For many North Carolina residents, fall is a time to enjoy the colors of fall leaves, freshly harvested apples, football games, and hunting.
It’s also increasingly being known as spooky season, with ghost walks/tours from the Outer Banks to the mountains of southwestern North Carolina gaining popularity.
Downtown Wilkesboro is home to one of the oldest such attractions: the Wilkes Heritage Museum’s Candlelight Ghost Tours. The 2022 season began in April and ends in October, with one Saturday night tour per month except two in October. The remaining tour dates are September 17, October 15, and October 29.
The story-filled walking tours, lasting approximately 90 minutes, are led by costumed guides and begin at 7:30 PM on the steps of the Wilkes Heritage Museum. Prepaid reservations are required, with a limit of 15 people per visit. They usually sell out.
Old Wilkes Inc. held the first Candlelight Ghost Tour as part of the Wilkes Art & Heritage Festival (no longer held) in downtown Wilkesboro in 2005, just months before Old Wilkes opened the museum in the old county courthouse. Old Wilkes later adopted the Wilkes Heritage Museum as its name.
Musician, outdoorsman, and historian RG Absher, then a member of the Old Wilkes board of directors, is credited with spearheading the initial efforts for the first Candlelight Ghost Tour in Wilkesboro. Absher is now executive director of the Yadkin River Greenway Council, but still helps run ghost tours.
Absher said recently there’s been an awareness of ghost tours elsewhere in the state, but the experiences of the late Joan Baity in Old Wilkes Jail helped spur efforts to start them here.
Baity’s office as manager of Old Wilkes was on the ground floor of the Old Jail, which housed Tom Dula (“Dooley”) before he was tried and hanged in Statesville for the murder of Laura Foster at Wilkes in 1866. Dula rose to fame when the Kingston Trio recorded ‘Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley’.
Baity swore that as she sat in her office she sometimes heard people arguing and other strange sounds above her on the second floor when she knew no one was up there .
Absher said he and others collecting stories for walking tour guides to tell quickly found enough material when Baity, Ray Stroud, Kyle Hayes and Jay Anderson, all now deceased, were interviewed. Other sources included Dr. Charles Gilreath and members of the Cohn family.
In addition to Absher, the initial tour guide included Tonya Miles, Joseph Cooper, Julie Mullis. Sherry Mabry and Dr. Charles and Lelia Gilreath. Others have included Rick and Belinda Laws, Kellene Bock, Larry Griffin, Dub Harris, RG Absher, Heather Dean, Eric Williams and Eric Payne. Sheba Harris, Rosemary Markle and Marilyn Payne sold tickets, books, shirts and other items.
The old prison is one of the ghost tour stops. Rick Laws, professor of history at Wilkes Community College, pointed to the portrait of Brig. Gen. James B. Gordon in a ground floor room of the Old Jail during the August 20 tour.
Laws said the portrait of Gordon, Wilkes’ highest-ranking Confederate officer and still unmarried when he was killed near the end of the Civil War, hung in the adjacent office of Old Wilkes, but was moved to its current location because women working in the office complained about the portrait’s eyes following them. At its current location, women said one of the eyes winked at them.
Laws said women said they felt strange feelings of unease in the women’s cell in the old prison, to the point that they had to leave.
Laws told the story of another well-known outlaw housed at Wilkes County Jail, Otto Wood, a Wilkes native who was famous for escaping jails and jails in the 1910s and 1920 before dying in a shootout with the Salisbury Chief of Police in 1930. Wood’s fame was enhanced by a ballad about him, recorded by Doc Watson and others.
Outside Captain Robert Cleveland’s log home and near the concrete and wire statue of the captain’s brother, Colonel Benjamin Cleveland, Laws recounted the Revolutionary War battle of Kings Mountain. The Clevelands were the leaders of Wilkes’ men in the battle, seen as a turning point to Britain’s freedom.
There are stories of a haunted rocking chair and a wooden cradle in the Cleveland House, built circa 1779 in Purlear and moved to Wilkesboro. A certain mirror included in the photos taken in the house had the reflection of a ghostly image.
Laws said paranormal investigators have reported getting strong readings with an EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) device in both the Old Jail and the Cleveland Log House.
The tour stops at the site of the Tory Oak, where guides say Colonel Cleveland hung British sympathizers there, and at his Roundabout plantation in what is now Ronda.
The Smithey Hotel, now home to Dooley’s Restaurant, is rich with unexplained stories. Many are believed to be linked to Nike Smithey, owner of the motel for many years, and his wife, Hattie Little Smithey. The first is that people who used to dine upstairs at the now-closed Tory Oak restaurant said they saw the Smitheys dancing in the dining room.
Standing on a sidewalk along Main Street next to the Smithey Hotel, Laws told a few stories about the Johnson-Hubbard house across the street. One concerns a rocking chair on the porch of the house, seen rocking with no one inside.
Laws said in the driveway leading to the Brown-Cowles house near Main Street, people said they felt a sharp chill in the air on summer nights as a young girl was struck and killed by a horse buggy.
The tour no longer goes to the Old Town Cemetery, behind the Calloway-Hubbard House and near the Wilkesboro Presbyterian Chapel, as this requires crossing Main Street.
Most of the homes and other buildings featured on the tour are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A Wilkes Heritage Museum spokesperson said most of the tour participants were from North Carolina, including Wilkes. On the August 20 tour there was a family that included young children from Chatham County with relatives in Wilkes, a couple from Florida who recently purchased property in Wilkes and plan to build here, a couple from Salisbury with family here, a couple from Statesville interested in Wilkes history, and at least one couple living in Wilkes.
Call the Wilkes Heritage Museum at 336-667-3171 to make tour reservations or for more information.