Wilkes County (population approximately 65,000) was formed in 1777 and named for British politician John Wilkes, who had championed the cause of the American colonies in Parliament. Daniel Boone was an early resident, and one of the first settlements was at Mulberry Fields, previously site of a Cherokee Indian village and now known as Wilkesboro. The Robert Cleveland Log House (1779) is believed to be the county’s oldest structure.
Early Wilkes County business and industry centered around general merchandising, farm and wood products, and tobacco. The coming of the railroad in 1890 and the subsequent construction of the Smoot Tannery helped to transform the county’s economy. In the 20th century, Wilkes County was the birthplace of Holly Farms Chicken (now Tyson Chicken) and Lowe’s home improvement stores. Today, heritage tourism is a growing new industry.
Wilkes County is part of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, which was created in 2003 in recognition of the unique character, culture, and natural beauty of western North Carolina. Following this designation, Wilkes County established a Heritage Council, which developed the Wilkes County Heritage Development Plan. The plan identifies initiatives that will tell the story of Wilkes County while stimulating private investment and fostering partnerships.
A notable achievement under the Heritage Development Plan was the opening of the Wilkes County Heritage Museum in 2005. The museum is located in the Old Wilkes County Courthouse (1902), which the County leased to the non-profit Old Wilkes, Inc., following construction of a new courthouse. Restoration of the building was aided by a Save America’s Treasures grant. Centrally located in Wilkesboro, the new museum is on the way to becoming a hub of cultural, civic, educational, and tourist activity in Wilkes County.
Adjacent to the museum is the Old Wilkes Jail (1859). One of its most famous inmates was Tom Dula (Dooley), who was executed in 1866 after being found guilty of murdering his fiancé. The murder was one of the first in America to receive nationwide media coverage and was the inspiration for the folk song, “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley.” The case continues to fascinate, and visitors can explore it further through a Tom Dula driving tour and annual presentations of an outdoor drama. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hosts the performances at an amphitheater at W. Kerr Scott Reservoir and also developed the driving tour.
Designated a Preserve America Community in January 2007.