Wilkes County comprises the North Wilkesboro, NC Micropolitan Statistical Area.
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.
Moonshine and the birth of NASCAR
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 featured by the writer Tom Wolfe in a 1965 article for Esquire magazine, which gave him national exposure. Wolfe's vivid article was later adapted as the movie The Last American Hero (1973), starring Jeff Bridges and Valerie Perrine. Benny Parsons and Jimmy Pardue were two other notable NASCAR drivers from Wilkes.
The North Wilkesboro Speedway was closed following the 1996 NASCAR season. Two new owners, Bob Bahre and Bruton Smith, moved North Wilkesboro's NASCAR races to their tracks in Texas and New Hampshire. Speedway Associates, Inc., obtained a three-year lease and started running races and other events at the speedway. However, in May 2011, the group announced that funding had fallen through and they were ending their lease prematurely.