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Unaffiliated, GOP growth continues; absentee voting surges

With Election Day less than a month away, Republican and unaffiliated voters now account for about 3 percentage points apiece more of Wilkes County’s electorate than at this time before the last presidential election four years ago.

Democratic Party registration in Wilkes dropped by about 5 ½ percentage points from its total in 2016. Wilkes had 42,886 registered voters by Saturday, including 22,914 Republicans (54%), 11,576 unaffiliated (27%) and 8,195 Democrats (19%).

At this point in 2016, Wilkes County’s 42,321 registered voters included 21,629 Republicans (51%), 10,309 Democrats (24.5%) and 10,179 unaffiliated (24%). A little less than a month before Election Day in 2012, the county’s 41,933 registered voters included 21,612 Republicans (51.5%), 11,520 Democrats (27.5%) and 8,736 unaffiliated (21%).

The statewide registration by Saturday was 36% Democratic, 33% unaffiliated and 30% Republican. Libertarian, Constitution and Green accounted for the rest.

Registration deadlineThe deadline for registering to vote on Election Day (Nov. 3) is 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 9. Completed voter registration forms must be postmarked on or before Oct. 9 if returned by mail.

The forms are available at the Wilkes Board of Elections Office, other locations and at https://s3.amazonaws.com/dl.ncsbe.gov/Voter_Registration/NCVoterRegForm_06W.pdf.

People can review their voter registration at Check Voter Registration or by calling the Wilkes Board of Elections office at 336-651-7339.

Early votingIn addition, registering to vote and voting at the same time and place are available during one-stop, early voting from Oct. 15-31 at the Wilkesboro Civic Center on School Street in Wilkesboro and the Edwin McGee Natural Resource Center at 928 Fairplains Road, North Wilkesboro.

Weekday hours are 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15-30. Saturday hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Oct. 17 and 24 and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 31.

Absentee votingMore Wilkes Countians have already cast absentee ballots than they normally do in an entire general presidential election, said Wilkes Board of Elections Director Kim Caudill.

According to the State Board of Elections website, 1,924 absentee ballots were cast in Wilkes and received by election officials by Monday morning. That’s a record 4.5% of the registered voters in Wilkes.

A record 5% of registered voters statewide cast absentee ballots by Monday morning. Among those 359,490 voters, 52% were Democrats, 30% unaffiliated and 17% were Republicans.

There were 1,419 absentee ballots cast in Wilkes and approved by the Wilkes Board of Elections in the 2012 general election and 1,066 in the 2016 general election.

“Many voters are casting their ballots by mail for the first time, so some mistakes are expected,” said State Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell. “We strongly encourage voters to carefully read the instructions and be sure to complete all required fields on the envelope.”

Five-member county boards of elections are responsible for reviewing completed absentee ballots to make sure they meet requirements. Caudill said approved absentee ballots are fed into a tabulator but aren’t counted until Election Day.

The Wilkes Board of Elections approved 2,077 absentee ballots in the first three of 11 weekly meetings for reviewing completed absentee ballots. This included 1,610 absentee ballots on Sept. 29, followed by 232 on Friday and 235 on Tuesday.

Board members are checking the cover of each envelope for the signature of the voter and the signature, printed name and address of a witness. They’re also making sure envelopes are sealed correctly. If the voter received assistance marking or mailing the ballot, the assistant’s name, address and signature must be provided.

Among absentee ballots reviewed at the Sept. 29 Wilkes Board of Elections meeting, one wasn’t sealed and another was damaged and had been taped. Both voters were sent replacement ballots to complete.

Two absentee ballots reviewed at the Sept. 29 meeting were put on hold because signed names on the envelopes didn’t match those on the ballots.

A federal judge’s ruling saying the state must give voters a chance to remedy any fixable ballot problems resulted in unresolved disagreements between Democratic and Republican leaders over how to do this.

Caudill said that on Monday, the State Board of Elections office directed county boards to start securely storing all absentee ballots that are deficient in any way. Before then, voters were being allowed to remedy deficiencies such as improperly sealed ballots and only ballots missing a required signature were being set aside for later action.

Election officials received 4,521 completed absentee ballot request forms from Wilkes by Sept. 29. Over 1 million requests have been received statewide, which is about 10 times greater than they were at this point in the election four years ago.

Elections officials are urging absentee voters to request and return their ballots as soon as possible, as well as read the instructions closely. Ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day, but election officials recommend putting them in the mail at least a week before the election, or Oct. 27.

Voters can track their completed and mailed absentee ballots at https://www.ncsbe.gov/voting/votemail/ absentee-ballot-tools.

New polling placesThe Wilkes Board of Elections moved the polling places for several precincts because larger locations were needed to maintain social distancing requirements. These changes are for the Nov. 3 election only.

The polling place for Rock Creek 2 Precinct was moved from the Knotville Fire Station to the Edwin H. McGee Natural Resources Center on Fairplains Road.

The polling place for Brushy Mountain Precinct was moved from the Brushy Mountain Fire Station to the Brushy Mountain Community Center next door on Brushy Mountain Road.

The polling place for Edwards 2 Precinct was moved from the Roaring River Elementary School media center to the school cafeteria.

The polling place for Walnut Grove Precinct was moved from the office lobby at North Wilkes High School to the school’s media center.

Pete Mann, ex-mayor, longtime WCC instructor, dies

Pete Mann

EDITOR’S NOTE: A full obituary for Pete Mann is inside.

Pete M. Mann, Wilkesboro mayor from 1995-1999 and an instructor at Wilkes Community College for 41 years, died on Oct. 1. He was 73.

As Wilkesboro mayor when the town’s 150th anniversary occurred in 1997, Mann played a primary role in this observance and in steps taken to record Wilkesboro’s history.

Mike Inscore, current Wilkesboro mayor, was elected to the Wilkesboro Town Council while Mann was mayor. Inscore said Mann “really jumpstarted the process of recording the history of the town.”

Discussions that culminated with the Carolina West Wireless Commons and work on the Wilkes Heritage Museum front lawn began while Mann was mayor.

Inscore said Mann was a good mentor for him and served the town well in many ways. The late 1990s were years of significant growth in Wilkesboro and Mann was involved in helping to facilitate economic expansion then.

“He was effective at working behind the scenes for the betterment of Wilkesboro,” said Inscore. “He had good people skills and was a good communicator.”

Inscore also noted that Mann, a native of northern Iredell County, “loved his family dearly.”

Mann and his wife, the late Rebecca Ann “Becky” Comer Mann, were both heavily involved in community activities. Becky Mann was an English instructor at WCC and they co-wrote a college English textbook called, “Essay Writing: Methods and Models.”

Mann graduated from Mars Hill College, had a graduate degree from Southern Baptist Seminary and a second graduate degree from Appalachian State University.

The Manns had two daughters, Jennifer Lynn Mann Lankford and Alison Rebecca Mann, who survive them. He is also survived by grandchildren.

Spirited fighter survived Kings Mtn. wounds, had large local family

On this day 240 years ago, Wilkes County militia under Col. Benjamin Cleveland played a major role in a decisive Patriot victory over Loyalist militia under British Major Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain.

Although lasting only a little over an hour, the battle is considered pivotal in events leading to the young nation winning the war and its independence from Great Britain at Yorktown, Va., a year later. Thomas Jefferson called Kings Mountain, “The turn of the tide of success.”

Wilkes County, created from Surry County in 1778, was still on the edge of the frontier when the Battle of Kings Mountain was fought on Oct. 7, 1780.

The 350 or so volunteers who made the trek under Cleveland and Major Joseph Winston to fight Ferguson after he threatened to “hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword” were mostly first generation residents of Wilkes, Surry and what now is Ashe, Alleghany, Watauga, Caldwell and other nearby counties.

Most had experience fighting Tories (Loyalists) and Indians under the same men who led them at Kings Mountain. Many served in Gen. Griffith Rutherford’s expedition against the Cherokee in 1776.

Much of what is known about their individual experiences in the Kings Mountain and other campaigns is told in military pension applications and similar papers.

One such document tells about Samuel Johnson, one of Cleveland’s captains, attending church at Roaring River Meeting House (predecessor of Old Roaring River Baptist Church in Traphill) one Sunday when a messenger arrived with news of Tory depredations in today’s Alleghany County. Johnson immediately gathered available men and left in pursuit of the Tories, routing them near Peach Bottom Mountain.

Lyman C. Draper’s “King’s Mountain and Its Heroes,” first published in 1881, includes brief biographies of several Wilkes men, including Johnson, and other key participants in the battle.

Draper’s book is the definitive history of the battle and events before and afterwards. He interviewed participants and relatives of participants, collected their statements and other firsthand written accounts of the battle and other documents.

Due to the Patriots on horseback being sent ahead to fight and footmen left behind on the eve of the battle, companies were reorganized and Johnson served in the engagement as a lieutenant. According to Draper, Johnson’s “unique but effective command during the fight was, ‘Aim at the waistbands of their breeches boys.’ ”

Johnson received multiple wounds and some of the men with him were killed when they made a bold dash toward the enemy. Draper also wrote, “After Johnson had fallen, and while the contest was still fiercely raging around him, he repeatedly threw up his hands and shouted ‘Huzzah boys!’ ”

When Johnson asked to see Ferguson’s lifeless body after the battle, Cleveland and two other men obliged by carrying the wounded officer to the slain British major.

Quoting the memoirs of Col. Banastre Tarleton, another British commander in the South, Draper wrote, “The mountaineers, it is reported, used every insult and indignity, after this action, toward the dead body of Major Ferguson.”

Some of the others in Cleveland’s regiment wounded were William Lenoir, Charles Gordon, John Childers, J.M. Smith and the three Lewis brothers, Micajah and captains Joel and James.

At least two Wilkes men died at Kings Mountain — Daniel Siske and Thomas Bicknell.

Estimates of Loyalist losses in the battle vary, but it apparently was around 250 killed, 160 wounded and 670 taken prisoner. The Patriot militia suffered 28 killed and 60 wounded.

According to one account, Johnson’s lack of food in the three days before the battle helped him survive his worst wound, which came from a bullet hitting his abdomen.

The story passed down in Captain Johnson’s family is that Johnson, in his early 20s, was carried back to Wilkes by horse-drawn litter and was almost there when he was taken to the home of the Rev. Ambrose Hammon, a Baptist minister, due to his weak condition.

The captain remained there and was nursed back to strength by Mary Hammon, the preacher’s daughter. The two married about two years later.

They raised a large family and remained in what now is Traphill. Johnson was appointed a member of Wilkes County’s Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions by the governor. This was the county governing body until the current N.C. Constitution was adopted in 1868.

Johnson received a disability pension starting in 1809, and died at age 77 in 1834. He was buried in the Johnson family cemetery on what now is Grissle Tail Road in Traphill, near the East Prong of Roaring River.

In addition to a military stone identifying him as a captain in Cleveland’s N.C. militia in the Revolutionary War, an older soapstone marker on his grave calls him “Capt. Sam Johnson” and says he was wounded at Kings Mountain.

In his 1854 declaration as administrator of the estate of his mother, Mary Johnson, Ambrose Johnson said Cleveland presented his battle sword to Captain Johnson as a statement of his esteem for him. He further wrote that when the sword was broken, his father retooled the blade and continued its use for utility purposes.

Ambrose Johnson married Lucinda Franklin, niece of N.C. Gov. Jesse Franklin. Samuel and Mary Johnson’s other sons were Lewis, who married Nancy Elmira Martin; Robert, who married Celia Bourne; Samuel B., who married Susanne Alexander; and Col. John S. who married Nancy Holbrook and served in the militia, including when it participated in the Cherokee Indian removal (Trail of Tears) of 1838.

Their daughters were Nancy, who married Jesse Gambill; Chloe who married William Gambill; Mary, who married William Bourne Jr.; Rachel, who married William M. Forester; and Polly, who married Leander Johnson.

Samuel and Mary Johnson left numerous descendants, including many who still live in the Traphill area. The descendants hold the Capt. Samuel Johnson family reunion annually at the old Joynes school on Longbottom Road in Traphill.

The Wilkes/Surry Chapter Overmountain Victory Trail Association (OVTA) participates in events to raise awareness of the involvement of men from this area in the Battle of Kings Mountain. The OVTA and Wilkes Heritage Museum in Wilkesboro partner to provide educational programs on the battle for Wilkes County fourth-graders each year.

Health department getting rapid response COVID-19 testing

The Wilkes Health Department will soon be able to test people for COVID-19 and have results within about 15 minutes, said Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard.

The health department is getting three Sofia II rapid COVID testing machines, which Willard said test antigens with nasal swabs and are supposed to be about 99.2% accurate. It can be several days before results of some other types of tests are known.

“We hope to roll it out in late October or early November after we compete training on policies and procedures,” she added.

One of the machines will be used for students in the Wilkes County schools. Willard said that with the faster results, students tested for COVID-19 because they possibly were exposed to the virus will be able to return to classes in 24 hours if they test negative.

She said another of the Sofia II machines will be taken to workplaces or other locations with COVID-19 cases as part of a new rapid response initiative to help prevent these outbreaks from growing larger. The machine will be on an 18-passenger van recently leased for the rapid response effort.

Willard said Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds were used to purchase the Sofia machines, while the van was funded with Medicaid reimbursement money.

Willard said more of Wilkes County’s COVID-19 cases are resulting from community spread, which are cases that can’t be traced to a particular source. An increase in community spread cases indicates the virus is more widespread.

“Too many people are not complying with isolation and quarantine orders and people aren’t wearing their masks.”

Among Wilkes County residents, there have 1,336 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic started in March. Thirty-five of these people died. Wilkes ranks about 30th among the state’s 100 counties in numbers of cases per 100,000 people, as well as about 30th in total numbers of COVID-19-related deaths.

Willard said the county’s positivity rate on COVID-19 tests has ranged from a little over 5% to over 10% recently. The goal locally and statewide is 5%. Willard said it varies according to the number of people tested and the number who showing symptoms or are asymptomatic.

She said the number of people tested per day at the health department varies considerably, based on what’s going on in the community.

During the Sept. 15 meeting of the Wilkes County commissioners, Willard said that the majority of Wilkes cases were resulting from “luck of the draw” rather students being back in their classrooms or some other certain factor.

Willard said she remains supportive of Wilkes County elementary schools switching to full-time in-person learning in classrooms starting Oct. 20.

Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd said during the school board meeting Monday night that he expects as many as 85% of elementary school students engaged in in-person learning starting Oct. 20. Parents still have the option of having their children in fulltime remote learning.

She said that under new CDC guidance, a person who had COVID-19 within the last month no longer has to self-quarantine if exposed to a positive case.

She said the CDC and State of North Carolina still aren’t recommending antibody testing, which she said indicates it isn’t recognized as a valid means of determining immunity.

Willard said people are encouraged to get flu shots as soon as possible in preparation for the upcoming flu season. She cited concern about flu cases, along with COVID-19 cases, overburdening hospitals and other medical facilities. She said the similarity of symptoms of the two illnesses could be problematic.

The commissioners unanimously approved the reappointment of Marcia Reynolds as the pharmacist member and the appointment of Adina Watkins to replace Sylvia Reynolds on the Wilkes Health Board. Health board members serve three-year terms and up to three consecutive terms.