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The Old Wilkes Jail

The Old Wilkes Jail was constructed in 1859 and opened as jail in 1860. It served its purpose until 1915 when a new jail was built. This jail was preceded by two log jails.

It was sold to an individual and was rented out as apartments until early 1960's when the town bought the old building to tear it down Old Wilkes Jail and replace it with a parking lot. Old Wilkes, Inc. was formed to save the restore the old jail. It was successfully restored and opened to the public in the mid 1970's.

The history of it's usage goes back to the War Between the States when it was used to house Confederate provisions as well as union prisoners. After the war, Tom Dula (of the famous ballad, "Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley") was incarcerated here until the change of venue was obtained by his defense attorney, former Governor Zebulon Vance.

Another famous inmate was that of North Carolina's famous escape artist, Otto Wood. Otto escaped from 10 jails and prisons before being shot and killed by Police Chief Rankin, Salisbury, NC on New Years Eve 1930. The Old Wilkes Jail was the only jail Otto never escaped from, being incarcerated here for stealing a bicycle at the age of 15.

The building was restored to its original state using as much of the original materials as possible. Access to the cells are through the original iron and wood doors. The iron bars remain on the windows, as well as the primitive sanitary devices in the upstairs cells. Four rooms on the South side of the building were used as the jailers living quarters. These rooms have been restored and furnished in the time period of the jail.

The old Wilkes County jail is one of the best preserved examples of nineteenth century penal architecture in North Carolina. Of particular note is the survival of its primitive security, including the front door which contains nails an inch apart so that if a prisoner got hold of an object that he could not saw his way out of the building. The museum is operated by the Wilkes Heritage Museum, Inc. and is open Monday through Friday and by appointment on weekends.

For more information, visit http://www.wilkesheritagemuseum.com.

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