“Are we going to see a ghost tonight?” whispered a precocious child just before setting off on a lantern-lit ghost tour of historic downtown Wilkesboro on Friday.
Our tour guide for the evening, Eric Williams, coyly replied, “Well, I’ll tell you about that later on.” The answer didn’t seem to wipe the nervousness off the young girl’s face.
I went on my first ghost tour Friday night, with Halloween lurking in the back of my mind (and most of the others, I’m sure), less than two weeks away. Enhancing the mood was a light drizzle that turned to a full-on downpour before our 90-minute tour ended at the Capt. Robert Cleveland cabin.
Our first stop was the old Smithey Hotel, which is now the home of Dooley’s restaurant and Mother Earth Foods. Williams said that people who used to dine upstairs at the now-closed Tory Oak Restaurant reported seeing the late Mr. and Mrs. Nike Smithey dancing in the dining room.
We weren’t allowed to take the tour upstairs because business was too brisk currently at Dooley’s, Williams explained.
Next up was the former slave quarters behind the old hotel. Except for the roofs, the small buildings where the slaves slept and prepared food for their masters are all original, dating back to the mid-1800s.
Williams said that last year, a tour attendee had a supernatural experience inside the quarters. “There was a woman who ran to the door and didn’t hit a step—she came all the way down. And on the back of her calf was three scratch marks. She wouldn’t go back in—and I don’t blame her.”
“Where was she standing? So I don’t go to the same place,” asked someone Friday night, to the nervous laughter of several in the crowd.
On the walls of the quarters were verified voodoo inscriptions, noted Williams. They were written to invoke some type of curse on the masters’ house that reportedly caused several in the house to come down with strange illnesses.
As we walked back toward Main Street, Williams said people often feel a pronounced chill in the air at the point on the driveway where a young girl was struck and killed by a horse-driven buggy. “On a summer night, it gets as cold as it is right now, about six feet of it,” he explained.
I’ll admit to feeling the air grow a bit cooler during a brief certain section of the walk. Someone beside me asked, “You felt it too?! Oh my god. I’m done!”
Williams then led us to where the famed Tory Oak used to stand. The giant oak tree stood for more than two and a half centuries, a symbol of the revolutionary struggle that led to the founding of Wilkes County. Dozens of Tories were hung on the limbs of the tree, which collapsed in the early 1990’s.
Our host during the tour of the old Wilkes jail was the jail master, Dub Harris, dressed in period garb. Harris recounted a paranormal history of the jail that was as informative as it was entertaining. The jail housed, among other prisoners, Tom Dula before he was hung in Statesville for the murder of Laura Foster.
Walking up the steps to the second-story cells where Dula and Anne Melton paced the floors, awaiting their fates in the famous local love triangle murder mystery, Harris noted, “Tom Dula walked up these exact steps that you’re standing on.”
Harris said that a person abruptly left the tour a year or two ago after reaching the threshold of the upstairs cells. He said she told him afterwards, “I got to that door, my chest got tight, I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and I could not go in there.” He told her, “Ma’am, you’re not the only one—it’s happened before. People have got touched in here, hair gets pulled, and so on.”
After the jail closed, it was the home of the Wilkes Heritage Museum before the museum moved to the old courthouse. The ghost tours are owned and operated by the museum.
The last ghost tours of the year are Saturday, departing at 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. in front of the museum. Tickets are almost sold out, so I’d suggest securing yours post haste by calling the museum (336-667-3171) or visiting wilkesheritagemuseum.com.
If you enjoy a good ghost story or a good lesson in local history—or both, even—the ghost tours in downtown Wilkesboro are worth experiencing on multiple levels.