Hang down your head, Tom Dooley…
Tom Dula, the subject of the well-known folksong, was one of many colorful characters to be incarcerated in the historic Old Wilkes Jail, in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Today, this North Carolina jail is one of the most authentically preserved 19th century buildings in the state.
Built in 1859, the Old Wilkes Jail held Union prisoners and stored Confederate provisions and ammunition during the Civil War. Later, this North Carolina jail was one of the few places to successfully imprison one of the region’s most famous escape artists, Otto Wood, who spent time in the jail at the age of 15 for stealing a bicycle. During his criminal career, Wood managed to escape from ten jails.
The Old Wilkes Jail served as a working North Carolina jail until 1915, when it was sold and its rooms were converted into rental apartments. It was scheduled for demolition in 1968, when the nonprofit organization Old Wilkes, Inc. stepped in and purchased the property, restored it to near authenticity, and opened it to the public as a museum in the 1970s.
The Old Wilkes Jail’s unique history and roster of famous inmates makes it one of the best known historical structures in the area. Much of the restoration was done with original materials. All cells have the original wood, iron doors, and iron bars still bolted to the windows.
Four rooms used as jailor living quarters have been furnished with period furniture. The restoration includes the original security system on the front door of the jail-a door and frame that includes nails an inch apart so prisoners could not saw through the door to freedom.
Behind the Old Wilkes Jail is the relocated and restored Robert Cleveland Log House. The nearby Wilkes County Courthouse is home to the Wilkes Heritage Museum.
Hours of Operation
Both the Old Wilkes Jail and the Wilkes Heritage Museum are open Monday through Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm.
Admission to Wilkes Heritage Museum is $6 per person. Children ages 5 and under are admitted at no charge. A guided tour of the Old Wilkes Jail is included with admission to the Wilkes Heritage Museum at 11 am, 1 pm, and 2:30 pm Monday – Saturday.