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HISTORY OF WILKESBORO
by Dick Underwood
The place we know as Wilkesboro has served as a county seat since 1778, when the new county of Wilkes was formed. In 1799, the North Carolina General Assembly appointed a committee headed by Thomas Fields, a surveyor, to acquire 50 acres around the temporary courthouse to provide land for a permanent courthouse and other official county buildings and to organize the town. Fields and his committee bought the 50 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 50 acres from the university trustees. The Wilkes County court, chaired by General 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 courthouse 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 courthouse 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 15 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, Col. Ben Cleveland brought captured militant Tories (loyal defenders of English colonial rule) to a hanging tree near the courthouse, the "Tory Oak." Capt. Robert Cleveland's Revolutionary period log farm house has been recently reconstructed near the courthouse.
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 courthouse. General Lenoir's streets going in four directions from the courthouse, 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, 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 courthouse but the troopers only stayed a day or two, taking with them confiscated food, supplies and livestock.
When a new courthouse was needed, on July 23, 1902, a large group of people gathered at the courthouse square and watched over 100 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 courthouse, 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 courthouse to provide needed space. The color of bricks in the wings was not the same as in the original building, so the courthouse was painted white. The old courthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, along with 12 other buildings in Wilkesboro. Since a new courthouse was completed in 1998, the old courthouse is presently the Wilkes Heritage Museum.
Wilkesboro business and industry grew from very modest beginnings - general merchandising, textiles, glove, shoe, farm, wood, pottery, and tobacco products. Today, there are factories producing wood products and food products, among other things. Tyson Foods operates a major chicken processing plant in Wilkesboro and Suncrest Farms operates a pork products plant, for the world known NASCAR Legend "Junior Johnson" Hams and Pork Rinds. East Coast Mouldings operates a wood trim plant that produces a beautiful array of more than 1,000 different moulding profiles to transform the look of any home. Northwestern Bank, then the state's fourth largest bank, built its headquarters here before a larger bank and other mergers bought it out. Wachovia/Wells Fargo still has a presence in our community, along with other community and national banks and credit unions. Lowe's Companies oversees a nationwide home improvement business from its headquarters in Wilkesboro. We have a variety of shoppes, shopping centers, restaurants and hotels from the small proprietorship to the national retail chain. We are proud to say that we have the perfect climate for several vineyards and the late world known NASCAR Legend "Benny Parsons" Family are among these vineyards.
Our educational facilities provide opportunities for people of all ages - from Wilkes Community College to a Christian Bible College. The bible college provides opportunities of quality biblical education and spiritual leadership. The WCC opened its doors to students in 1966 in Wilkesboro and has since expanded to include classes for students in Alleghany and Ashe Counties. As a member of the North Carolina Community College System, Wilkes Community College seeks to enhance intellectual, economic, cultural, and social development through a variety of means, by providing quality education, training and retraining for the workforce, including basic skills education, occupational, technical, and pre-baccalaureate programs; support for economic development through services to business and industry, both public and private; and a variety of services and cultural activities that improve the quality of life. The college campus in west Wilkesboro is where an eclectic range of musicians gather each spring to celebrate their art and to honor the late Doc Watson and Merle Watson.