The largest Waldensian colony in the world outside of Italy–Valdese, NC–was officially incorporated as a town on February 17, 1920.
The Waldenses, or Waldensians, are a Christian sect founded in the 12th century by Peter Valdo (hence Valdese = Waldensian), a merchant of Lyons, France who lived only a short time before St. Francis. For many years the group was confined to a rugged area in the Cottian Alps along the boundary between Italy and France. King Louis XIV was determined not to let Protestant beliefs seep into Catholic-driven France and persecuted the Waldensians mercilessly.
Not until the Edict of 1848 did the sect finally receive freedom to worship as they wished. Toward the later part of the 19th century many Waldenses emigrated to North and South America to form missionary colonies—no longer because of religious persecution but because their small strip of land in the Alps had become overcrowded.
They migrated to New York City, Chicago, Missouri, Texas and Utah, as well as Valdese, NC, in Burke County between the towns of Morganton and Hickory. The Valdese colony became the largest Waldensian colony in the world located outside of Italy. After crossing the Atlantic on the Dutch ship Zaandam, the original Valdese settlers arrived via train on the Salisbury-Asheville line of the Southern Railway on May 29, 1893. Eleven families formed the first group, led by Reverend Charles Albert Tron, a pastor and philanthropist. Rev. Tron did not come to settle, however, but to lead the immigrants and help launch their enterprise.
Initially the 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. In June, organizers led by Rev. Tron formed the Valdese Corporation, including Waldenses and American investors, and purchased 10,000 acres of land. Due to the undesirable layout of the land and the independent nature of the Waldenses, the corporation was an unpopular arrangement. It was dissolved the following year when the Rev. Barthelemy Soulier arrived in Valdese to replace the leadership lost when Tron returned to Italy to recruit more colonists.
In 1895 the Waldensian Church in Valdese united with the Presbyterian Church, which shared similar structure and theology. The Waldensian Hosiery Mill was established in 1901 and the yarn factory, Valdese Manufacturing Company, in 1913. Valdese became a hub of the American textile industry. The town’s first mayor, John Long, was also the groom in the first Waldensian wedding in Valdese.
Since 1967 an outdoor drama, From this Day Forward, has been performed each summer by Valdese’s Old Colony Players. The saga features authentic costumes and folk dances that highlight the heritage of North Carolina’s Waldensian settlers.
Edward W. Phifer Jr., Burke: The History of a North Carolina County (1977)