Legacy of Wilkes County, North Carolina

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About this sample


Words: 1798 |

Pages: 4|

9 min read

Published: May 7, 2019

Words: 1798|Pages: 4|9 min read

Published: May 7, 2019

Every small town possesses a unique history, composed of events, stories, songs, and other customs. These snippets of the past allow us to look through the eyes of history, allowing historians to understand how our ancestors lived and shaped the world we now live in. Wilkes county, officially established in 1777, was first settled by Scotch-Irish and German immigrants (NC Online Historical Encyclopedia, n.d.). Located in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains; the verdant landscape is home to a rich agricultural community, centered around tobacco, poultry, soybeans, and other cash crops. The citizens of Wilkes county have a deep connection with nature; therefore, at home gardening is widely practiced throughout the community. Also notable is the role its citizens played during the Prohibition era; once coined the “Moonshine Capital of America,” Wilkes county was home to some of the most creative and daring bootleggers of the time. Drivers such as Junior Johnson, who earned his fame driving in NASCAR races, began his legacy on the twisting back roads of my hometown. For all its charms there is a plight among the population, one that resulted in national news headlines. The opioid epidemic in Wilkes County was among the worst in the nation, and while it is being stymied by the efforts of some amazing citizens; lives are lost each year to accidental overdoses (Project Lazarus Results, 2015). Our elders have such sage wisdom, a vast resource of life experience and knowledge; all too often they disregarded, their stories lost to time. I have always done my best to keep in contact with my grandmother, as her stories about her youth have always fascinated me; for this reason, I chose her to interview for this essay. She lived through a very transformative period in Wilkes county, and her wealth of knowledge of its history was extremely helpful when writing this paper. Wilkes county is the 13th largest county in the state, but the population density is very low, creating a sleepy, rural atmosphere that gives this place its ambiance. The history of my hometown is not as historically relevant as some but is still rich with detail and thorough documentation of the past.

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Wilkes county, as mentioned before, was established in 1777 and named after John Wilkes, an English journalist, and politician (Mazzocchi, 2006). The terrain was perfect for agricultural purposes, with the aid of forest removal, of course. Logging was a booming industry in Wilkes County for some time; the largest logging flume in North Carolina running through found its home there (Starnes, 2006). Logging flumes were essentially wooden troughs filled with running water and used to transport the logs to a sawmill. This particular structure, built by Giant Lumber Company in 1907; served as a conduit beginning in the peaks of the Blue Ridge and stretching 19 miles to the Western NC Railroad in North Wilkesboro (Starnes, 2006). The rise to the mountains of the Blue Ridge is particularly steep, their average height being 3,700 feet. This intense change in elevation and pressure creates the rainy weather often present in the mountains. According to the U.S. Climate Data website; Boone, NC a mountain town 20 miles west of Wilkesboro receives an average 53 inches of rain and 34 inches of snow each year, with higher peaks receiving much more (US Climate Data, 2017). All this water must go somewhere, and in 1916, a flood destroyed the Blue Ridge Log Flume. Being at the base of the Blue Ridge, these natural disasters are unfortunately common in certain areas of Wilkes county. This became glaringly obvious in August of 1940 when four days of constant rainfall resulted in what is still considered one of the most destructive events to rock the area.

On the morning of August 13, 1940, the railroad engine Old Number 9 was preparing to venture out into the flooded mountains. After wading through 2 feet of water, they spotted Grandfather Mountain the second highest peak in the Appalachian mountains; which gets its name from the outline formed by its craggy peaks. As they approached the captain would later recount that Grandfather Mountain had transformed into a raging waterfall. This would be the engine’s final trip, as the flood damaged the rail line in both directions. (Osmond, 2015) The “‘40 Flood” as it’s referred to by locals took a devastating toll on the county, the torrential rainfalls caused creeks, rivers, and lakes to flood their banks. This was especially severe in Ashe County which is home to both the North and South Forks of the New River, as well as countless smaller streams and creeks. The water began to spill down the mountainside causing massive landslides; there was one record of a 200 ft. wide mudslide which blasted down miles of mountainside, obliterating several homes and two service stations on its path of destruction (Osmond, 2006). The flood washed away bridges, livestock, farming equipment, homes, cars, and railroad tracks; all of which were necessary to make a living. The damage was worth millions in Wilkes County alone, across the High Country it was incalculable; even more concerning was the loss of lives. With aid from the state and federal government, the citizens were able to begin rebuilding and restoring their lives to normal, now aware of the destructive force they were prone to.

During the Prohibition era, bootleggers were the individuals which concocted and transported corn liquor, better known as ‘moonshine’ or ‘white lightning’ ( The driving force behind their illegal activities was not simply to get drunk; rather, it served as a steady and often substantial source of income. That is if one was willing to take the risk of racing down the switchbacks, blind corners, and one lane paths crisscrossing the mountains. Obviously, every attempt was made to outwit the police, which led to some very clever modifications. In Wilkes County, the most popular vehicle for running liquor was the Ford V8 coupé. With its powerful V8 engine and a massive trunk; the car was the perfect template and suited the moonshiner’s needs perfectly. Stiffening the suspension, boring out the engine, adding hidden compartments, and countless other tricks helped to increase the car’s performance and storage capacity (Scott, 2012). In their free time, usually Sunday afternoons after church, the bootleggers would meet up and race their cars around a dirt track. This eventually led to the opening of the Wilkesboro Motor Speedway, the racetrack responsible for sparking the motoring phenomenon NASCAR. The first race held under the NASCAR cup took place in 1949 on a dirt track; and for the next 40 years would be home to the roaring engines and screaming crowds (Bruce, 2016). The track was eventually paved, shoddily one might say; resulting in uneven surfaces, bumps, cracks, and other conditions that were deadly at high speeds. The NASCAR drivers who preferred the newer and larger tracks in Charlotte and Atlanta despised the outdated track that was damaging their cars and not drawing crowds. These factors led to the last race which took place in 1996, making Jeff Gordon the last driver to take a victory lap on its aging track (Bruce, 2016). Rumors throughout the community place hope in a company seeking to renovate the Speedway, transforming it into a racetrack experience park. Until then, the track still looms over 421; the roar of racing engines replaced by the chorus of the highway.

While Wilkes County has its charms, there is also an epidemic raging throughout the population. When you consider the highly Christian and conservative values held by the overwhelming majority of citizens, it might be shocking to hear that the county of roughly 68,000 claimed the 3rd highest level of opioid abuse in the United States per capita in 2007 (Project Lazarus Results, 2015). This quiet farming community was experiencing absurdly high rates of unintentional overdoses, many of which were fatal. One of the theories as to how it got this bad attributes the rise to the physical strain associated with working a blue-collar job. Tyson, a poultry company, is one of the largest employers in Wilkes County at its processing plant, and when you consider the number of jobs associated with agriculture in the general population, the problem becomes clear. Often, narcotics are the only method of pain management effective and were widely prescribed to patients in Wilkes County. Trusting their medications would be safe in a cabinet with no means of security; most addicts began by stealing their parents, grandparents, and friend’s prescriptions. These powerful opioids are highly addictive, dangerous, and expensive; leading to a rise in crime and unintentional deaths. In an effort to stymie this growing trend of opioid abuse, a group of concerned citizens, many of whom lost a loved one to addiction, formed Project Lazarus. The goal of this organization is to educate the citizens of Wilkes about the dangers of these substances, as well as giving free CPR instruction, and rehabilitation location services for addicts seeking sobriety. The noble effort put forth by the individuals at the Lazarus Project, as well as new legislations regulating these drugs has resulted in the overdose rates plummeting 82% between 2008 and 2011 (Project Lazarus Results, 2015).

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While Wilkes County is not a widely recognized area of North Carolina, having little involvement in major historical events, the events that did take place there are fascinating tales. This small farming community nestled in the rolling green foothills is placed in a very advantageous geological area, serving as the last stop for travelers heading into the mountains, as well as a distribution hub for goods coming down the slopes. The area was also prime farmland thanks to the millions of years of erosion and runoff from the Appalachian Mountains, which allowed the economy to flourish within the county, offering comfortable lives for those willing to put in the labor. Those looking for an easier way to make a quick fortune would often turn to bootlegging liquor, an illegal activity that took place so often in Wilkes County that it was dubbed the “Moonshine Capital of the World” (Mazzocchi, 2006). Drivers such as Junior Johnson tweaked their vehicles to suit their midnight races with the authorities, eventually resulting in the birth of NASCAR. The Speedway in North Wilkesboro brought revenue from the tourists until it closed down in 1996 despite outcry from the locals (Baker, 2005). Moonshining is not the only illegal activity for which my hometown is recognized; the opioid epidemic in Wilkesboro has improved to an extent but continues to take lives and destroy homes. Groups of caring individuals such as the Lazarus Project are fighting the battle, by offering education about the dangers of narcotics and addiction. Their actions show hope for the sense of community my grandmother described as fleeting.

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Dr. Oliver Johnson

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Legacy Of Wilkes County, North Carolina. (2019, April 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 14, 2024, from
“Legacy Of Wilkes County, North Carolina.” GradesFixer, 26 Apr. 2019,
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