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Community Profile

Learn more about Wilkes County:
Wilkes Focuses a Clear Vision on the Future
Wilkes Discovers Rewards in Family Fun
Right: Wilkes Community College offers 36 degrees 
and serves 14,500 students in three counties.

Tough & Tart
Wilkes County cultivates its colorful heritage
but the focus now is on an entrepreneurial future

By Ned Cline

Folklore, like a bad cold, is sometimes hard to shake regardless of the attempted remedies. That’s pretty much the way it is when people unfamiliar with Wilkes County talk about its people and history. Wilkes is often underrated and unappreciated by outsiders because much of the lore that has evolved through generations of independent-minded individuals, only a few with checkered pasts.

Truth is, Wilkes — located at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains with an appealing blend of charm and opportunities — has an abundance of what many counties in North Carolina seek. There is plenty of pure, clear water, a dedicated workforce, ample scenic beauty, improving schools, quality recreational areas and boundaries that are convenient to metropolitan areas without the accompanying hassle.

Another attribute is the entrepreneurial spirit, a staple since at least the Civil War. That fact, however, has helped fan the fires of folklore, some of it exaggerated but nevertheless intriguing even if the truth is bent a bit.

Wilkes was indeed founded and fostered by people with independent minds and strong backs, often likened to the limber twig apple trees so prominent in the area’s Brushy Mountains: tough and tart.

The last half century’s Wilkes lore goes something like this: Farmers who returned to the land following World War II couldn’t earn a living off the hard hillside soil, so they turned to inventive endeavors for income. The most prominent of these was moonshine production, which was once a major industry in the hills, hollows and crooked back roads. But when federal revenue agents succeeded in smashing most of the illegal liquor stills, moonshiners turned to raising chickens. That brought on the need for a place to sell the fowl and the need for cash loans to expand, so a bank and a poultry-processing plant were founded. That brought on a need for lumber and other supplies for chicken houses, so a building supply house was started. And that’s the way Wilkes became a center for banking, poultry processing and the building industry. 

There is an element of truth in that lore, although the county’s economic evolvement didn’t occur quite that simply. It was a lot more enterprising.

Left: The Lowe's corporate headquarters

Racing Toward the Future
It is certainly true, of course, that Wilkes in the post-war decades had the dubious distinction of being the moonshine capital of the state when some landowners and tenant farmers made illegal liquor their supplemental cash crop. Some of the state’s earliest and best known auto race drivers learned to handle fast cars and sharp turns while eluding federal agents on the snake-like lanes of rural Wilkes.

One of the first moonshine runners and stock car drivers, Junior Johnson, is still a Wilkes icon who now runs a series of legitimate enterprises. “Wilkes has been mighty good to me and it’s a mighty good place to raise a family,” says Johnson, who now lives next door in Yadkin County, but still calls Wilkes home. “There have been some tough times, but the people always bounce back. There are great people there. There’s nothing wrong with the place.”

It is also true that the entrepreneurial bent of the moonshiners and their predecessors was prominent in the spirit of business leaders who helped turn the county into one of progress and economic advancement. There is a clear, perhaps unmatched, record among North Carolina counties in what the determined residents of Wilkes have achieved without the fanfare and public display of other areas. Economic success stories more than match the folklore tales.

Wilkes is the home of Lowe’s, a nationally recognized and leading building supply and home improvement retailer. It was the first home of Holly Farms, now part of the giant Tyson’s Foods. It was the original home of Northwestern Bank, a major financial institution in North Carolina before a merger with First Union. It was the first home of Lowe’s Foods, now a major grocery chain in western North Carolina and Virginia.

Few, if any, counties as isolated as Wilkes can boast of such major entrepreneurial enterprises that have been so successful. So maybe the heritage of moonshining did unintentionally help cultivate the development of a bank, a building supply industry, poultry growing and a food store chain. Whatever the reason, they’ve all been started in the county and still maintain a major presence long after the illicit liquor trade has gone the way of the farm mule.

“Moonshine production is part of our heritage and we don’t try to deny that,” says Linda Cheek, president of the Wilkes Chamber of Commerce. “People still come here thinking there is a moonshine museum and a NASCAR (auto racing) museum and we don’t have either. Those things are part of our past.

“What we have now are wonderful people whose work ethic is extremely good. When people here take a job, they work at it. That’s a big draw for industries. The opportunities here are great. Our pace may be a bit slower, but the caring attitude we have for each other is especially appealing. It’s pretty phenomenal that a community as small as ours has raised $1.3 million to be used in helping the 22,000 affected by United Way programs in the last two years. That kind of thing happens because we care about each other. Many people may not know much about us, but we have a lot to offer.”

Wilkes also offers a moderate climate averaging 56 degrees throughout the year, usually ranging from the middle 30s in January to the middle 70s in July. Abundant rainfall averages about 50 inches a year with 10 inches of snow. There is a new and expandable industrial park with built-in infrastructure. Add all that to a business climate of low taxes and even lower water rates and you have a marketable region with untapped potential.

Cheek’s job, of course, is to promote the county. But her sentiments are as pronounced among those who hold non-promotional jobs relating to education and industry.

“People here are those you can count on,” says Ralph Steele. “They are good people who work hard.” Steele can speak with some expertise. As human resources director for Tyson’s Foods in Wilkeboro, he has responsibility for the 2,900 Tyson employees, the most of any employer in the county.

Dr. Joe Johnson, a veteran school administrator who has lived across North Carolina, will leave his job as Wilkes school superintendent as soon as his successor is hired. “I plan to retire here,” he says. “There are wonderful people here. I feel comfortable here, so there is no reason to go somewhere else.”

The wife of a retired Lowe’s executive who still lives in Wilkes may have had the best response to the drawing card of the area. “Wives of businessmen who move here may cry when they come (because of the county’s relative smallness and isolation),” she says, “but they also cry if they have to leave (because they fall in love with their surroundings).”

Such accolades aren’t just of modern vintage either. Wilkes native Federal Judge Johnson J. Hayes, who became perhaps the county’s best-known legal scholar, penned a county history 40 years ago. In his book he wrote: “This is a land of beauty and grandeur, a bountiful land and a favored spot of God’s creation.” Others among today’s county boosters simply add to Hayes’ views with the slogan that Wilkes is “where you want to be.”

A Heritage of Independence
Wilkes, however, was not always where some may have wanted to be. Its early history was anything but easy. Likely, that’s where the fierce independence was formed, out of necessity. The county’s earliest inhabitants were Tutelo and Cherokee Indians, followed by Scotch-Irish and German settlers. The first white resident records date to the early 1750s with a Moravian settlement two years later. The county boundaries were established in 1778, carved out of what is now Surry County, and named for English statesman John Wilkes, an early advocate of American rights during the Revolution.

The area of the county known as Mulberry Fields during the Revolutionary War, where the Wilkes Militia mustered, was established as the town of Wilkesboro in 1800. William Lenoir, who inexplicably refused to allow the new town to carry his name, laid out the boundaries and chose them as the seat of county government. After Lenoir’s death, when he could no longer object, his name was attached to another town in neighboring Caldwell County.

As intensely as some early Wilkes settlers fought against the British in the first days of this nation, the feelings toward the United States government remained just as strong during the Civil War. Although many families had divided loyalties, the majority stubbornly stuck with the North rather than the Confederacy. Those views, however, may have had as much to do with economics as concern for which side won. Residents were basing their views on survival rather than political philosophy.

Wilkes, made up of mostly small farms instead of large plantations, had few slave owners among the landowners and most residents had little respect for plantations and saw no real need for slavery. Despite the majority views favorable to the North, however, General George Stoneman showed little mercy as he marched Union soldiers through Wilkes. Stoneman housed some 25,000 of his troops along the banks of the Yadkin River during the height of the war, plundering and burning local properties. Some residents were left desolate, literally with nothing to call their own. The few Confederate soldiers who survived were on the verge of starvation when the war finally ended.

It was from this dismal base that antebellum Wilkes County had to pull itself up from the depth of the ravages of war. Dogged determination became an essential ingredient of basic survival, a trait that has remained as the entrepreneurs of more modern times have slowly but surely succeeded.

Wilkes, some might say, survived and succeeded in spite of itself. It has supported two local city governments with only a narrow riverbed separating the two municipal boundaries. Add to that the fact that Wilkes has remained fiercely Republican while Democrats have controlled the state for all but a few short periods in the last 100 years, and the challenges become even more obvious.

Expanding Transportation Links
Wilkes, a county of approximately 65,600 and growing steadily, is on the road to North Carolina’s popular ski slopes and tourist spots of Boone, Blowing Rock, Banner Elk and Grandfather Mountain, all less than an hour away. The county is divided by Highway 421, the main route from the Piedmont to the mountains. Lack of major highways, blamed on political differences between Wilkes residents and state leaders, has caused a slower rate of growth than in other regions.

That, however, is changing. The state is carving out a new four-lane thoroughfare for Highway 421, scheduled to be finished in late 2003, and upgraded to interstate standards a year later. Four other state highways provide easy access to the heart of the two cities. Furthermore, Wilkes is not far from major cities — 80 miles northwest of Charlotte and 45 miles west of Winston-Salem. The county line is only four miles from I-77 and 22 miles from I-40. Two of the state’s major airports are less than 90 minutes away.

“We have a lot of good stories to tell prospective residents or businesses,” says Kelly Pipes, head of the county’s economic development effort. “But the best thing going for us now is the upgrading of Highway 421.” The economic arm in Wilkes is attached to a relatively new economic organization: AdvantageWest Partnership, which is comprised of 23 counties in the western part of the state. A subset of that partnership is the Industrial Crescent of which Wilkes is a part. That group promotes the entire region for economic growth, using marketing tools that list Money Magazine and Modern Maturity as publications that refer to the Wilkes region as a top destination for families, working, recreation, the arts and retirement.

Wilkes, like many counties, has undergone a shift from manufacturing to service and retail jobs. The county has lost more than 1,400 jobs in the textile and furniture industries in the last few years. Manufacturing now represents slightly less than a third of the total jobs in the county, roughly the same as retail sales, but significantly less than a decade ago. Agriculture, once a staple industry, now employs less than two percent of the county’s workforce. That figure is growing slightly with the arrival of vineyards for grape production, part of the expanding wine industry in the western section of the state. Workers displaced in sagging industries are being retrained for new industries.

Wilkesboro is likely the better known of the two main towns because it is the county seat and closer to Highway 421 and the major shopping areas. But it is smaller by 1,000 than its neighbor North Wilkesboro just across the Yadkin. The county seat has some 3,100 people while North Wilkesboro has slightly more than 4,100. On the map, North Wilkesboro is on the north of the Yadkin and the county seat is on the south side. North Wilkesboro is also 48 feet higher above sea level than its sister town, thus justifying the town name in altitude as well as direction.

Like a lot of other things about the two towns, the split in the cities was for economic reasons. As the community began to develop, leaders turned to the railroad for help. Because the railroad owners rejected the expense of building a track across the river, rail traffic stayed on the north side as the two towns remained friendly rivals rather than merged partners. While the courthouse and seat of government is on the south side of the Yadkin, the county’s hospital (owned by the town of North Wilkesboro) and the county library are on the north side.

At one time, there was talk of merging the towns, but that was all: just talk. Neither side has shown any interest in such a move in recent years. Things are working well as they are and progress continues apace, with the main differences in the tax structure and water/sewer rates.

The countywide tax rate is a respectable 65 cents were $100 valuation. The North Wilkesboro rate is relatively low at 46 cents while Wilkesboro’s rate is an appealing 34 cents (31 cents until this year when the state cut funds to cities and forced a 3-cent increase).

The best bargain for consumers from either government is the Wilkesboro water rate. “We’re practically giving water away,” says town manager Kenneth Noland. Water rates in the town are $3 a month for the first 3,000 gallons used. The minimum water rate in North Wilkesboro is $15 a month. That’s one reason town merger isn’t discussed. “We’re really blessed with a great supply of water,” Noland says. “We’re the first draw out of the Yadkin. When it rains in Boone, we get water.”

There is also another reason for the cheap water in Wilkesboro. Tyson Industries, the town’s largest employer and largest property taxpayer at $800,000 a year, subsidizes water usage. Tyson processes two million chickens every week at its Wilkesboro facilities, using high volumes of water and paying high fees. Their water revenue keeps costs down for everyone else. Tyson is a major force in the county beyond water rates and tax levies, too. The company represents an annual economic boost of $123 million a year in the county.

The Wilkes workforce, strong in desire, is also abundant. Unemployment, because of job losses in shrinking industries, reached a high of 9.5 percent last summer and now stands at 8 percent. Some 4,000 residents leave the county each day to work in other counties. New industries would bring those workers back to the county.

Union representation among Wilkes workers is scarce. While unions exist, none are strong and exert little influence or attention. The average annual income of jobs in the county is under $30,000, slightly under the state average. The median age of the county’s workforce is 39.

New Schools Opening
Wilkes’ schools are getting better, a point of pride, as are programs at the community college and healthcare services. The negative response of Wilkes voters to a school bond referendum in 1997 was a wakeup call. The vote against the bonds was overwhelming, but didn’t solve the problem of inadequate facilities. Rather than a two-cent tax increase the bonds would have required, county leaders swallowed hard and added five cents to the tax rate to build four new middle schools. All opened this year.

Average SAT scores in Wilkes are slightly higher than the state average, 1,010 to 998, and have improved in each of the last several years. “We try to focus on learning, to be the best we can be,” says Dr. Johnston, the retiring school superintendent. “We feel we can compete with students in any system in the state. There is a sense of closeness and a sense of community here that helps us succeed.” Student retention rates are also improving. Fifty-eight percent of the students who enter the ninth grade remain in school to earn diplomas, an increase of 8 percent in recent years. Schools in Wilkes are predominately white, with only five percent African-American and five percent Hispanic.

Wilkes Community College is listed among the best in the state’s system, offering 36 degrees and serving 14,500 students in three counties. The college partners with Appalachian State University in Boone to offer academic work on campus and serves as a cultural and recreational center for the county in addition to classroom courses. Concerts and entertainment ventures are routine at the school.

The campus, esthetically appealing and expanding, is listed among the top 10 community colleges in the state for continuing educational programs. Like its counterparts across the state, the community college is increasingly engaged in retraining workers who have lost jobs in declining industries. Seventy percent of the students hold either part or full-time jobs while studying at the campus.

The college offers childcare for more than 100 children of working parents, about half of whom are employees of Lowe’s. “There are signs of entrepreneurial investments across our campus,” President Dr. Gordon Burns says. “It is this spirit that helps excite us.” Retired Lowe’s executive Leonard Herring echoes that view on the town and gown relationship. “Few community colleges have a better working relationship with their towns than we do in Wilkes,” he says. “Local corporate leaders and the college leaders work hard to support each other.”

Healthcare services took a giant leap forward in Wilkes a decade ago with the formation of The Health Foundation Inc., which works as a partner with Wilkes Regional Medical Center. Private corporate money within the county started and still supports the foundation. More than $5 million has been invested in improving health and wellness facilities since the foundation was created in 1991 as a non-profit 501C-3 organization.

Wilkes Medical Center was built a half century ago, but in recent years has undergone significant renovation. The hospital, which works cooperatively with Winston-Salem medical facilities, had a medical staff of 80 and can serve 130 patients. “We provide greater than the average health care services for a community our size and are well endowed with physicians and facilities,” says administrator David Hinson.

The privately funded foundation has been the catalyst for the health services upgrades, including the purchase and rebirth of a defunct shopping center into a modern, efficient facility. “The renewed life of the (health) center is our largest recycling project,” says foundation executive Heather Murphy. “It is a wonderful addition to our health care services.”

That recycled health center is the latest example of the entrepreneurial drive in Wilkes. That kind of spirit is what brought the county this far. The road ahead has open lanes.

Wilkes Discovers Rewards in Family Fun

For a good time, call Wilkes County. Although historically seldom thought of as the hotbed of Southern cordiality and charm because of its relatively isolated location and the predominance of rugged individualists among its founders, Wilkes today offers an abundance of what many counties can find only in dreams.

Wilkes, located at the foot of North Carolina’s popular mountains west of Winston-Salem and northwest of Charlotte, is becoming something of a hospitality heartland in terms of what native Tar Heels call just plain old family fun. All this is happening in Wilkes without a coastline or ski slope or center city cultural bloc. In addition to fun, it’s an economic incentive. And it is happening because the county’s leaders have worked cooperatively with their neighbors as one way of promoting increased social capital as part of an overall plan for economic enhancements. It seems to be a game that everybody wins.

The best known of the social events is the annual MerleFest, a four-day musical bonanza that has, quite literally, become an international event on the campus of Wilkes Community College. The event started small (4,000 attending) in 1987 as a way to honor Merle Watson, son of legendary blind bluegrass icon Doc Watson. But it has grown like fertilized kudzu and now brings in more than 20,000 folks a day for four days each spring. It has added multi-millions to the county’s revenue stream and is a priceless marketing tool for the county.

What MerleFest is to springtime, the Brushy Mountain Apple Festival is to fall. The festival in downtown North Wilkesboro draws some 150,000 spectators from the county and neighboring areas the first Saturday in October. It is the largest single-day event in the region. 

Teaming with the Rotary Club that sponsors the Apple Festival, a group of historic preservationists in North Wilkesboro work year round to foster efforts at revitalizing the character and charm of the town from bygone years. A structured organization, formed two years ago, provides advice and grants for rebuilding storefronts in the style of the past. It also promotes historic walking tours, designed for personal pleasure and good health.

If bluegrass or festivals with huge crowds isn’t your thing, just drive down the road a bit and you’ll find just the spot for boating, swimming, hunting and fishing, camping and picnicking at the Kerr Scott Dam and Reservoir.

Built by the Corps of Engineers in 1962 and named for the former North Carolina governor and U.S. Senator, the dam and surrounding acreage offer multiple choices of outdoor entertainment. The dam itself is a tourist attraction, stretching 1,740 feet in length and reaching a maximum height of 148 feet.

Want to just casually stroll and enjoy the scenery of nearby mountains? There’s the Yadkin River Greenway, created through the cooperative efforts of private citizens, landowners, state and local governments. It is open from dawn to dusk.

Stone Mountain State Park offers mountain views, water falls, rock climbing and camping in a 13,000-acre area that includes a 600-foot granite dome.

There is a community center on the Wilkes Community College campus, art galleries, a community theatre and family campgrounds.   

All this is only a short hop from the Blue Ridge Parkway that draws thousands every year and the ever-popular ski slopes just up the mountain. Wilkes promoters call their hometown a recreational paradise, still undiscovered by the throngs who breeze by on Highway 421 heading to higher land. They invite you to stop and smell their roses. More people each year are doing just that, and liking what they see.    — Ned Cline

Wilkes Focuses a Clear Vision on the Future
Below: a state-of-the-art YMCA is a byproduct of Wilkes Vision 20-20
Corporate leaders in Wilkes County looked in their collective mirrors a couple of years ago and saw a bunch of furrowed brows staring back. They had a lot of players on the field, but they were not functioning as a team. The disparate parts were not equal to the sum of the whole. Such a game plan for progress, they readily agreed, simply wasn’t acceptable.

The history of Wilkes is that when there is coal to be moved, people line up with shovels and put on their work gloves. And so it was in this case.

Since that revealing look in the mirror, the people of Wilkes have opened four new middle schools, a new library, a new YMCA and a new county courthouse. They have outlined a six-pronged set of critical and essential improvements designed to benefit county residents from early childhood to beyond retirement age. They have created a system of guaranteed scholarships to the county’s community college for every sixth grader who earns a high school diploma. They have increased the percentage of high school graduates by almost 10 percent and elevated overall academic achievement. 

And that’s just in the formative years of the new Wilkes Vision 20/20 plan for the future. While the new courthouse and library were not officially part of Visions 20/20 concept, they fit the pattern and were aided and abetted by the new emphasis on overall improvement of quality of life for every resident of the county.

Vision 20/20 is the most comprehensive long-range plan in the history of Wilkes and is designed to enhance educational, governmental, environmental and leadership for the next 20 years. As novel as the plan is, however, it essentially matches the history of the county where a forward-thinking entrepreneurial bent has been behind virtually every corporate success.

All the Vision’s success has been accomplished with private contributions, either corporate or individual. This is a pure example of people, not the government, at work.

“I really believe this is one of the greatest things this county has ever done,” says Wilkes Chamber of Commerce President Linda Cheek. “We have involved the entire community, hundreds of people from churches, civic clubs, corporations and average citizens. They’ve all become action partners, setting benchmarks for five, 10, and 20 years out. It’s a wonderful process that makes us really look at ourselves. It’s the kind of thing I would encourage every community to do.”

A 20-page outline of the comprehensive Vision plan is available at the Wilkes Chamber offices in North Wilkesboro.

Vision was started following a late 1990s-school bond defeat that caused elected and corporate leaders to look at themselves. “That’s what really started it all,” says Dwight Ford, first chairman of the Vision effort, now retired on the coast. “We realized the need for new industry, more retail and improved educational opportunities, but we were fragmented and nobody was looking at the total community. We just needed to come together. The chamber’s desire to improve the community was the push behind the cooperative effort.”

Current Vision committee chairman Arnold Lakey calls the community response heartwarming. “We’ve just all come together on this,” he says. “Hundreds of volunteers have showed up at planning meetings. We had more than 350 turn out for the first meeting. We had people of all walks of life, people from every voting precinct in the county. We wanted it all inclusive.”

Vision 20/20 operates now with an annual budget of $71,000, all private money except for the county’s contribution to the chamber’s budget. The concept was launched with an initial seed grant of $300,000 from Lowe’s, the building supply company that was started in Wilkes and has been a cornerstone of corporate giving and economic stability in the county for decades.

The irony of that Lowe’s contribution is that it was made shortly before the company announced it would relocate corporate headquarters from Wilkes County to Mooresville in nearby Iredell County. That announcement put a temporary knot in Wilkes’ economic stability plan, but the whole company is not moving. Of the more than 2,700 jobs Lowe’s now provides in Wilkesboro, 1,700 will remain.

Rapid growth and the need for another 100,000 employees in the next five years, 10 percent of them at the corporate level, forced the decision to move, according to Lowe’s chairman Bob Tillman. Tillman said the new location closer to Charlotte and a much larger employee base was essential for company expansion plans, but that Lowe’s wanted to remain in close proximity to current home base in Wilkesboro where a major presence will remain.

This seems to be a case of success feeding on itself. Lowe’s simply outgrew the Wilkes labor force, more in specialized skills rather than in numbers. 

Jim Lowe, who took over for his father who had founded North Wilkesboro Hardware, started Lowe’s as a small hardware store in North Wilkesboro in the 1940s. Lowe sold out to his brother-in-law, Carl Buchan, who added building supplies for contractors and do-it-yourself homeowners, while Lowe started Lowe’s Grocery.

Buchan put together a team of four other partners — known as the fab five — and took Lowe’s public in 1961. The entrepreneurial approach of the five-person team has made Lowe’s one of the nation’s greatest success stories. Lowe’s now operates more than 600 stores in 40 states and is the nation’s 15th largest retailer.

It is the visionary approach of the Lowe’s founders that local county elected and corporate leaders are using to keep Vision 20/20 alive and functioning. Lowe’s clearly spearheaded much of the county’s growth and, even with its pending relocation, will remain a major player in coming years as Vision advances.

Clearly, Wilkes promoters would have preferred Lowe’s not moved its corporate staff to the next county. But the company is not abandoning the Wilkes ship that it has helped steer its vision for half a century. Vision 20/20 is designed to keep the ship on course.  — Ned Cline

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