Learn more about Wilkes County:
Wilkes Focuses a Clear
Vision on the Future
Wilkes Discovers Rewards in
Right: Wilkes Community College offers 36 degrees
and serves 14,500 students in three counties.
Tough & Tart
Wilkes County cultivates its colorful
but the focus now is on an entrepreneurial future
By Ned Cline
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.
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Discovers Rewards in Family Fun
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
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
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
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
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
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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