Hidden away in small corner of the North Georgia Mountains is the perfect example of a typical historic southern small town — combining a picturesque town square, gold mining operations, and an old-timey general store with a lot of yuppified antique shops, wineries, and gourmet food emporia. Dahlonega is a nice mix of yesterday and today, a pleasant escape from the big-city hustle and bustle.
When most people think of the gold rush, they picture miners panning in streams throughout California — but the whole phenomenon actually started on the east coast. While there is some dispute about who has the first documented gold discovery in the U.S. (a mine in North Carolina claims a start date of 1799), the Georgia gold rush began near Dahlonega in 1828, when a deer hunter tripped over a rock that turned out to be almost solid ore — that's twenty years before anyone thought to look for a nugget out west. Gold was so plentiful that you could find it lying around on the ground and washing off the mountainsides in creeks and streams — the first miners gathered up their treasure by hand, like they were at a strike-it-rich Easter egg hunt!
Of course, with more than 15,000 fortune-seekers scouring the area, it didn't take long for the surface gold to disappear, forcing the search to go underground. In 1880, The Consolidated Gold Mine was opened, considered the first attempt at systematic, deep underground mining in the east. Where you find quartz veins, you're likely to find gold. While most veins are around 2-3 inches thick — the folks at Consolidated discovered veins as large as 22 feet (not inches) thick! And thanks to that vein, the mine broke a record by bringing in more than 54 pounds of ore in a single day (I would have loved that haul when gold was at $1,200 an ounce!) Once the boom stopped booming, the mine was abandoned for 75 years until it was taken over by a coal mining family from Kentucky, and turned into an educational and tourist attraction.
The tour is not a long one, but full of interesting anecdotes. The mine ran seven days a week — and the local churchgoers were so offended by folks working on the sabbath, that they would block the road leading up to the mine on Sunday mornings (until the miners started fighting back and blocking the road to the church!) Apparently, this operation was so massive that you could hear the banging and hammering for up to 25 miles away, and when our guide cranked up a working 1903 Drifter drill, I thought my eardrums were going to pop — I'm amazed any of those miners managed to reach middle age with their hearing intact! The working conditions were terrible — 14-hour shifts, no fresh air, no sunlight, breathing in rock dust, doing the kind of repetitive and physically-exhausting work that turns you into an old man in your 40's, and risking death at every turn. There were so many ways to kick the bucket in a gold mine — a collapsing shaft, a misfired bit of dynamite, touching an exposed electrical wire while standing in a puddle of water, being run down by a mine car. But the pay was better than any other job available to an unskilled worker at the time, so I guess folks thought it was worth the risk. And it's good that someone is reminding people who sit on their butts in an office all day what “earning a living” used to mean!
While Dahlonega is best known for gold mining, you can find lots of other little bits of history scattered around the city. The old jail is filled with memorabilia from the 1800's, Mount Hope Cemetery is filled with Civil War veterans, and nearly every house along Hawkins and Park has a story to tell. The buildings around the square date back as early as 1836, the oldest being the Lumpkin County Courthouse (which is now a gold museum.) But some things are more authentic than others — for example, Woody's Barber Shop has been in continuous operation since 1926, but the General Store only opened in the 1970's (still, they make a mean 5-cent cup of coffee!)
And did you know that “D” minted coins from 1838-1861 are not actually from the Denver mint, but from Dahlonega? Yes, this backwater little town in Georgia was the site of the second U.S. mint, after the original one in Philadelphia started cranking out currency in 1792. It was seized by the confederates during the Civil War, subsequently shut down, and never reopened after the conflict ended. But you can still see the original buildings if you wander around the campus of the North Georgia College — they took over the property in 1873.
The square is a pleasant enough place to waste some time, as long as you don't mind shops that are heavily geared toward helping tourists lighten their wallet — if folks ever lose their taste for fudge and handmade crafts, towns like Dahlonega with dry up and blow away! But it's fun to wander through the antique stores exclaiming, “My grandmother used to have that!” — ooh-ing and ahh-ing over reproduction slingshots and cat's eye marbles. And even if you're not a fan of southern cuisine, you should try the roasted peanuts (best in the country), something made from Vidalia onions (dressing, chutney, marinade, whatever), and possibly a muscadine port wine (good to pair with a stinky cheese, and lots of antioxidants.)
But what makes Dahlonega special is its devotion to bluegrass and old-timey music. Nearly any weekend, you'll find at least one or two groups playing somewhere in town, usually out on the square for all to enjoy. And Dahlonega hosts several music festivals throughout the year that feature nationally-known and local talent, as well as handicrafts, storytelling, and dancing. One of the biggest is “Bear On The Square” in the spring — commemorating the day a black bear wandered into the square (it's a wonderful weekend, but someone was really reaching for a festival theme!) If you like a-pickin' and a-grinnin', be sure to check out the city's performance schedule before heading to town!
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Ramona Creel is an award-winning 15-year veteran organizer and member of the National Association Of Professional Organizers. As well as having birthed “The A-To-Z Of Getting Organized,” Ramona is also the author of “The Professional Organizer’s Bible: A Slightly Irreverent And Completely Unorthodox Guide For Turning Clutter Into A Career”—and the creator of more than 200 “quick-start” business tools and templates for use by productivity professionals. She writes seven different blogs, has worked with hundreds of clients, and has delivered scores of presentations on getting organized. Ramona resides on the roads of America as a full-time RVer—living and working in a 29-foot Airstream with The Husbert and two fur-babies. Learn more at GettingOrganizedAToZ.com and RamonaCreel.com.
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