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Wilkes County, NC Visitor Center 2013
Tourist & Relocation Information Guide
Wilkes County is a county located in the U.S. state of North Carolina. As of 2000, the population was 65,632; in July 2006 the U.S. Census estimated the county's population at 67,310. Its county seat is Wilkesboro.
Wilkes County Courthouse
The county was formed in 1777 from parts of Surry County and Washington District (now Washington County, Tennessee). The act became effective February 15, 1778, and this is when the county celebrates its anniversary. It was named for the English political radical John Wilkes, who lost his position as Lord Mayor of London due to his support for the colonists during the American Revolution.
In 1799 the northern and western parts of Wilkes County became Ashe County. In 1841 parts of Wilkes County and Burke County were combined to form Caldwell County. In 1847 another part of Wilkes County was combined with parts of Caldwell County and Iredell County to become Alexander County. In 1849 additional parts of Wilkes County and Caldwell County were combined with parts of Ashe County and Yancey County to form Watauga County. Numerous boundary adjustments were made thereafter, but none resulted in new counties.
Geography & Climate
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 760 square miles, of which, 757 square miles of it is land and 3 square miles of it is water. Wilkes County is located on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a part of the Appalachian Mountains chain. The county's elevation ranges from 900 feet in the east to over 4,000 feet in the west. The Blue Ridge Mountains run from the southwest to the northeast, and dominate the county's western and northern horizons. Thompkins Knob, the highest point in the county, rises to 4,079 feet. The foothills and valleys of the Blue Ridge form most of the county's midsection, with some elevations exceeding 2,000 feet. Stone Mountain State Park, located in the foothills of northern Wilkes County, is one of the most popular state parks in North Carolina, and is noted for its excellent rock climbing and trout fishing. The Brushy Mountains, an isolated spur of the Blue Ridge, form the county's southern border. Wilkes County's terrain gradually becomes more level and less hilly as one moves to the east; the far eastern section of the county lies within the Piedmont region of North Carolina. The largest river in Wilkes is the Yadkin River, which flows through the central part of the county. The county's three other major streams, all of which flow into the Yadkin, are the Reddies River, Roaring River, and Mulberry Creek. Following the devastating floods of 1916 and 1940, the US Army's Corps of Engineers constructed the W. Kerr Scott Dam and Reservoir on the Yadkin River four miles west of Wilkesboro. Opened in 1962, the dam created a lake with a shoreline of 55 miles. The lake is used for boating, swimming, fishing, and waterskiing; it is especially noted for its excellent bass fishing. The W. Kerr Scott lake is the largest body of water in Wilkes.
Due to its wide range of elevation, Wilkes County's climate varies considerably. In the winter, it is not unusual for it to be sunny with the temperature in the forties in the county's eastern section, while at the same time it is snowing or sleeting with the temperature in the low thirties or even twenties in the county's mountainous north, west, and south. Generally speaking, Wilkes receives ample amounts of precipitation, with frequent thunderstorms in the spring and summer months; and rain, snow, sleet, and freezing rain all occur at times during the winter, with the frequency increasing with the altitude. Severe weather is not common in Wilkes but does occur. Tornadoes are rare, but severe thunderstorms can bring strong winds which can down trees and power lines, as well as cause hail. Wilkes County is far enough inland that hurricanes rarely cause problems, but a strong hurricane which moves inland quickly enough may cause damage, as with Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Due to the numerous creeks and streams which run through its valleys, Wilkes is especially prone to devastating flash floods. The two most memorable floods occurred in 1916 and 1940, killing a number of residents and causing millions of dollars in damages. Since the opening of the W. Kerr Scott Dam in 1962, the Yadkin River has not flooded in the county. Although Wilkes County has never had a severe earthquake, an ancient fault line runs through the Brushy Mountains, and mild earth tremors are not uncommon. On August 31, 1861 an earthquake estimated at 5.0 on the Richter Scale hit the southern part of the county and caused minor damage.
Government, Media, and Medicine
Wilkes County is governed by a group of elected county commissioners. An elected Board of Education controls the county's public school system. Wilkes County is a member of the regional High Country Council of Governments. The Wilkes Regional Medical Center, founded in 1951 as Wilkes General Hospital, is the largest hospital in northwestern North Carolina. Wilkes County has two local newspapers: the Wilkes Journal-Patriot and the Wilkes Record, both of which are published three times per week. The county has three radio stations: WKBC-FM (FM 97.3), which plays Adult Contemporary music; WKBC-AM (AM 800), which plays American Country music; and WWWC (3WC) (AM 1240), which plays Gospel Music. In 2006 WKBC-FM was voted the best radio station in the Charlotte listening area by the music critics of Charlotte's Creative Loafing magazine.
There are four public high schools in the county: Wilkes Central, East Wilkes, North Wilkes, and West Wilkes. There are also four public middle schools and thirteen public elementary schools. The county also has several private schools; most of them are associated with one of the larger Protestant churches in the county. The only college in Wilkes is Wilkes Community College (WCC), a public two-year college within the North Carolina Community College System. WCC is the home of the popular bluegrass and folk music festival "MerleFest.
- The county produces heavy amounts of Fraser Fir Christmas Trees.
- The growth of produce was once a mainstay in the agricultural economy of the county. Cabbage was once widely grown, so much so, that a sauerkraut plant was once located in Boone. The plant has long been closed. Boone Creek, the main creek that runs through Boone and the Appalachian State campus is still nicknamed Kraut Creek since it is said that the creek used to smell of sauerkraut juice coming out of the plant.
The county is divided into twenty-one townships: Antioch, Beaver Creek, Boomer, Brushy Mountains, Edwards, Elk, Jobs Cabin, Lewis Fork, Lovelace, Moravian Falls, Mulberry, New Castle, North Wilkesboro, Rock Creek, Somers, Stanton, Trap Hill, Union, Walnut Grove, and Wilkesboro.
Cities and Towns
- North Wilkesboro
- Millers Creek
- Moravian Falls
- Pleasant Hill
Wilkes County is part of the Yadkin Valley wine region.
- Daniel Boone (1734-1820), the famed explorer and pioneer, lived in Wilkes County for several years, and married a Wilkes County native, before moving west to Kentucky.
- Benjamin Cleveland (1738-1806), was a distinguished colonel in the North Carolina militia during the Revolutionary War. He was one of the American commanders at the famous Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780.
- William Lenoir (1751-1839), the first President of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- Montford Stokes (1762-1842), United States Senator and Governor of North Carolina during the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1832 he was appointed by President Andrew Jackson to lead the Federal Indian Commission in what is now Oklahoma; he is believed to be the only veteran of the Revolutionary War buried in that state.
- Chang and Eng Bunker (1811-1874), the world-famous Siamese twins, who were a popular attraction in Asia, Europe, and North America in the nineteenth century, settled in Wilkes County in the 1850s and married two local sisters.
- James B. Gordon (1822-1864), a general of cavalry in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.
- Tom Dula (Dooley) (1844-1868), a Confederate veteran of the Civil War who was tried and hanged shortly after the war for the murder of his fiancee, Laura Foster. Dula was the subject of a top-selling 1958 ballad by the Kingston Trio, entitled "Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley".
- Junior Johnson (1931-), in the 1950s, Johnson became a legend in the rural South by consistently outrunning law-enforcement officials in auto chases while delivering illegal homemade liquor (moonshine) to his customers. Johnson then became a champion NASCAR racer, winning 50 NASCAR races before his retirement.
- Benny Parsons (1941-2007), well-known NASCAR racer who won the 1973 NASCAR championship. After his retirement he became a popular racing analyst for the ESPN, NBC and TBS television networks.
- Robert Byrd (1917-), the senior U.S. Senator from West Virginia since 1959. Byrd is the longest-serving Senator in history.
- John Swofford (1948-), since 1997 the Commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), one of the nation's premiere college sports conferences.
- James Larkin Pearson (1879-1981), poet and newspaper publisher who served as North Carolina's Poet Laureate from 1953 to 1981.
- Zach Galifianakis (1969-), a popular stand-up comedian and actor who has appeared on such television shows as Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and numerous programs on the Comedy Central network, such as Reno 911
- Deneen Graham (1964-), the first black woman to be crowned Miss North Carolina (1983).
Wilkes County was once known as the "Moonshine Capital of the World", and was a leading producer of illegal homemade liquor. From the 1920s to the 1950s some young Wilkes County males made their living by delivering moonshine to North Carolina's larger towns and cities. Since this often involved outrunning local police and federal agents in auto chases, the county became one of the birthplaces of the sport of stock car racing. The North Wilkesboro Speedway, opened in 1947, was the first NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing) track. As noted above, Wilkes County native and resident Junior Johnson was one of the early superstars of NASCAR, as well as a legendary moonshiner. Johnson was turned into a national celebrity by the writer Tom Wolfe in a classic 1965 article for Esquire magazine. Wolfe's article was later turned into the 1973 movie The Last American Hero, starring Jeff Bridges and Valerie Perrine. Benny Parsons and Jimmy Pardue were two other well-known NASCAR drivers from Wilkes. Unfortunately, the North Wilkesboro Speedway was closed following the 1996 NASCAR season after two new owners moved North Wilkesboro's races to their tracks in Texas and New Hampshire. However, a group called "Save the Speedway" has been working towards purchasing the track and reopening it for auto racing.
As noted above, another well-known Wilkes native was Tom Dula (Dooley), a Confederate veteran of the American Civil War who was tried and hanged shortly after the war for the murder of his fiancÃ©e, Laura Foster. To this day many people believe that one of Dula's jealous ex-girlfriends murdered Laura Foster, and that Dula was innocent of the crime. The case was given nationwide publicity by newspapers such as The New York Times, and thus became a folk legend in the rural South. Dula's legend was popularized in 1958 by the top-selling Kingston Trio song "Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley." Dula's story was also turned into a 1959 movie starring Michael Landon as Dula, and each summer the Wilkes Playmakers present a popular play based on the story. In 2001, Tom Dula was acquitted of all charges after a petition was sent around Wilkes County and to the county seat.
In 1988 legendary folk music guitarist Doc Watson and singer Bill Young started the Merlefest music festival in Wilkesboro, the county seat. Held on the campus of Wilkes Community College, and named in honor of Doc's late son Merle Watson, Merlefest has grown into the largest folk and bluegrass music festival in the United States, drawing over 85,000 music fans each year. Wilkes County is also home to the annual Brushy Mountain Apple Festival, which is held in downtown North Wilkesboro in October. The festival, which attracts over 160,000 visitors each year, is one of the largest single-day arts and crafts fairs in the Southern United States.
A curious political fact about Wilkes County is that it is one of the few counties in the Southern United States which has never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. The county's strong affiliation with the Republican Party dates from the American Civil War, when most of the county's residents opposed secession and the Confederacy, and viewed the Democratic Party as being the "pro-secession" party. During the Civil War people in neighboring counties often called Wilkes County "The Old United States", in reference to the county's pro-Union sentiment. Although the county is heavily Republican, and African-Americans make up less than 5% of the county's population, in 2002 the county's voters elected Luther Parks as a county commissioner. Parks, a Democrat, is the first African-American to hold a county office. He received more votes than any other candidate. In 2006 Parks was re-elected, and again he received the largest number of votes.
Despite its rural character and small population, Wilkes County has been the birthplace of numerous large industries. Lowe's, the second-largest chain of home-improvement stores in the nation (after The Home Depot) was started in Wilkes County in 1946. Until recently Lowe's had its corporate headquarters in Wilkes County, but the company has since relocated its headquarters in Mooresville, North Carolina, a fast-growing suburb of Charlotte. However, Lowe's still maintains a large number of corporate offices in the county. Other industries which started in Wilkes County are Lowes Foods (now headquartered in Winston-Salem, North Carolina) and The Northwestern Bank, which was once North Carolina's fourth-largest banking chain until it was merged with the Wachovia Bank in Charlotte. The Carolina Mirror Company, still in North Wilkesboro, was for many years the largest mirror factory in the United States. Holly Farms, in Wilkesboro, was the largest poultry producer in the Southeastern United States until it was bought by Tyson Foods. Wilkes County remains one of the largest producers of poultry in the Eastern United States. Like many places in North Carolina, Wilkes County has suffered in the last quarter-century from the closing of many of its textile and furniture factories, which have moved to low-wage locations in Latin America and Asia.
As of the census of 2010, there were 69,340 people, 26,614 households residing in the county out of which 6.0% had children under the age of 5, 22.4% had children under the age of 18 and 17.0% were over the age of 65. The average persons per household was 2.46. The population density was 91 per square mile. There were 31,146 housing units at an average density of 41 per square mile.
- White persons - 90.6%
- Black persons - 4.1%
- American Indian and Alaska Native persons - 0.2%
- Asian persons - 0.4%
- Persons reporting two or more races - 1.3%
- Persons of Hispanic or Latino origin - 5.4%
The median income for a household in the county was $36,516. The per capita income for the county was $19,578. About 18.5% of the population were below the poverty line.
Wilkes County is served by a number of major highways. However, the only multilane expressway which goes through the county is US 421. Other major highways include NC 16, NC 18, NC 268, and NC 115. The Wilkes County Airport provides air transport into and out of the county.