home > town government > wilkesboro's history > wilkes heritage museum
WILKES HERITAGE MUSEUM
Wilkes Heritage Museum, Inc. is a private, non-profit organization formed in 1968 (as Old Wilkes Inc.) to celebrate Wilkes County's rich, unique heritage as it seeks to preserve the past.
The museum was originally built as the Wilkes County Courthouse. In 1902, over 100 Masons paraded to the building site and lifted the cornerstone into place. A sealed time capsule was placed behind the cornerstone, where it remains to this day. The facade is a white brick Neoclassical Revival building and one of few survivors designed by Wheeler and Range.
In the 1950s, the wings that you see now were added to each side of the courthouse to provide needed space. The brick on the new wings did not match that of the original structure, so the entire exterior was painted white.
The courthouse formed the heart of downtown historic Wilkesboro. Court days were social events during which people gathered on the courthouse lawn to hear proceedings & verdicts.
Wilkesboro was founded in 1847 and was named for the English political radical John Wilkes, an outspoken opponent of English loyalists during the Revolutionary War. General William Lenoir divided the downtown land into a grid of streets and lots, with this public square in the middle for the courthouse and public facilities.
The old courthouse building is now home to the Wilkes Heritage Museum. The museum opened in November 2005, with hundreds of artifacts on display. Additionally, the museum educational site includes the Wilkes Heritage Jail, 1779 log home of Captain Robert Cleveland, and the late 19th century Finley Law Office, which all have been was restored to their original appearances.
The Wilkes Heritage Museum educational site has undoubtedly contributed to the education and culture of the county's present and future. Through a collection of artifacts and images, numerous stories of early settlement, military history, industry, agriculture, medicine, communication, education, entertainment, and transportation are told. Among the artifacts is a real moonshine still.
Did you know that Wilkes County was once known as the “Moonshine Capital of the World"? Would you be surprised to learn that many of the first NASCAR race drivers learned their craft hauling moonshine and evading the law?” In the museum, you’ll also find NASCAR memorabilia, one of Junior Johnson’s racing cars, military uniforms and equipment, pottery from the area, as well as information about the area’s rich musical heritage.
You will also find information on the “Siamese twins” Chang and Eng Bunker, who were a popular attraction in the 1800s throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. The Bunker twins, born in Siam, settled in Wilkes County in the 1850s and married two local sisters. Between them, they fathered 21 children.
The Wilkes Heritage Museum is also home to the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame, which will open in June 2008 with 10 initial inductees, including legends like Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Dolly Parton, and the Carter Family.
OLD WILKES JAIL
The Old Wilkes Jail was completed in 1860 and is one of the few 19th-century prisons still standing. The Old Wilkes Jail held Union prisoners and stored Confederate provisions and ammunition during the civil war.
Tom Dooley was one of the famous inmates of the jail, pictured in the photo on the right. Tom Dooley was a Confederate soldier who was tried and hanged shortly after the Civil War for the murder of his fiancée, Laura Foster. You may be familiar with the song about this story, “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley,” made popular by the Kingston Trio.
Another famous inmate was notorious escape artist Otto Wood. Otto escaped from 10 jails and prisons over his lifetime. The Old Wilkes Jail is the only jail that Otto never escaped from. Can you figure out why? In case you can’t stand the suspense: the door and frame to the Old Wilkes Jail are embedded with nails set 1 inch apart, so that prisoners could not saw through the door.
ROBERT CLEVELAND LOG HOME
The Robert Cleveland house is the oldest house remaining in Wilkes County, originally built in 1779 in Western Wilkes County. The building was moved to Wilkesboro in the mid-1980s and restored. This was the home of Robert Cleveland, gentleman farmer, and his family of 17 children. As you can see, it is not a large building. Can you imagine so many people living in this one house? Robert was the brother of Colonel Benjamin Cleveland, who also lived in Wilkes County, and who led forces from this area to the Battle of Kings Mountain during the Revolutionary War.
THOMAS B. FINLEY LAW OFFICE
This 19th-century building originally served as the Finley Law Office. It is a diminutive, well-preserved carpenter gothic building.
Thomas B. Finley was an influential businessman and lawyer. He was one of the men who planned and founded the town of North Wilkesboro. He was also the first man to advocate the establishment of the Bank of North Wilkesboro, and he served as a director of this bank.
WE INVITE YOU TO VISIT THE MUSEUM
By purchasing a ticket to the Wilkes Heritage Museum, click here, which also gives you full access to the Old Wilkes Jail and the Robert Cleveland Log House. The Law Office is restored and rented out to a retail business.