From the beginning, from the very moment it became an idea, North Wilkesboro was a plan. The Finleys and Blairs provided the land, over 1,000 acres. An investor from Greensboro, Willard Franklin Trogdon, had the land surveyed, laid out lots and streets and roads, graded some of the streets, built bridges, and erected some key buildings. Business leaders came to see and they stayed. There was an auction to sell town lots. It wasn't long until the planners got the state legislature to pass an act of incorporation and on March 4, 1891 the Town of North Wilkesboro was officially formed.
The Railroad Company cooperated. Their contract called for them to bring a train to within a mile of the county courthouse. County government leaders expected the train to come directly from the east, but from Winston-Salem it curved north with the Yadkin River and never crossed the river, so it arrived here from the northeast. The very beginning of the town, thus, was when the first steam locomotive chugged to a stop at the foot of the hill, where a little wooden station was built on the future Cherry Street. That put the end-of-the line depot in the middle of A. W. Finley's farm field, and Mr. Finley was a leading developer until his death in 1889. Mr. Trogdon's development company, the Winston Land and Improvement Company, bought the farm, and later Trogdon was the town's most enthusiastic economic development director. He helped organize the American Home Mineral and Timber Land Company, he financed other businesses and residential buildings, he started a bank, and he even launched a newspaper. The Finleys also had formed a bank.
J. R. Finley wrote decades later that the first store opened on January 16, 1890, where later Forest Furniture Company grew and thrived, now close to Melody Square on 6th Street. In February 1890, W. M. Absher opened a store across the street. The developers persuaded C. C. Smoot & Sons to build a tannery plant, the largest of its sort in the South.
These new businesses needed workers. Many workers came from across the river in Wilkesboro. Others came from rural settlements in all directions. Then they began to build new homes. The railroad employees used Captain E. S. Blair's home as their base. It was near the present-day Carolina Business Machines store on Main Street.
The land sold well, and the train began regular service to the end of the line. The train station was first called Gordon due to the status of the Gordon family as early settlers and landowners. One of their descendants even became a beloved Confederate general. Charles Gordon, great-grandfather of the general, had cleared the land in 1770. The town was also called briefly, New Wilkesboro, before own leaders settled on North Wilkesboro. One of A. W. Finley's sons, Thomas B., had earlier proposed his own development plan in the same area for a community he intended to call Finleysville. Mr. Trogdon became president of his bank and president of a savings and loan institution, a town commissioner, and mayor, a county commissioner and chairman of the county board. He found time to build a fine home on D Street, the street he first intended to be the town's main street. In the process of all this, he and the Finleys relationship had cooled.
The telling moment in the start of the town of North Wilkesboro was when the first railroad car rolled into the place and launched a boom, chiefly because of the rail connection. On August 30, 1890, Colonel A. B. Andrews, the vice president of the Richmond-Danville Railroad Company, who had served with General Gordon in the late war, looked out from his private railroad car over the river bottomland, and surely liked what he saw. To the north, a pleasant house rose atop the hill. In the other direction, he could see the steeple of a church on the hilltop across the river. Along came Rufus Colvard, chairman of the Wilkes County Board of Commissioners. They sat in Andrews' private railroad car and signed the documents that sealed the new town's creation. One of the documents was a $100,000 bond that was voted on by Wilkes County as a grant to the Railroad Company in exchange for railroad stock. As it happened, the Richard-Danville Railroad Company shortly afterwards became bankrupt and the county never received a return on its investment, except the presence of a rail connection to the outside world.
The railroad eventually was taken over by the Southern Railway Company. J. R. Finley wrote in 1940: "The beginning actually occurred when documents were signed in a railroad car standing near the present depot." (J. R. Finley, town 50th anniversary chairman, 1940)
The Finley farm had around 18 residents. By the end of that first year, 1890, the town had 48 people and more than 10 miles of streets were graded. By 1900, there were 900 residents.
"In June, 1890, I came to Wilkes County by team, prospecting for a site on which to build a town," wrote Mr. Trogdon in his family history. "A railroad was then being built along up the north side of the Yadkin River from Winston to a point one mile north of Wilkesboro, on the opposite side of the river. I immediately began negotiations for the purchase of the farms at and near the proposed terminus of this, Wilkes County's only railroad. During the summer and fall of 1890, G. W. Hinshaw and I secured $125,000 worth of subscriptions to the capital stock of the corporation, which Mr. Hinshaw had chartered under the name of the Winston Land and Improvement Company. On November 30, 1890, the Winston Land and Improvement Company was organized by the election of a board of directors, who elected Mr. Hinshaw president and W. F. Trogdon secretary and treasurer, for the purpose of completing purchases of the above farm lands and building thereon a town.
"The company spent more than $200,000 in the work of a staff of engineers in surveying and laying out the land into streets and blocks, in establishing grades of streets, grading ten miles of highway, building bridges, and erecting the first structures of the new town. The first lot was sold January 10, 1891, and the first general lot auction sale was held December 4, 1891. The town was incorporated and a post office was established in September 1891. The railroad was completed to North Wilkesboro in August, 1890."
Judge Johnson J. Hayes in The Land of Wilkes wrote of this beginning (page 185): "An industrial boom started before the railroad was finished. Elaborate plans for a city were wisely undertaken."
Wars have been a part of every local history. The colonial period and the American Revolution brought the Gordon's to this area and these people were respected patriots. The first structure atop the hill where the post office is now was the "Red Fort," a haven for settlers in case of an Indian attack. Later it became the Finley home, "Fairmount." During the Revolution, people in the area who supported their colonial rulers were plentiful enough and proud of their loyalty, while fierce fighting Whig militia fought them and helped defeat the British Army. In the Civil War, the home of the county's only Confederate general was in a place that later became North Wilkesboro. Again, not too far away, many Union sympathizers dwelled and survived, proud of their loyalty too. The Civil War in this part of the state was mostly soldiers sent to the front in Virginia and elsewhere, and neighbor against neighbor here. The only military action here occurred when General Blank Stoneman led his cavalry force through the area as part of General Sherman's action. General Stoneman watched from the Finley's hilltop house as his cavalrymen tried to ford the swollen Yadkin River with their heavy equipment after heavy rains. They lost big guns, horses, and soldiers in the attempt. In World War I, North Wilkesboro was involved in home front war support, rallying sales for war bonds were held in the two movie theaters on Main Street. Afterwards an active American Legion was formed, a monument to war dead was built, and a portion of 9th St. in town was designated "Memorial Avenue". Trees were planted on Memorial Avenue for each fallen soldier. Memorial Park was later built where the county fair was traditionally held. It now hosts a sports complex and a place for the preparation of barbecued chicken lunches.
The nature of North Wilkesboro caused its rapid growth. It was the key to the northwest mountain counties, the base for shipping goods to the east, a center of development in an otherwise agricultural, timber and natural resource production area, the place where people who lived in the mountain communities and hills and valleys came for supplies and financial backing, and many stayed to work in the factories. Good and ample water was available. The timber was processed and shipped to Piedmont factories, and furniture, wood milling, railroad ties, wagons, chestnut tanned leather, saddles and bridles were made here and shipped. Plants, roots and herbs and medicines, a foundry, livestock and processed meats and farm foods, wholesale and retail merchandising thrived. In addition to the railroad, highways converged here. While county business was conducted steadily across the river, North Wilkesboro boomed with new economic opportunity.
Early in the town's history, a school was built, and the town sponsored its own independent school system, supported vigorously by local business leaders. In 1913 a substantial new school was erected and families began to choose to live in the town to take advantage of the educational opportunity it offered. In 1920 an additional modern school building was constructed on the school campus for the growing population, and this building was used for the high school. A gymnasium was the third building on the campus. The building constructed in 1913 still stands and its auditorium is now used by a repertoire stage production group and as a community center. The North Wilkesboro school system originally included Woodlawn School for black students until the end of segregation in the 1950s.
An opera house was built by Trogdon's development company and it offered unusual cultural opportunities. Its facilities were available to schools and churches, and a garment manufacturer was using the lower levels when the building burned.
Steady growth continued through post World War II years, when changes brought shifts in the state's and nation's economic life. As the suburbs began to expand, North Wilkesboro saw several key businesses develop unusual strength. In early Wilkes County there had been two major merchandising successes, the Waugh and Finley enterprise that served merchants throughout the southeast well before North Wilkesboro existed, and the Smithey chain of general merchandise and food stores in northwestern North Carolina. The Hotel Wilkes was built in 1926. A new railroad venture was intended to connect North Wilkesboro with Watauga County but the rail bed along the upper Yadkin River was washed out in the 1916 flood and the heavy rains following. A young aviator, Carl Coffey, was a major North Carolina sales representative for small aircraft until his untimely death in the 1930s. His showroom was his airstrip in a grassy field near today's Cook's Sporting Goods store. North Wilkesboro did not have the first Ford Motor Company dealer, but it has today the oldest continuing Ford dealer.
But now came a different phenomenon. A postwar financial venture growing out of the old Trogdon-launched local bank turned into North Carolina's fourth largest, Northwestern Bank. Too good to resist, Northwestern was eventually merged with Charlotte's First Union, which is now Wachovia. A local hardware and war surplus equipment venture grew to a nationwide chain hardware and building supply industry, Lowe's Companies, now operators of several hundred Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse stores nationwide and a Fortune 500 enterprise. There were also successes in furniture manufacturing growing out of the early successes with Home Chair Company, Forest Furniture, Turner-White Casket Company, Oak Furniture Company, Wilkesboro Manufacturing Company. A flood in 1940 was destructive among some of these, but was followed by a rejuvenation of others. They evolved into the current wood products manufacturers, American Drew, Key City, Greene Brothers, Johnston Casuals, East Coast Millworking, and two major glass and mirror plants, Carolina Mirror and Gardner Glass. Textile manufacturing started in North Wilkesboro with Skyland's Buster Brown garments, Wilkes Hosiery Mill and Greer Hosiery Mill. Meadows Mill is a veteran maker of gristmills and saw mills that are sold worldwide. The Journal-Patriot, published thrice weekly, is the largest non-daily newspaper in North Carolina.
Great ideas were born here. Whether it was the the beginning of stock-car racing and the first NASCAR track, or the founding of Lowe’s, North Wilkesboro has made an imprint on our entire Nation and beyond. Today, the brand names that were launched here are enjoyed all over the world.
More importantly, that entrepreneurial spirit is still on display right here is our quaint little mountain town. We are a place where “Mom & Pop’s” still means something, and new ideas are birthed here each day. It’s tasted in our legal distillery that celebrates our pioneering heritage, heard in the coffee shop that anchors our youthful energy, and felt in the adrenaline-fueled sparring in the squared circle.
We are building a hub for the Arts in North Wilkesboro, and our creative spirit is inspired by the mountains that surround us. We are a place where you can quietly reflect to the finest of art in Wilkes Art Gallery, be entertained by the Wilkes Playmakers at historic Benton Hall, or move to the sounds of local musicians performing on the stage at the Market.
One constant in North Wilkesboro has always been our relationship to nature, and to our Two Rivers. The rivers are part of who we are, they unite us, bring us together, inspire our creativity, and energize us. They are the foundation of the unrivaled Great Outdoor offerings that are enjoyed by visitors and locals alike. Whether it is young person who checks out a pole at our Library to fish right in our downtown, or a world-class mountain biker who wants to be challenged by the best trails in the Nation, our town can be the start of that next adventure.
All of this provides a quality of life and diversity of experience for everyone. We have a laid-back rural lifestyle where we are closely connected by our heritage, love of the outdoors, creative energy, and ingenuity.We have that“cool factor”, andare a place where you can“start your engines” or“start you dreams”. We are a gathering place, where people are drawn to our community to experience life, and start their next chapter. Welcome to North WIlkesboro….