Wilkes County, North Carolina

Wilkes County, North Carolina
Wilkes County, North Carolina
Seal of Wilkes County, North Carolina
Map of North Carolina highlighting Wilkes County
Location in the state of North Carolina
Map of the U.S. highlighting North Carolina
North Carolina's location in the U.S.
Founded 1778
Seat Wilkesboro
 - Total
 - Land
 - Water

760 sq mi (1,968 km²)
757 sq mi (1,961 km²)
3 sq mi (8 km²), 0.36%
 - (2010)
 - Density

87/sq mi (34/km²)
Website www.wilkescounty.net/

Wilkes County is a county located in the U.S. state of North Carolina. The 2000 U.S. Census listed the county's population at 65,632; the 2010 U.S. Census listed the population at 69,340.[1] Its county seat is Wilkesboro[2].

Wilkes County is also a part of the North Wilkesboro Micropolitan Area.[3]



The county was formed in 1777 from parts of Surry County and Washington District (now Washington County, Tennessee). The first session of the county court was held in John Brown's house near what is today Brown's Ford. The act creating the county became effective on February 15, 1778, and the county celebrates its anniversary as February 15. It was named for the English political radical John Wilkes, who lost his position as Lord Mayor of the City 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 and climate

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 760 square miles (1,968 km²), of which, 757 square miles (1,961 km²) of it is land and 3 square miles (7 km²) of it (0.36%) 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 (375 meters) in the east to over 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) 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 (1243 meters). The foothills and valleys of the Blue Ridge form most of the county's midsection, with some elevations exceeding 2,000 feet (610 meters). 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.

National protected area


As of the census of 2010[4], there were 69,340 people, 28,360 households, and 19,683 families residing in the county. The population density was 91.91 people per square mile (35.49/km²). There were 33,065 housing units at an average density of 43.84 per square mile (16.93/km²). The racial makeup of the county was 90.60% White or European American, 4.08% African American, 0.19% Native American, 0.43% Asian, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 3.33% from other races, and 1.33% from two or more races. Of all races, 5.44% of the population were Hispanic or Latino.

There were 28,360 households out of which 26.76% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 54.03% were married couples living together, 10.50% had a female householder with no husband present, and 30.60% were non-families. Of all households, 26.69% were made up of individuals and 11.59% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.41 and the average family size was 2.89.

In the county, the population breakdown by age is: 22.41% under the age of 18, 7.16% from 18 to 24, 23.96% from 25 to 44, 29.49% from 45 to 64, and 16.99% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 42.4 years. For every 100 females there were 97.69 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 95.42 males.

The median income for a household in the county was $30,668, and the median income for a family was $39,670. Males had a median income of $30,917 versus $26,182 for females. The per capita income for the county was $18,319. About 17.60% of families and 21.50% of the population were below the poverty line, including 32.60% of those under age 18 and 13.40% of those age 65 or over.


Since colonial times Wilkes County has been overwhelmingly Protestant Christian. The two earliest churches to be established in Wilkes were the Episcopalian and Presbyterian. However, by the 1850s the Southern Baptists had eclipsed them, and the Baptists have remained the dominant church in Wilkes. The county also contains substantial numbers of Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, and Church of the Brethren. Historically, few Roman Catholics lived in Wilkes, but recent immigration from other U.S. States and especially by people of Hispanic descent has increased their numbers. By contrast, relatively few Jews or members of other non-Christian faiths have settled in the county.[citation needed]


The primary governing body of Wilkes County follows a council–manager government format with a five-member Board of Commissioners and the County Manager. The current County Manager is John Yates[5]. The current Commissioners are: Keith Elmore (Chairman), Gary D. Blevins (Vice-Chairman), David Gambill, Gary L. Blevins, and Charlie Sink[6].

Wilkes County is a member of the regional High Country Council of Governments.[7]

In the North Carolina General Assembly, Wilkes is represented by Dan Soucek (district 45) in the Senate, and by Shirley B. Randleman (district 94) in the House.[8]

In the US Senate, the county is represented by Richard Burr and Kay Hagan.[9] Wilkes is entirely in the Fifth District of the US House[10], represented by Virginia Foxx.[11]


The Wilkes Regional Medical Center, founded in 1951 as Wilkes General Hospital, is the largest hospital in North Carolina's High Country region.[citation needed] West Park, formerly a large shopping center built in North Wilkesboro in the 1970s, was transformed into northwest North Carolina's largest medical park in 2000[citation needed], complete with offices for physicians, physical therapists, pharmacies, medical specialists, and other medical-related fields and still continues to serve a large part of the county.


Wilkes County has two local newspapers:

  • Wilkes Journal-Patriot - Founded in 1906, the Journal-Patriot is published three times per week.
  • The Record of Wilkes - Published once per week, it usually focuses on the local arts scene in Wilkes.

The county has three radio stations:

Wilkes County is also home to GoWilkes.com, an internet media source that allows residents to discuss current events and local happenings in real time. GoWilkes.com was voted the 2004 Small Business of the Year by the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce.[citation needed]

Municipal districts


The county is divided into twenty-two townships: Antioch, Beaver Creek, Boomer, Brushy Mountains, Edwards, Elk Creek, Hays, Jobs Cabin, Lewis Fork, Lovelace, Moravian Falls, Mulberry, New Castle, North Wilkesboro, Rock Creek, Somers, Stanton, Traphill, Union, Walnut Grove, Millers Creek and Wilkesboro.


Map of Wilkes County, North Carolina With Municipal and Township Labels

The county does not have any cities; however, there are a few towns:

Unincorporated CDPs

Adjacent counties


Wilkes County is served by a number of highways. However, the only multilanes 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. The Blue Ridge Parkway, America's most-traveled scenic highway, winds along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains along the northern and western borders of the county.


There are five public high schools, four public middle schools and thirteen public elementary schools. The county also has several private schools, primarily associated with one of the larger Protestant churches in the county. The largest private school in Wilkes is the Millers Creek Christian School.[citation needed] 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 "Americana" music festival MerleFest.

Wilkes County Schools

A five-member board of education governs the Wilkes County School System. The current members are: Coleen T. Bush (Chairman), Peggy J. Martin (Vice Chairman), Rick Lankford, Randall “Rudy” Holbrook and Sharron N. Huffman. The current system Superintendent is Dr. Stephen Laws.[12]

High Schools

Middle Schools

  • Central Wilkes
  • North Wilkes
  • East Wilkes
  • West Wilkes

Elementary Schools

  • Boomer-Ferguson
  • CB Eller
  • CC Wright
  • Millers Creek
  • Moravian Falls
  • Mt. Pleasant
  • Mountain View
  • Mulberry
  • North Wilkesboro
  • Wilkesboro
  • Roaring River
  • Ronda-Clingman
  • Traphill

Wine region

Wilkes County is part of the Yadkin Valley AVA, an American Viticultural Area. Wines made from grapes grown Wilkes County may use the appellation Yadkin Valley on their labels. With the decline of tobacco farming, some Wilkes County farmers have switched to wine-making, and have hired experts from Europe and California for assistance. As a result, wine-making is growing in popularity in both Wilkes and surrounding counties.

In May of each year, Wilkes county celebrates the new wine industry with the Shine to Wine Festival, held in downtown North Wilkesboro.

Notable people

  • 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 from 1816 to 1832. 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, married two local sisters, and between them fathered 21 children.
  • George Allen Gilreath (1834–1863), a captain in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War; in July 1863 he commanded the regiment which advanced the farthest into enemy lines during Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. Gilreath was killed in the assault.
  • 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".
  • James Larkin Pearson (1879–1981), poet and newspaper publisher who served as North Carolina's official Poet Laureate from 1953 to 1981.
  • Robert Byrd (1917–2010), the senior U.S. Senator from West Virginia from 1959-2010. Byrd was the longest-serving Senator in American history.
  • 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 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.
  • John Swofford (1948-), since 1997 the Commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), one of the nation's premiere college sports conferences. He is also the current Coordinator of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) in college football.
  • Deneen Graham (1964-), the first black woman to be crowned Miss North Carolina (1983).
  • Zach Galifianakis (1969-), a popular stand-up comedian who has appeared on such television shows as Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and Late Night with Conan O'Brien. He has appeared in several television series for the Comedy Central network, such as Reno 911, and he has been an actor in several films, including The Hangover and Into the Wild..
  • William Oliver Swofford (1945–2000), a successful pop singer in the 1960s and 70s (under the name Oliver), known for his hits Good Morning Starshine (featured in the Broadway musical Hair) and Jean. Jean was the theme song of the Oscar-winning film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Points of interest

Moonshine and the Birth of NASCAR

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. Wilkes County natives also used bootleg liquor as a means for barter far beyond the borders of North Carolina. Many Wilkes County distillers ran white liquor as far as Detroit, New Jersey and South Florida. 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 was the first NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing) track; it held its first race on May 18, 1947[13] and the first NASCAR sanctioned race on October 16, 1949.[14] 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, Bob Bahre and Bruton Smith, moved North Wilkesboro's NASCAR races to their tracks in Texas and New Hampshire. In September 2007 a real-estate developer, Worth Mitchell, announced his intention to buy the North Wilkesboro Speedway and reopen it for auto racing. However Worth Mitchell estimates his odds are 50–50 of pulling off the deal and since that time there has been no further information. Speedway Motorsports officials had no comment on the negotiations.[15]

Events and Festivals

Wilkes County has strong musical roots, and those roots are displayed at the annual Battle of the Bands. Held in downtown North Wilkesboro in September, this rock festival features 20 professional and amateur bands from across the region, performing original music and competing for cash awards and, in some cases, record labels.

It also hosts the annual Shine to Wine Festival, also in downtown North Wilkesboro. Held on the first Saturday of May, the Shine to Wine festival pays tribute to the county's heritage of growing from the Moonshine Capital of the World to what is now recognized as a strong viticultural industry.

Wilkes County is also home to the annual Brushy Mountain Apple Festival, which is held in downtown North Wilkesboro the first weekend 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.


In 1988 legendary folk music guitarist Doc Watson and 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, now drawing over 85,000 music fans each year.

Tom Dooley

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 fiancée, Laura Foster. To this day many people believe that one of Dula's jealous ex-girlfriends murdered Laura Foster, that Dula was innocent of the crime, and that he accepted blame only to protect his former lover.[16]

The case was given nationwide publicity by newspapers such as The New York Times and the New York Herald, 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.[16]

Political Loyalty

A curious political fact about Wilkes County is that it is one of the few counties in the Southern United States which has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since the 1830s.[citation needed] The county's strong affiliation with the Republican Party dates from the American Civil War, when some 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; during the conflict the county was divided in its loyalties, with some male residents fighting in the Confederate Army, while others supported the Union.[citation needed]

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, he again received the largest number of votes.[citation needed]


Despite its rural character and relatively 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, North Carolina. A telecommunications firm, Carolina West Wireless, was started in Wilkesboro in 1991 and is also headquartered 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 1986. The Carolina Mirror Company in North Wilkesboro, founded in the 1930s, was for many years the largest mirror factory in America. Today Gardner Glass Products Inc. still produces mirrors in North Wilkesboro. Holly Farms, in Wilkesboro, was the largest poultry producer in the Southeastern United States until it was bought by Tyson Foods in 1989. Wilkes County remains one of the largest producers of poultry in the Eastern United States, and many of the county's farmers are poultry farmers for Tyson Foods.

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, especially China and Vietnam.

See also


  1. ^ "State & County QuickFacts". United States Census Bureau. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/37/37193.html. Retrieved 2011-08-09. 
  2. ^ "Find a County". National Association of Counties. http://www.naco.org/Counties/Pages/FindACounty.aspx. Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  3. ^ "North Wilkesboro, NC Micropolitan Statistical Area" (PDF). Metropolitan/Micropolitan Area Maps. U.S. Census Bureau. http://www.census.gov/econ/census07/pdf/maps/nc/metro/31000us35900m.pdf. Retrieved 23 October 2011. 
  4. ^ "American FactFinder". United States Census Bureau. http://factfinder2.census.gov. Retrieved 2011-05-14. 
  5. ^ "Wilkes County Administration". WilkesCounty.net. Wilkes County. http://www.wilkescounty.net/administration.php?nid=1. Retrieved 27 October 2011. 
  6. ^ "Board of Commissioners". WilkesCounty.net. Wilkes County. http://www.wilkescounty.net/governing_body.php. Retrieved 27 October 2011. 
  7. ^ "Membership". RegionD.org. High Country Council of Governments. http://www.regiond.org/membership.html. Retrieved 27 October 2011. 
  8. ^ "Wilkes County Representation". NCGA website. North Carolina General Assembly. http://www.ncleg.net/gascripts/counties/counties.pl?County=Wilkes. Retrieved 27 October 2011. 
  9. ^ "Senators of the 112th Congress". US Senate website. United States Senate. http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm?State=NC. Retrieved 27 October 2011. 
  10. ^ "Rucho-Lewis Congress 3 (adopted redistricting plan)". NCGA website. NC General Assembly. http://www.ncleg.net/gis/randr07/District_Plans/PlanPage_DB_2011.asp?Plan=Rucho-Lewis_Congress_3&Body=Congress. Retrieved 27 October 2011. 
  11. ^ "Directory of Representatives". US House website. United States House of Representatives. http://www.house.gov/representatives/#state_nc. Retrieved 27 October 2011. 
  12. ^ "Board of Education and Leadership". Official website. Wilkes County Schools. http://www.wilkes.k12.nc.us/about.html. Retrieved 27 October 2011. 
  13. ^ First Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway
  14. ^ October 16, 1949 - Wilkes 200
  15. ^ Jayski's Silly Season Site - MISC Track News/Rumors
  16. ^ a b Lundin, Leigh (2010-02-21). "Who Killed Laura Foster?". Tom Dula. Criminal Brief. http://criminalbrief.com/?p=11062. 

External links

Coordinates: 36°12′N 81°10′W / 36.20°N 81.17°W / 36.20; -81.17

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