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Wilkesboro, Former 'Moonshine Capital,' Losing Its Federal Courthouse

Six federal courthouses in the South are in the process of shutting down. It’s a way for the federal court system to save money, and the ones shutting their doors don’t have much going on anymore. 

One of the courthouses closing down is in Wilkesboro. These days its primary use is as a post office, and it also holds bankruptcy court once or twice a month.

But there was a time when the courthouse was ground zero in the war on moonshine. 

Modern Courthouse On An Old School Street

The Johnson J. Hayes federal courthouse sticks out in Wilkesboro. It's a modern, white structure with sleek columns on an otherwise old school Main Street with red brick buildings and historical markers.

It's the biggest building downtown. It may also be the emptiest now that the courtroom on the second floor is locked up with the lights off all but one or two days a month.

But this building saw a lot of action throughout the 1970s.

"In its heyday, it was a hub of activity," Wilkesboro Mayor Mike Inscore said. "A lot of court proceedings were conducted here. It had vitality that brought people to the downtown - sometimes for the right reasons, other times for the wrong reason."

And a lot of people came here for the same wrong reason - brewing and running illegal whisky. Moonshine.

'Moonshine Capital Of The World'

"Wilkes County at one time was known as the moonshine capital of the world," said Jennifer Furr, the director of the Wilkes Heritage Museum down the street from the courthouse.

"On display, we have a moonshine still as you would find it in the woods being used by a stream, and then we also have a busted still as you would find after the ATF revenuers would find it."

"Revenuers" was the common name for agents of what’s now known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They’d often use axes to bust the large, thick moonshine stills, but they were also known to light a stick of dynamite on one every now and then.

One of the revenuers who busted stills here in the early '70s is Bob Graham. He said the ATF kept the federal courthouse busy.

"I got the impression that most of the work in the courthouse was from ATF, from moonshining and that stuff," Graham said.

ATF In The Basement, Courtroom On The Second Floor

He was among a dozen or so agents who worked out of the basement of the federal courthouse. He said if they weren’t out busting stills, they were often on the second floor testifying in trials. 

"We had more agents because it was more moonshining done here than anywhere else in the country," Graham said.

Graham retired a few years ago and moved back to Wilkesboro. But this is his first visit back to the courthouse since the '70s.  

Most of the old office in the basement is locked and off limits to the public. But a small part of it is now used by the National Resources Conservation Service. It all looked different Graham, until he went for a door that opens to a back room.

After he opened it, he had a short answer for what used to be in there: "Liquor. Moonshine."

He said the back room used to be stocked with gallon jugs and quart-size bottles of moonshine. That's how ATF agents stored samples they seized.

Now, the room is just a storage space filled with boxes.

Stories - And Even Daily Reports - From The '70s

Graham's boss back then, Bob Powell, still lives in Wilkesboro. He ran the local ATF office for most of the '70s, and still has every one of his daily reports.

At his house, his wife Betty agreed to go down to the basement to pull them out of a old, squeaky filing cabinet.

"So he stuck them in here, " Betty Powell said. "And there they are."

The daily reports are organized by year in folders that fill up the filing cabinet. They stretch all the way back to the late '50s, when Bob Powell first started his career but before he moved to Wilkesboro.

Powell used those reports to write a book about his time in the ATF. (It's called Moonshiners, Fast Cars and Revenuers: Moments from My Life in Law Enforcement)

He has a lot of stories about the federal courthouse, like the time he decided to sleep there because he got mad at Betty. Problem was, he accidentally locked himself out of his office after he'd taken his off his clothes.

"And I had to drive home in my underwear in a government car," Bob said with a laugh. "Finally when I got home, I went up and knocked on the door, and Betty came to the door, and she started laughing and laughing."

Betty chimed in with a smile, "You didn't ever get mad at me again and leave, did you?"

"No, you were still laughing at me when I went to sleep," Bob said as both busted out laughing.

Unclear Future For The Courthouse

The ATF’s office in Wilkesboro closed in the 1980s. Priorities changed, and the ATF shifted its focus to violent crime in bigger cities.

Several of the courthouse’s other tenants have moved out, too. The post office is still there, and it has about a year to find a new location.

Powell isn’t sentimental about the courthouse closing.

"It's an austerity program I would imagine," he said.

After it’s shut down, the federal courthouse’s future is somewhat up grabs. They mayor said it could be bought by other government agencies or may even turn into a homeless shelter.

The only thing that’s for sure is it’ll no longer be part of the federal court system.