In 1957, the Kingston Trio lent their voices to an old folk tune, turning “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley” into a chart topper. The song is still popular, but many may not realize is that the subject of the song lived in North Carolina, and that the crime for which he was found guilty – the murder of sweetheart Laura Foster – took place around the Elkville/Ferguson community in Wilkes County. Interested in the story behind the song? Spend a few hours on N.C. 268 between Lenoir and Wilkesboro – designated an N.C. Scenic Byway – and make some stops along the informal Tom Dooley “trail.”
Wilkesboro is about 80 miles from Charlotte, a 90-minute drive, one way.
To see and do
Begin following the footsteps of Tom Dooley at the Wilkes County Heritage Museum in Wilkesboro. The museum, in the former 1902 courthouse, has much to attract visitors, but it’s the old brick jail out back that holds interest for those wanting to delve into the legend of Tom Dooley (his name is also spelled “Dula”” but pronounced “Dooley”). It’s where Dooley was first incarcerated after his capture in Tennessee. Anne Melton, another of Dooley’s love interests and also implicated in the murder of Laura Foster, was held for several months in an adjoining second-floor cell.
Then head southwest on N.C. 268, toward Ferguson. Just east of the Yadkin River, you’ll come to Whippoorwill Village on the right, a collection of buildings brought together through the efforts of retired art teacher Edith Ferguson Carter.
The original Whippoorwill school house is here, along with a chapel, Daniel Boone replica cabin, an old country store and other buildings. Most important, the site includes the Tom Dooley museum, where you’ll see many interesting mementos. No photos exist of Tom Dooley, but we learn from the oath of allegiance he took at the end of the Civil War that he had light completion, brown eyes, and stood 5 feet 9 1/2 inches. There are no pictures of Laura Foster, either, but you will find a grainy image of Anne Melton, a picture of defense counselor Zebulon Vance, and photos of many other individuals associated in the case in one way or another. You’ll see a lock of Laura’s hair and a Dooley gravestone.
Having been raised in the community, Edith Carter often heard the stories about Tom Dooley from family and friends during her childhood, and when the Kingston Trio’s song rekindled interest, she was inspired to do a series of illustrations. Many of these drawings are displayed in the museum.
As you head west again on N.C. 268, note the state highway marker on the east side of the bridge crossing the Yadkin. Tom Dooley’s cabin stood nearby, and his gravesite – on private property – is about one-quarter mile away. Continue west another few miles, past the Elkville community, and you’ll come to the gravesite of Laura Foster. This, too, is on private property, but it is visible on the left from the highway and a path leads to the fenced-in burial site. On the opposite side of the roadway is a pull-off with a marker.
If you travel the Tom Dooley trail in July, an appropriate finish to your day would be back in Wilkesboro, attending “Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend,” performed at the Forest’s Edge Amphitheatre, on U.S. 421 North in Wilkesboro’s Historic Fort Hamby Park. The outdoor drama will be staged at 7 p.m. June 28-July 21. Playwright Karen Reynolds has deftly woven many of the prevalent theories about the crime into a compelling drama.
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