolleri," please send it. I don't think I ever heard a story about a woman like that before. I've dedicated my life her that ideal.
The Waldensian/Valdese Church is very much alive today on three continents.