The story of Tom Dooley has long been a familiar folktale in Wilkes County, commemorated in story and song.
And an outdoor production about the story has been drawing audiences in Wilkesboro for close to 20 years now. “Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend” starts its 18th season this Thursday, with nine performances in July each year, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
“In 1999, I was approached by Steve Critz, a board member for Wilkes Playmakers, to write a stage play about the hanging of Tom Dooley,” said playwright Karen Reynolds.
Tom Dooley — actually “Dula,” but the name was misspelled based on the dialect of the time — was a Civil War veteran from Wilkes County who was accused of the murder of his sweetheart, Laura Foster, and hanged in 1868. The case became the subject of much speculation, leading to many conflicting accounts of the events that led to the murder and a popular “murder ballad” that became a hit for the Kingston Trio in 1958. Reynolds grew up hearing about the story, and has family connections to it.
The play features David Wingler as Tom, Lakyn Parrish as Laura, and Brittany Daemer as Anne Melton — a rival for Tom’s affections who is also a suspect in the case.
“My father ran a grocery store in Elkville/Ferguson where the murder of Laura Foster took place,” Reynolds said. “My great-great-great-grandfather, Calvin Cowles — the storekeeper in the play — ran a store there as well.
“I listened many times to people tell the story in the store growing up, and listened to the debates going on about what really happened.”
She was particularly intrigued by the fact that the people often engaged in those debates were the descendants of the actual people involved in the case — Meltons, Triplettes, Fergusons, Dulas, Fosters. She said she found it interesting “observing how these families still interacted with each other based on the story and their familys’ part in it. Historical influence and stories passed down from generation to generation fascinate me.”
The play was first performed indoors, with sold-out performances, for several years, she said. “Later, I was approached by Terry Ramsey with the Corps of Engineers at W. Kerr Scott Dam & Reservoir to consider adapting the play for outdoor performances.
“He was interested in building an amphitheater at historical Fort Hamby Park in Wilkesboro, in an effort to boost park use and offer entertainment within the park to campers.”
The notion of turning the stage play into an outdoor drama gave her a chance to create “more of a spectacle — the bigger the better — so I added a Civil War scene,” she said. Thanks to Doug Cotton, a retired captain of the Wilkes Sheriff’s Department’s Bomb Squad, they have incorporated pyrotechnics into the show. “We also use an outdoor campfire and torches,” she said. “We’ve added explosives and fire!”
For the past eight years it has operated under the non-profit Bleu Moon Productions. About 2,500 to 3,000 people attend the nine performances each year.