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