The Great State of Wilkes’ hillbilly reputation

By Stephen Harris - For The Tribune
Stephen Harris Back In The Hometown -

When people take it upon themselves to highlight or study poverty and backwardness, they look to my native Wilkes County. Why is that?

We in Wilkes do have our poor folks. A short stint one time with Social Services took me into some poor homes and some poor neighborhoods, and that experience gave me an eye-opening education on another way of life in Wilkes. I saw some trashy homes and run-down trailer parks. We do have some folks in pitiful circumstances.

But here in the hometown area I’ve never once seen a panhandler. Not so in the big cities, where I’ve been approached with some regularity.

The latest example of picking on Wilkes comes from the N.C. Poverty Research Fund, an outfit run by the UNC law school in Chapel Hill. When they wanted to research “the immense challenges of economic hardship in North Carolina,” according to the fund’s website, they chose Wilkes County along with Goldsboro, a city Down East where more than half of the residents are black.

They never choose Yadkin or Surry for these types of things, it seems.

Reputation is a hard thing to shake. And Wilkes continues to carry a hillbilly reputation despite fine schools, hospital, neighborhoods, people and the big-league presence and influence of homegrown Lowe’s home improvement.

The reputation started to coalesce in 1950 when now-defunct “The American Magazine” proclaimed Wilkes as the moonshine capital of the world based on widespread backwoods production of homemade liquor that blossomed during Prohibition. They still cite that appellation, particularly when trying to market modern-day, legal moonshine in Wilkes.

The American intelligentsia took notice of Wilkes in 1965 when New York City writer Tom Wolfe (not Asheville-born novelist Thomas Wolfe of earlier “Look Homeward Angel“ fame) rode around Wilkes with Junior Johnson while wearing an outlandish a green tweed suit and Borsalino hat. From that visit, Wolfe wrote an outlandish “Esquire” magazine article, “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!”

“He is a coon hunter, a rich man, an ex-whiskey runner, a good old boy,” Wolfe gushed of Johnson, Wilkes’ most famous native son, “the true vision of the New South.”

To this day “Esquire” claims that the essay made both Johnson and Wolfe famous.

Wilkes’ reputation got displayed to the masses with a subsequent 1973 movie, “The Last American Hero,” based on Wolfe’s writing. About that time a rise in the popularity of NASCAR, which at the time ran two annual cup stock-car races at the old North Wilkesboro Speedway next to the county’s main thoroughfare, played a part.

In more recent times a North Wilkesboro lawyer, Michael Cooper Jr., gained national attention by resurrecting the old stereotype in a 2016 “U.S. News & World Report” magazine article. Cooper proclaimed Wilkes County as “Trump’s America, where working-class whites are dying from despair.”

Cooper cited Wilkes as “second in the nation in income lost this century,” based on a Pew Charitable Trusts study. He blamed a decline starting with manufacturing losses due to globalization and a flood of the opioid OxyContin.

Perhaps taking a cue from Cooper, a “New York Times” reporter came to North Wilkesboro a few months after and focused on the despair expressed by patrons of a vape shop.

“Fear that an honest, 40-hour working-class job can no longer pay the bills,” writer Richard Fausett intoned. “Fear of a fraying social fabric. Fear that the country’s future might pale in comparison with its past.”

Then came the UNC study last year that cited such things as a high poverty rate around the Wilkesboros and high numbers of mobile homes in Traphill and other northern areas.

The study’s lead writer, Gene Nichol, said that his impression of Wilkes after many trips here “challenges and inspires, offering affection and anxiety.”

The UNC law professor focused on an unnamed family of six in a small mobile home in a trailer park where, Nichol wrote, “Confederate flags and Trump signs” were prominent. He noted no air conditioning in the metal home on a hot summer day and a smell of mold in a cluttered living room.

“My heart went out to them and that the kids on the rotting floor deserved to be safe and healthy and to thrive,” Nichol wrote. “I had come to the trailer with few answers. I left with even fewer.”

The report is on the internet at

Poverty is a serious issue. But there’s another side of Wilkes, of course. In fact there are many sides, many facets of life here, and many other stories wait to be told.

Nevertheless, we here in Wilkes have that hillbilly reputation, and it’s something we’re just going to have to put up with for a good while longer.

Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.

Stephen Harris Back In The Hometown Harris Back In The Hometown

By Stephen Harris

For The Tribune