Live Local, Live Small: Wilkesboro cultivates tourism using the legend of Tom Dooley

Aug 5 • FEATURE BOTTOM, Live Local, NEWS & VIEWSNo Comments on Live Local, Live Small: Wilkesboro cultivates tourism using the legend of Tom Dooley

Just so you know, Wilkesboro is more creepy than the Land of Oz,” Jock informed me when I came back to the hotel. He alluded to the two days we spent in Beach Mountain at the abandoned theme park based on “The Wizard of Oz.” Only, now, we traipsed an abandoned downtown Wilkesboro, an area where people actually resided. 

Wilkesboro

Photo from the Old Wilkes Jail in which Dooley was held. Photo by Eric Wyatt

“What did you do this evening?” I asked. “Who won the game?” 

It was toward the end of the World Cup, and as a native-born Dutchman, he followed it closely. I expected a story about a nice evening spent watching the match at a Mexican restaurant. I anticipated he may report on some new friends he made, and maybe some bad TV he watched back in the hotel room. Instead he complained that obviously no one walks in Wilkesboro, because a police car followed him when he walked the eighth of a mile between our hotel and the restaurant. Apparently, none of the families at the restaurant talked to each other, and the waitstaff wasn’t interested in talking about soccer. He looked at me meaningfully, and told me that for an area trying to cultivate tourism, Wilkesboro was failing miserably. 

I had to agree to a point: We only were there to see “Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend,” the outdoor drama at Fort Hamby Park. But we wouldn’t be staying there if it weren’t for a tourism initiative. So, I went to see the performance; Jock opted to watch the World Cup.

In the early aughts, Karen Reynolds wrote the script for “Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend.” It tells the story of Tom Dooley (Dula), an impoverished Civil War veteran, who brutally stabbed his pregnant lover, Laura Foster, to  death in 1866. It was a new take on the story, which previously had been immortalized by the Kingston Trio’s song,“Tom Dooley.” It also was presented 20 years earlier in Wilkesboro as a play. 

The real Tom Dooley was from Wilkes County, NC, and the infamous crime of passion occurred there. In fact, the Forest Edge Amphitheatre stands across the lake from his grave. Tom Dooley is not just a Wilkes County legend, he also is a marketing device. 

From the play to the Dooley Days ArtFest to the historic Old Wilkes Jail he was held in, he seems to be the major focus of their tourism efforts (along with MerleFest, the awesome music festival). The play has received tremendous support from the powers that be. Currently, it’s performed in a new 800-plus seat amphitheater with upgraded facilities, including air-conditioned dressing rooms and a lighting package and sound system. It makes my heart leap to see such incredible investment in the arts—especially when the arts are viewed as essential to the long-term tourism development plan. 

We were there over the July 4th weekend, but the town was deserted. We were perplexed. Their historic downtown had one restaurant serving customers, and none of the tourist attractions—including the museum—were open on Saturday (really—this is how you attempt to foster tourism on one of the biggest travel weekends of the year?).

We opted to stay in Wilkesboro instead of Boone (where we both saw the outdoor drama  “Horn in the West” on July 4th) because it was $100 cheaper to get a hotel room there. It leads me to think many people were traveling  to the mountains that holiday weekend.

About 10 years ago, I heard myself say in conversation we couldn’t have an entire country’s economy based on tourism. (This isn’t Antarctica for crying out loud!) I was frustrated and angry, but moreso at the seemingly endless string of factories that were moving overseas. It felt like people only offered answers related to service industry and tourism; nothing involving producing goods. 

Conversely, Wilkesboro has had two really strong employers for the last few decades: Lowe’s Home Improvement and Tyson Chicken. The Tyson Chicken processing plant is pretty hard to miss: It’s a sprawling complex with lots of high-voltage wires. In 2008 it closed one of the three plants in Wilksboro, which resulted in the layoff of 409 people. According to Tyson’s website, they currently employ 2,700 workers at the Wilkesboro facility (many of them refugees from Burma). 

Lowe’s Home Improvement historically was headquartered in Wilkesboro. Their corporate story is heavily set there much the way Walmart’s is in Arkansas. A few years back, they moved the majority of their corporate operations to Mooresville (the north side of Lake Norman). Though there are still some offices in Wilksboro, one man told me he drives from Wilkesboro to Mooresville everyday in a little over an hour-and-a-half, depending on traffic. I couldn’t find any information on the number of people currently employed by Lowe’s in Wilksboro, but everyone I asked looked away and mumbled something to the effect of it wasn’t like it used to be.

When I called the bookstore to check on things, Brandi asked if I had seen the North Wilkesboro Speedway yet? She had a point: The racetrack had been the major tourist attraction for a long time. Unfortunately, it is no longer operational. All the money spent in the area by NASCAR fans has gone away.  We can’t get any real numbers on racing’s predecessor, moonshining. Though it is still operational, it is not actively tracked. 

With the Tom Dooley show, they are on to something. If they market it outside of the area, it could really bring in some money. The Kingston Trio played opening night in the production’s first year. The story fascinates. It really is the OJ Simpson trial of the 19th century: A crime of passion with no clear resolution and crossed loyalties. (What part isn’t titillating and alluring?)  Even more interesting, the descendants and relatives of the main players are still in the area. The young lady who played Laura Foster this year is related to her in real life! It’s a powerful look at how we create identity through the arts. I hope it begins to do what it was intended to do: generate tourism and income for the surrounding hotels and restaurants. Maybe even the museum will open on weekends. 

Frankly, things aren’t looking so great for future employment at the Lowe’s Home Improvement corporate office. Tyson’s future is anybody’s guess. The Tom Dooley story is powerful and endlessly intriging; not to mention, the Kingston Trio has made the story well-known. 

Wilmington’s morphed into a cultural hub because of our wonderful arts scene; I hope one day Wilkesboro can say the same.

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