Unexplained sounds in an old Wilkes County jail that once housed convicted killer Tom Dula (Dooley); a British Lord’s mirror where apparitions are said to appear; an unexplained chair rocking; and period furniture, music and historical facts combining paranormal testimony marked the river walk and Yadkin River Ghost Tour through the heart of Wilkes on Sunday.
Part of the Tour de Yadkin events for the second year in a row, the Wilkes tour was guided by historian, musician and author of “Ghosts of the Yadkin Valley” R.G. Absher and teacher Larry Griffin. Just as the river walk and ghost tour’s beginning was set to take place along the Yadkin Greenway, the tour was delayed and moved locations due to a violent rain outburst.
As a result, Sunday’s tour began at the Yadkin Greenway entrance area and the first building entered was the Old Wilkes jail. It is where Dula and his girlfriend, Ann Melton, were once housed. Dula, who exonerated Melton with a statement that indicted himself, later hanged for the murder of Laura Foster. Before going to the gallows, Dula declared he did not harm a hair on Foster’s head.
Just before the tour group entered the old jail with barred windows, a rainbow suddenly pierced through the stormy Wilkes sky. It acted as an arching and hopeful contrast to the jail’s interior complete with a ball and chain and bars, once used to keep prisoners from escaping.
During the tour, guides shared personal testimony of their paranormal experiences on the tour route and described first-hand accounts of others. In fact, Griffin said he made it his business only to recount up-close and personal experiences of first-hand credible testimony from people he knew. Several unexplained sounds during the tour, in particular, in the old jail brought gasps and concerned looks from participants.
“That is typical here,” said guides.
Absher elaborated by saying the location is around an American Indian burial sight often areas of paranormal activity and has been studied by paranormal observers. Absher said a tour group, including a journalist, once heard a loud thudding sound as he discussed events in the room containing a ball and chain.
Absher said the occurrence was chilling enough participants left the tour.
The youngest prisoner ever held was 13-year-old Otto Wood, who was later killed after a shootout with authorities. Griffin said no one ever escaped the Wilkes jail, which was built in 1869 to house prisoners, in particular those resulting from the war.
General Stoneman’s Raid in 1865, with thousands of troops, had stormed Wilkesboro and surrounding areas. Griffin said the fact that Wilkes County elected to stay in the Union earlier is probably what really saved the building in the end.
A picture of Brigadier General James B. Gordon, Wilkes resident and known somewhat as a “ladies man” once presided over the jail, is located just inside it’s entrance along with his Brazilian Rosewood piano. Gen. Gordon later died after taking a musket shot wound to his arm and gangrene set in.
A marker placed at the jail by the Sons of Confederate Veterans #810 reads, “In remembrance of the Wilkes County soldiers of the confederate states who defended their southern homeland against Northern aggression may their bravery loyalty honor and Christian virtues continue to live in all Wilkes county citizens.”
Griffin said though the jail was the sight of hostilities between the states, in reality, the jail held very few prisoners related to the conflict. He said perhaps war prisoners were not often held because many Wilkes County residents did not want to secede from the Union. He said they believed the war mostly related to economic factors and were opposed to the practice of slavery.
In fact, Griffin said the jail once housed slave owner, Christopher Kitt Robbins. The slave owner went to the gallows as the only person in Wilkes County to do so, after killing his slave brutally in the county, said Griffin. John McEwen was the sheriff presiding over Robbins.
Another stop on the tour was the Robert Cleveland log cabin, where a rocking chair is known to rock on its own and is believed by Griffin to be Cleveland’s wife, Abby, who sits rocking in it.
The architecture style is Scandinavian and once was the meeting place for the fiercely independent Overmountain Men and frontiersmen including Daniel Boone.
Absher and Caroline Blackmon concluded with a song written by Absher called “Draper Valley” about a Wilkes female citizen who made it back home after being captured by Indians.
Absher connected the treasure trove of experiences in the tour to the experiencing the Tour De Yadkin as a whole. “The participants can get a sense of wonder and appreciation of the Yadkin River and its valley. Whether it’s a recreational float trip on the river, a walk or hike on a riverside greenway or connector trail, or a visit to a vineyard or historic site, there is much here to connect to the Yadkin Valley,” said Absher.
“We were able to point out to the Tour de Yadkin participants some of the recreational, historical, and natural resources in the Yadkin River Valley.”
Executive Director Dean Naujok and Judy Rossabi of Yadkin Riverkeepers who were both on the tour called it a wonderful addition and experience. Naujok said it is keeping the heritage of Wilkes County, and North Carolina alive. “The Yadkin has such rich history,” he added.
Tanya Chilton may be reached at 336-835-1513 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.