Wilkes County (1777)

Written By Jonathan Martin

Established in 1777 from Surry County, Wilkes County, situated in the mountains of North Carolina, has contributed greatly to the history and culture of the state. The Tutelo and Cherokee originally lived in the area, and the first Europeans to settle in the land were German and Scotch-Irish immigrants. Wilkesboro, established in 1847, is the county seat, and both the seat and county take its name from John Wilkes, a leader of the British Parliament who supported American independence. Austin, Ronda, North Wilkesboro, Moravian Falls, Ferguson, Mulberry, Roaring River, Boomer, Millers Creek, and Wilbar are other townships within the large Wilkes County.

An interesting piece of Wilkes County history is the Tom Dula legend; it was popularized in a Kingston Trio ballad called “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley.” After the Civil War, Private Tom Dula moved back to Elkville, now known as Ferguson, and planned to elope with Laura Foster. However, Laura disappeared. Her body was later found, and Tom Dula was charged with murder, and hanged for the crime. Thomas C. Land wrote a poem about the popular tragedy, and in 1958 the Kingston Trio revised it and popularized the story.

Another vital part of Wilkes County history is its connection to auto racing and NASCAR. Once described as the “moonshine capital of America” in the mid 1900s, North Wilkesboro was in a prime location for not only the illegal production of distilled liquor but also for its transportation. Bootleggers drove their modified cars, full of liquor and fast engines, to delivery spots all across the state, and when bootleggers were not delivering whiskey, they would race their cars on the weekends for bragging rights and extra cash. Soon people would gather to watch bootleggers race their cars and a dirt, oval-sized track was built in North Wilkesboro. Thousands of spectators would gather and watch races year after year in Wilkes County, and soon other tracks were built across Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. In 1947 the National Association for Stock Auto Racing or NASCAR was born, and many historians consider Wilkes County the birthplace of NASCAR. Some of its greatest stars such as Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner, Ned Jarrett, Richard Petty, and Dale Earnhardt raced on North Wilkesboro Super Speedway.

Wilkes County is home to several historic landmarks and cultural sites. The Old Wilkes County Jail (1858) housed Tom Dula before his trial, and the Robert Cleveland House,  Claymount Hill (1870), and the Wade Hampton Harris Memorial Bridge are other historic places throughout the county. The Wilkes Symphony Orchestra, Wilkes Playmakers, the Whippoorwill Academy and Village, and the Wilkes Art Gallery generate numerous visitors to the area. Also, Wilkes County hosts the MerleFest, a widely acclaimed music festival founded by Doc Watson, and other events such as the Wilkes Agricultural Fair, the Brushy Mountain Apple Festival, Lowe’s Balloons over the Blue Ridge, Mountain Bike Ride, and the North Wilkesboro Fireworks Celebration.

Several natural parks and attractions are within Wilkes County as well. Hikers, boaters, and fishermen visit the W. Kerr Scott Dam and Reservoir, named after William Kerr Scott (1896-1958) a past N.C. Governor and U.S. Senator who helped assist in the creation of the dam. Other notable physical features of Wilkes County include Stone Mountain Park and the Rendezvous Mountain Educational State Forest.