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Wilkes County is located in North Carolina. The 2000 U.S. Census listed the county's population at 65,632; the 2010 U.S. Census listed the population at 69,340. Its county seat is Wilkesboro.
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.
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 and the first NASCAR sanctioned race on October 16, 1949. Wilkes County native and resident Junior Johnson was one of the early superstars of NASCAR, as well as a legendary moonshiner. Johnson was turned into a national celebrity by the writer Tom Wolfe in a classic 1965 article for Esquire magazine. Wolfe's article was later turned into the 1973 movie The Last American Hero, starring Jeff Bridges and Valerie Perrine.
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North Wilkesboro was founded in 1891 when the Norfolk and Southern Railroad built a railroad line into Wilkes County. The line ended on the northern bank of the Yadkin River opposite Wilkesboro, the county seat. The Town of North Wilkesboro quickly developed around the railroad tracks.
North Wilkesboro was the home of the Carolina Mirror Company, which for many years was the largest mirror factory in the United States. Although this is no longer the case, the town remains a major producer of mirrors through Gardner Glass Products Inc.
Lowe's Foods, one of the Southeast's largest supermarket chains, was started in North Wilkesboro in 1954.
Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse, the nation's second-largest chain of home-improvement stores, was started in North Wilkesboro in 1946.
The Town does continue to host large corporate offices, including Gardner Glass Products Inc., Window World, and ECMD. In addition, two local businessmen recently won prestigious awards for entrepreneurship: Julius "Jay" Howell was recognized as the Small Business Administration's 2010 N.C. Minority Small Business Champion of the Year, and Jason Carlton, founder of the GoNC Network, which includes GoWilkes.com, GoAshe.com, GoSurry.com, and numerous other county sites, has been recognized by Business Leader Magazine as one of the Top 50 Entrepreneurs in North Carolina for his significant business innovation, leadership, industry, and community involvement.
The Town of North Wilkesboro is focused on their mission of improving the lives of its citizens through economic development by establishing the Wilkes Industrial Park, which is North Carolina's second largest certified industrial park with a developable area of 552 acres. The Wilkes Industrial Park has water, sewer, electricity, natural gas, and has the potential to access the Yadkin Valley Railroad to the south. Thanks to an $800,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Wilkes Industrial Park will have a new access road on the southwest side, which is scheduled to be completed by early 2012. In addition, the main transportation corridor serving the site (NC-268) will be widened from 2 lanes to 4 lanes by 2015.
While one of NASCAR's original speedways shares the name of North Wilkesboro with the town, it is important to note that the speedway is not located inside of the town's limits. The North Wilkesboro Speedway predates the founding of NASCAR; the speedway held its first race on May 18, 1947 and from there it grew in popularity. On October 16, 1949 the Speedway held the 8th and final race of the 1949 NASCAR Strictly Stock Division; when the race was over Robert "Red" Byron had become the first NASCAR-sanctioned champion. The North Wilkesboro Speedway held NASCAR races for 50 years; on September 29, 1996 Jeff Gordon would win the final race to be held at the speedway.
In 1995, following the death of long-time owner and track founder Enoch Staley, the speedway was purchased by two new owners, Bob Bahre and Bruton Smith. Soon after their purchase, both men announced that they were closing the speedway and moving its two NASCAR race dates to their new tracks in Texas and New Hampshire.
Wilkesboro was founded in 1800 and quickly designated as the county seat. The town is built atop a low, broad ridge which runs for over a mile along the south bank of the Yadkin River.
A Moravian surveying party passed through the area in 1752, and documented that a Cherokee Indian village stood in the old fields. The Cherokee translation for Mulberry Fields is Keowee. Keowee was often used by the Cherokees as a place name during the Colonial Period.
The act establishing Wilkes County stated that the first court would be held at the home of John Brown located at the bend of the Yadkin River on the second day of March 1778. Commissioners were named to select a place centrally located for the erection of a courthouse, prison and stocks. On June 2, 1778, Mulberry Field Meeting House was chosen to serve as the courthouse.
During the Revolutionary War, the Mulberry Fields area was a common mustering site for the Wilkes County Militia. The Mulberry Meeting House was a common meeting place to discuss local government issues of the day.
In 1795 an act was passed naming new commissioners to purchase fifty acres of land on which to lay out a town and erect public buildings. Mulberry Fields became Wilkesboro in 1800 when the town was laid out by William Lenoir. Lenoir refused to allow the town to be named after himself. Later, following his death, the next town up the road was named for Lenoir.
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