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Column: The stubborn red dirt where Gordon Pirkle's roots run deep
Ronda Rich
Ronda Rich

To halfway understand Gordon Pirkle, you must first look at the rocky, dusty, thirsty ground that helped raise him.

Country folks, especially those deep in the hills and hollers, have a kinship to the land that embeds deeply in our being. It effortlessly becomes a part of who we grow to be.

Pirkle was born in 1936 in the War Hill region of Dawson County during the Great Depression, which was caused by the stock market crashing to smithereens in October of 1929. Not that the Pirkle family noticed. They were no poorer than before. The Pirkle family were blessed with resources that city folks didn’t have —  land, free water from the abundant rivers, fruit trees, wild game and summer gardens that brought forth enough food to see them through the brutal Appalachian winter.

Pirkle’s roots run deep in the most stubborn red dirt I ever saw. There’s something about Dawson County soil that breeds a perfect mountaineer —  one who cannot be beaten by nature, his hands hardened by work, his heart soft toward his neighbors, his pride in his family is long. Most of them will, sooner or later, come to know the Lord.

First off, plenty of ‘em fight God because the Scotch-Irish temperament insists on a man’s full independence and that he should never cede control. But later, a death, an illness, a fire or storm that destroys all he has comes, dropping him to his knees to find the Lord. Then, he will truly be perfect.

Pirkle was raised by devoutly godly people. 

“Mama and Daddy were two of the finest Christians you ever seen,” Pirkle said, swiping his neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. 

He chuckled, “I don’t know what went wrong with me. Just didn’t want to do right, I guess. Had a little devil in me.”

Having known him for many years, I’ve never seen any devil in Pirkle. His temperament is sweet and gentle. If there is a widow in need or a child without shoes, he sees that necessities are provided.

When he was born, around 3,000 people lived in the county, and they all knew each other. That is, at least, the ones they wanted to know. Strangers were mostly not welcome. Pirkle’s grandchildren make them 10th-generation natives, all living within miles of the family farm.

“I’m a seventh-generation member of Liberty Baptist on Daddy’s side and seventh-generation member of Lumpkin County Campground on Mama’s side,” Pirkle said, his brown eyes twinkling. “I was taught right and carried to church but …” he shrugged. 

“Then, later, the Lord took hold of me and straightened me up.”

In the young days, Pirkle tried his skills at moonshine making, moonshine running and anything else that might yield a dollar or two.

“Shoot, I tell anybody that asked, that makin’ moonshine is the hardest work you’ll ever do,” Pirkle said. “Toting them heavy bags of sugar way back in the mountains, watchin’ it all night and tryin’ to out fool the law.” 

One brush with the law for running numbers landed him in federal prison for two years.

“I done it, I ain’t proud of it, but it learned me something,” he said.

Truth be, Pirkle’s time spent with the mountain renegades —  most he called close friends until the separation of death —  laid the foundation for the racing historian that he became.

He knew both the renegades and the righteous. Both sides welcomed him as a friend. Perhaps no one has ever known a history better —  from both sides — than Gordon Pirkle.

In 1983, his Dawsonville Pool Room had become a popular burger joint. No one had any idea what was about to happen to the little town and how it would change forever.

But, no one was better prepared to greet it than Gordon Pirkle.

This is the second in a three-part series on Gordon Pirkle. Sign up for Ronda Rich’s free weekly