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Wilkes County, North Carolina facts for kids

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Wilkes County
Historic Wilkes County Courthouse
Historic Wilkes County Courthouse
Official seal of Wilkes County
Map of North Carolina highlighting Wilkes County
Location within the U.S. state of North Carolina
Map of the United States highlighting North Carolina
North Carolina's location within the U.S.
Country  United States
State  North Carolina
Founded 1778
Named for John Wilkes
Seat Wilkesboro
Largest town North Wilkesboro
 • Total 757 sq mi (1,960 km2)
 • Land 754 sq mi (1,950 km2)
 • Water 2.6 sq mi (7 km2)  0.3%%
 • Estimate 
 • Density 92/sq mi (36/km2)
Time zone UTC−5 (Eastern)
 • Summer (DST) UTC−4 (EDT)
Congressional district 5th

Wilkes County is a county located in the US state of North Carolina. It is a part of the state's western mountain region. As of the 2020 census the population was 65,969, in 2010 the census listed the population at 69,340. Its county seat is Wilkesboro, and its largest town is North Wilkesboro. Wilkes County comprises the North Wilkesboro, NC Micropolitan Statistical Area.


The county was formed in 1777 from parts of Surry County and Washington District (now Washington County, Tennessee). The first session of the county court was held in John Brown's house near what is today Brown's Ford. The act creating the county became effective on February 15, 1778, and the county celebrates its anniversary as February 15. It was named for the English political radical John Wilkes, who lost his position as Lord Mayor of the City of London due to his support for the colonists during the American Revolution.

In 1799 the northern and western parts of Wilkes County became Ashe County. In 1841 parts of Wilkes County and Burke County were combined to form Caldwell County. In 1847 another part of Wilkes County was combined with parts of Caldwell County and Iredell County to become Alexander County. In 1849 additional parts of Wilkes County and Caldwell County were combined with parts of Ashe County and Yancey County to form Watauga County. Numerous boundary adjustments were made thereafter, but none resulted in new counties.

Moonshine and the birth of NASCAR

Wilkes County was once known as the "Moonshine Capital of the World", and was a leading producer of illegal homemade liquor. From the 1920s to the 1950s some young Wilkes County males made their living by delivering moonshine to North Carolina's larger towns and cities. Wilkes County natives also used bootleg liquor as a means for barter far beyond the borders of North Carolina. Many Wilkes County distillers ran white liquor as far as Detroit, New Jersey and South Florida. Since this often involved outrunning local police and federal agents in auto chases, the county became one of the birthplaces of the sport of stock-car racing.

The North Wilkesboro Speedway was the first NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing) track; it held its first race on May 18, 1947 Wilkes County native and resident Junior Johnson was one of the early superstars of NASCAR, as well as a legendary moonshiner. Johnson was featured by the writer Tom Wolfe in a 1965 article for Esquire magazine titled "The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!", which gave him national exposure. Wolfe's vivid article was later adapted as the movie The Last American Hero (1973), starring Jeff Bridges and Valerie Perrine. Benny Parsons and Jimmy Pardue were two other notable NASCAR drivers from Wilkes.

The North Wilkesboro Speedway was closed following the 1996 NASCAR season. Two new owners, Bob Bahre and Bruton Smith, moved North Wilkesboro's NASCAR races to their tracks in Texas and New Hampshire. Speedway Associates, Inc., obtained a three-year lease and started running races and other events at the speedway. However, in May 2011, the group announced that funding had fallen through and they were ending their lease prematurely.

Geography and climate

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 757 square miles (1,960 km2), of which 754 square miles (1,950 km2) is land and 2.6 square miles (6.7 km2) (0.3%) is water.

Wilkes County is located on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a part of the Appalachian Mountains chain. The county's elevation ranges from 900 feet (375 meters) in the east to over 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) in the west. The Blue Ridge Mountains run from the southwest to the northeast, and dominate the county's western and northern horizons. Thompkins Knob, the highest point in the county, rises to 4,079 feet (1243 meters). The foothills and valleys of the Blue Ridge form most of the county's midsection, with some elevations exceeding 2,000 feet (610 meters). Stone Mountain State Park, located in the foothills of northern Wilkes County, is one of the most popular state parks in North Carolina, and is noted for its excellent rock climbing and trout fishing. The Brushy Mountains, an isolated spur of the Blue Ridge, form the county's southern border. Wilkes County's terrain gradually becomes more level and less hilly as one moves to the east; the far eastern section of the county lies within the Piedmont region of North Carolina. The largest river in Wilkes is the Yadkin River, which flows through the central part of the county. The county's three other major streams, all of which flow into the Yadkin, are the Reddies River, Roaring River, and Mulberry Creek. Following the devastating floods of 1916 and 1940, the US Army's Corps of Engineers constructed the W. Kerr Scott Dam and Reservoir on the Yadkin River four miles west of Wilkesboro. Opened in 1962, the dam created a lake with a shoreline of 56 miles. The lake is used for boating, swimming, fishing, and waterskiing; it is especially noted for its excellent bass fishing. The W. Kerr Scott lake is the largest body of water in Wilkes.

Due to its wide range of elevation, Wilkes County's climate varies considerably. In the winter, it is not unusual for it to be sunny with the temperature in the forties in the county's eastern section, while at the same time it is snowing or sleeting with the temperature below freezing in the county's mountainous north, west, and south. Generally speaking, Wilkes receives ample amounts of precipitation, with frequent thunderstorms in the spring and summer months; and rain, snow, sleet, and freezing rain all occur at times during the winter, with the frequency increasing with the altitude. Severe weather is not common in Wilkes but does occur. Tornadoes are rare, but severe thunderstorms can bring strong winds which can down trees and power lines, as well as cause hail. Wilkes County is far enough inland that hurricanes rarely cause problems, but a strong hurricane which moves inland quickly enough may cause damage, as with Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Due to the numerous creeks and streams which run through its valleys, Wilkes is especially prone to devastating flash floods. The two most memorable floods occurred in 1916 and 1940, killing a number of residents and causing millions of dollars in damages. Since the opening of the W. Kerr Scott Dam in 1962, the Yadkin River has not flooded in the county. Although Wilkes County has never had a severe earthquake, a fault runs through the Brushy Mountains, and mild earth tremors are not uncommon. On August 31, 1861 an earthquake estimated at 5.0 on the Richter magnitude scale hit the southern part of the county and caused minor damage.

National protected area

Adjacent counties


Historical population
Census Pop.
1790 8,157
1800 7,247 −11.2%
1810 9,054 24.9%
1820 9,967 10.1%
1830 11,968 20.1%
1840 12,577 5.1%
1850 12,099 −3.8%
1860 14,749 21.9%
1870 15,539 5.4%
1880 19,181 23.4%
1890 22,675 18.2%
1900 26,872 18.5%
1910 30,282 12.7%
1920 32,644 7.8%
1930 36,162 10.8%
1940 43,003 18.9%
1950 45,243 5.2%
1960 45,269 0.1%
1970 49,524 9.4%
1980 58,657 18.4%
1990 59,393 1.3%
2000 65,352 10.0%
2010 69,340 6.1%
2020 65,969 −4.9%
U.S. Decennial Census
1790–1960 1900–1990
1990–2000 2010–2013

2020 census

Wilkes County racial composition
Race Number Percentage
White (non-Hispanic) 56,316 85.37%
Black or African American (non-Hispanic) 2,580 3.91%
Native American 86 0.13%
Asian 324 0.49%
Pacific Islander 5 0.01%
Other/Mixed 2,004 3.04%
Hispanic or Latino 4,654 7.05%

As of the 2020 United States census, there were 65,969 people, 28,376 households, and 17,409 families residing in the county.

2010 census

As of the census of 2010, there were 69,340 people, 28,360 households, and 19,683 families residing in the county. The population density was 91.91 people per square mile (35.49/km2). There were 33,065 housing units at an average density of 43.84 per square mile (16.93/km2). The racial makeup of the county was 90.60% White or European American, 4.08% African American, 0.19% Native American, 0.43% Asian, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 3.33% from other races, and 1.33% from two or more races. Of all races, 5.44% of the population were Hispanic or Latino.

There were 28,360 households, out of which 26.76% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 54.03% were married couples living together, 10.50% had a female householder with no husband present, and 30.60% were non-families. Of all households, 26.69% were made up of individuals, and 11.59% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.41 and the average family size was 2.89.

In the county, the population breakdown by age is: 22.41% under the age of 18, 7.16% from 18 to 24, 23.96% from 25 to 44, 29.49% from 45 to 64, and 16.99% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 42.4 years. For every 100 females there were 97.69 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 95.42 males.

The median income for a household in the county was $30,668, and the median income for a family was $39,670. Males had a median income of $30,917 versus $26,182 for females. The per capita income for the county was $18,319. About 17.60% of families and 21.50% of the population were below the poverty line, including 32.60% of those under age 18 and 13.40% of those age 65 or over.


Since colonial times Wilkes County has been overwhelmingly Protestant Christian. The two earliest churches to be established in Wilkes were the Episcopalian and Presbyterian. However, by the 1850s the Southern Baptists had eclipsed them, and the Baptists have remained the dominant church in Wilkes. The county also contains a significant number of Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and non-denominational Evangelical Protestant congregations. Historically, few Roman Catholics lived in Wilkes, but recent immigration from other U.S. States and especially by people of Hispanic descent has increased their numbers. Wilkes County has a single Catholic parish, Saint John Baptist de LaSalle Catholic Church in North Wilkesboro, which serves all the Catholics of Wilkes County. In contrast, relatively few Jews or members of other non-Christian faiths have settled in the county.


Wilkes County is home to several NC and US Highways, as well as an airport and public transportation. Wilkes is also one of the twenty-seven NC counties which the Blue Ridge Parkway runs through.


  • Wilkes County Airport

Major highways

  • US 21
  • US 421 (BUS)
  • NC 16
  • NC 18
  • NC 115
  • NC 268 (BUS)

Public Transportation

Wilkes Transportation Authority serves Wilkes County with buses and vans along a scheduled route and rural service.

Events and festivals

Wilkes County has strong musical roots, and those roots are displayed at the annual Battle of the Bands. Held in downtown North Wilkesboro in September, this rock festival features 20 professional and amateur bands from across the region, performing original music and competing for cash awards and, in some cases, record labels.

It also hosts the annual Shine to Wine Festival, also in downtown North Wilkesboro. Held on the first Saturday of May, the Shine to Wine festival pays tribute to the county's heritage of growing from the Moonshine Capital of the World to what is now recognized as a strong viticultural industry.

Wilkes County is also home to the annual Brushy Mountain Apple Festival, which is held in downtown North Wilkesboro the first weekend in October. The festival, which attracts over 160,000 visitors each year, is one of the largest single-day arts and crafts fairs in the Southern United States.


In 1988 legendary, Grammy-winning folk music guitarist Doc Watson and Bill Young started the Doc Watson Festival (later renamed the MerleFest music festival) in Wilkesboro. Held on the campus of Wilkes Community College, and named in honor of Doc's late son Merle Watson, MerleFest has grown into one of the largest folk and bluegrass music festivals in the United States, drawing an average of over 75,000 music fans each year. The festival has become the main fundraiser for the college, and brings over $10 million in estimated business and tourist revenues to Wilkes County and surrounding areas each year.


Map of Wilkes County North Carolina With Municipal and Township Labels
Map of Wilkes County, North Carolina With Municipal and Township Labels


Census-designated places

Unincorporated communities


  • Antioch
  • Beaver Creek
  • Boomer
  • Brushy Mountains
  • Edwards
  • Elk Creek
  • Hays
  • Jobs Cabin
  • Lewis Fork
  • Lovelace
  • Moravian Falls
  • Mulberry
  • New Castle
  • North Wilkesboro
  • Rock Creek
  • Somers
  • Stanton
  • Traphill
  • Union
  • Walnut Grove
  • Millers Creek
  • Wilkesboro


Despite its rural character and relatively small population, Wilkes County has been the birthplace of numerous large industries. Lowe's, the second-largest chain of home-improvement stores in the nation (after The Home Depot) was started in Wilkes County in 1946. Until 2003, Lowe's had its corporate headquarters in Wilkes County, but the company has since relocated most of its corporate functions to Mooresville, North Carolina, a fast-growing suburb of Charlotte. However, Lowe's large office in Wilkesboro still houses many corporate departments, and Lowe's remains the county's second-largest employer. A telecommunications firm, Carolina West Wireless, was started in Wilkesboro in 1991 and is also headquartered in the county.

Other industries which started in Wilkes County are Lowes Foods (now headquartered in Winston-Salem) and The Northwestern Bank, which was once North Carolina's fourth-largest banking chain until it was merged with First Union Bank in 1986. The Carolina Mirror Company in North Wilkesboro, founded in the 1930s, was for many years the largest mirror factory in America. Today Gardner Glass Products Inc. still produces mirrors in North Wilkesboro. Holly Farms, in Wilkesboro, was the largest poultry producer in the Southeastern United States until it was bought by Tyson Foods in 1989. Wilkes County remains one of the largest producers of poultry in the Eastern United States, and many of the county's farmers are poultry farmers for Tyson Foods. Tyson is the largest employer in Wilkes.

Like many rural areas in North Carolina, Wilkes County has suffered since 2000 from the closing of nearly all of its textile and furniture factories, which formed a major part of its economic base. Most of these factories have moved to low-wage locations in Latin America and Asia, especially China and Vietnam. According to Stateline, the number of Wilkes County residents employed in manufacturing dropped from 8,548 in 2000 to approximately 4,000 as of 2015, a reduction of over 53%. From 2000 to 2014, the median household income in Wilkes declined by over 30%. However, from 2014 to 2017 the median household income increased by nearly 22%, and in 2017 Wilkes was ranked 47th out of 100 counties for "economic distress" by the North Carolina Department of Commerce.

Wine region

Wilkes County is part of the Yadkin Valley AVA, an American Viticultural Area. Wines made from grapes grown in Wilkes County may use the appellation Yadkin Valley on their labels. With the decline of tobacco farming, some Wilkes County farmers have switched to wine-making, and have hired experts from Europe and California for assistance. As a result, wine-making is growing in popularity in both Wilkes and surrounding counties.

In May of each year, Wilkes county celebrates the new wine industry with the Shine to Wine Festival, held in downtown North Wilkesboro.


The Wilkes County Schools system has 22 schools ranging from pre-kindergarten to twelfth grade, including an early college high school. Those 22 schools are separated into 5 high schools, 4 middle schools and 13 elementary schools. There is only one charter school in Wilkes County: Bridges Charter School in State Road, North Carolina. The Elkin City Schools district also covers parts of Wilkes. Wilkes County has three private schools, all three are associated with one of the larger Protestant Christian churches in the county. The largest private school in Wilkes is Millers Creek Christian School. In recent years, the number of students being home schooled in Wilkes has steadily increased, while public school enrollment has decreased. The only college in Wilkes is Wilkes Community College (WCC), a public two-year college within the North Carolina Community College System.

Wilkes County is served by the Appalachian Regional Library.

Notable people

  • Daniel Boone (1734–1820), explorer and pioneer, lived in Wilkes County for several years and married a Wilkes County native before moving west to Kentucky.
  • John Brown (1738–1812), militia captain during the Revolutionary War, served as one of the state Treasurers (1782–1784), and served in the North Carolina state legislature (1784–1787).
  • Chang and Eng Bunker (1811–1874), Siamese twins, who were a popular attraction in Asia, Europe, and North America in the nineteenth century, settled in Wilkes County in the 1850s, married two local sisters, and between them fathered 21 children.
  • Robert Byrd (1917–2010), U.S. Senator from West Virginia 1959–2010; longest-serving Senator in American history.
  • Benjamin Cleveland (1738–1806), colonel in the North Carolina militia during the Revolutionary War. He was one of the American commanders at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780.
  • Zach Galifianakis (born 1969), actor and comedian.
  • George Allen Gilreath (1834–1863), a captain in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War; killed while commanding the regiment which advanced the farthest into enemy lines during Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg.
  • James B. Gordon (1822–1864), a general of cavalry in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.
  • Deneen Graham (born 1964), the first black woman to be crowned Miss North Carolina (1983).
  • Roger Hamby (born 1943), Former NASCAR driver and former team owner
  • Junior Johnson (1931–2019), in the 1950s, Johnson became a legend in the rural South by consistently outrunning law-enforcement officials in auto chases while delivering homemade liquor (moonshine) to his customers. Johnson then became a champion NASCAR racer, winning 50 NASCAR races before his retirement.
  • Sallie Chapman Gordon Law (1805–1894), first recorded Confederate nurse in the Civil War.
  • William Ballard Lenoir (1751–1839), the first President of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Lucius Smith Lowe (1879-1940), Founder of North Wilkesboro Hardware, which later became Lowe's Home Improvement
  • James Lucius Lowe (1918–1965), Founder of Lowes Foods, son of Lucius Smith Lowe, Co-Owner of Lowe's Home Improvement.
  • Ruth Lowe Buchan (1912-1994), Daughter of Lucius Lowes and sister of James Lowe, After her father died in 1940 she inherited the North Wilkesboro Hardware store, who sold the company to her brother James Lowe that same year. James took on his brother-in-law Carl Buchan as a partner in 1943.
  • Benny Parsons (1941–2007), NASCAR racer who won the 1973 NASCAR championship. After his retirement, he became a TV racing analyst.
  • James Larkin Pearson (1879–1981), poet and newspaper publisher who served as North Carolina Poet Laureate from 1953 to 1981.
  • Waylon Reavis (born 1978), musician, lead vocalist of Cleveland, Ohio metal band Mushroomhead.
  • Shirrel Rhoades (born 1942), writer, publisher, professor, filmmaker, and the former executive vice president of Marvel Entertainment.
  • Morgan Shepherd (born 1941), NASCAR driver for over fifty years; oldest driver to lead at least one lap in a NASCAR race. He currently owns his own team in the NASCAR Xfinity Series as the Shepherd Racing Ventures team
  • Montford Stokes (1762–1842), United States Senator, Governor of North Carolina (1816–1832), appointed by President Andrew Jackson to lead the Federal Indian Commission in what is now Oklahoma; he is believed to be the only veteran of the Revolutionary War buried in that state.
  • John Swofford (born 1948), since 1997 until June 2021 the Commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC); coordinator of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) in college football.
  • William Oliver Swofford (1945–2000), pop singer in the 1960s and 1970s (under the name Oliver), known for his hits Good Morning Starshine (featured in the Broadway musical Hair) and Jean, the theme song of the Oscar-winning film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Tom Dooley

The case was given nationwide publicity by newspapers such as The New York Times and the New York Herald, and thus became a folk legend in the rural South. Dula's legend was popularized in 1958 by the top-selling Kingston Trio song "Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley." Dula's story was also turned into a 1959 movie starring Michael Landon as Dula, and each summer Bleu Moon Productions presents an outdoor drama based on the story.

In 2001, Tom Dula was acquitted of all charges by the county.

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