A History of Wilkesboro, North Carolina

Wilkes County Court House in Wilkesboro

The place we know as Wilkesboro has served as a county seat since 1778, soon after the new Wilkes County was formed. In 1799, the North Carolina General Assembly appointed a committee headed by Thomas Fields, a surveyor, to acquire fifty acres around the temporary court house to provide land for a permanent court house and other official county buildings and to organize the town. Fields and his committee bought the fifty acres, twice, and presented the deeds to the county court.

The land was bought twice because it was claimed by both the Moravians who had acquired it from Earl Granville in 1754, and by settlers who considered the Moravian claim invalid after the American Revolution. The frustrated Moravians had given title of their property to the newly-formed University of North Carolina, so Fields had to buy the fifty acres from the university trustees.

The Wilkes County court, chaired by William Lenoir, a hero of the Battle of Kings Mountain, took the Fields committee deeds and divided the land into a grid of streets and lots with a public square in the middle for the court house and public facilities. The lots were sold in May of 1800, and Wilkesboro was formed in the same general shape we know today, with a court house square, Main Street, and a downtown section bordered by North, South, East, and West streets and with Bridge Street leading to the main highway into town.

The earliest European settlers included Christopher Gist, who came around 1750 and had a home on the northern side of the river, and a man named owen, at Owen's Knob. Daniel Boone had once lived fifteen miles up the river but was long gone by the time the town was founded (the Boone family moved to Kentucky in 1773). During the American Revolution, Colonel Benjamin Cleveland brought captured militant Tories to a hanging tree near the courthouse, the "Tory Oak." Captain Robert Cleveland's Revolutionary period log farm house has been recently reconstructed near the court house.

The place was first known as Mulberry Fields, which referred to river bottom lands and the hills on both sides of the Yadkin River near its junction with the Reddies River. Early Baptists had built the Mulberry Fields Meeting House on the south side of a hill above the valley, so when Wilkes County was created, the old wooden Meeting House was used as a temporary court house. William Lenoir's streets, going in four directions from the court house, defined lots for homes and businesses. There already was a post office, named Wilkes, opened in 1793, which became Wilkesborough, later changed to Wilkesboro. In 1847, the town of Wilkesboro was chartered by the North Carolina General Assembly.

No major Civil War battles were fought in this area, but several Confederate leaders came from Wilkesboro and its surrounding farm country. There were also many people living here who opposed secession and supported the Union. Therefore there were bitter struggles among local residents. In 1865, Major General George Stoneman's U.S. Army cavalry troops passed through Wilkesboro on a sweep eastward. Stoneman's officers set up headquarters across the street from the court house but the troopers only stayed a day or two, taking with them confiscated food, supplies, and livestock.

When a new court house was needed, on July 23, 1902, a large group of people gathered at the court house square and watched over one hundred Masons march in parade to the building site. A cornerstone was ceremoniously lifted into place. A container was placed behind the cornerstone and it was sealed, intended to be opened when the building is dismantled. Objects in the container, sometimes referred to as a "time capsule," include such things as copies of county newspapers of the day, John Crouch's Historical Sketches of Wilkes, a list of construction workers who worked on the court house, a Bible, several items about local government, and various mysterious "souvenirs."

That cornerstone remains in place, still sealed, today. In the 1950s, wings were added on each side of the court house to provide needed space. The color of bricks in the wings was not the same as in the original building, so the court house was painted white. The old court house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, along with twelve other buildings in Wilkesboro. Since a new court house was completed in 1998, the old court house is presently a cultural property of the county government.

Wilkesboro business and industry grew from very modest beginnings - general merchandising, farm and wood products, pottery, and tobacco. Today, there are factories making garments, gloves, wood products, among other things. Tyson Foods operates a major chicken processing plant in Wilkesboro. Northwestern Bank, then the state's fourth-largest bank, built its headquarters here before it was bought out by a larger bank. Lowe's Companies oversees a nationwide home improvement business from its new headquarters in Wilkesboro.

Early educators provided unusual opportunities for young people - from Wilkesboro Academy to Wilkes Community College. The community college opened its doors to students in 1966 and has since expanded to include classes for students in Alleghany and Ashe Counties. The college campus in west Wilkesboro is where Blue Grass musicians gather each spring to celebrate their art and to honor Doc Watson and the late Merle Watson.

Under its original name of Wilkes, the town was granted a US Post Office on January 1, 1795, and its first Postmaster was Mr. John Debson. It has been in continuous operation ever since.

© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved