Dahlonega is back in the gold business.
The bustling Lumpkin County city revolves around a town square, transporting visitors back to the good ‘ol days. At the center of that square was an old log cabin, but in 1829, when thousands of gold miners descended on the city, it needed a courthouse to keep things in order.
Dahlonega Gold Museum
When: 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday–Saturday; 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Sunday
Where: 1 Public Square, Dahlonega
How much: $8.50 for adults, $8 for seniors, $6 for youth and free for children 6 and under
Contact: 706-864-2257, gastateparks.org/DahlonegaGoldMuseum
In 1836, the building that stands at 1 Public Square North in Dahlonega was built as that courthouse, and in 1965, it was almost demolished after a new courthouse was built. To save it, the state bought it, and on July 1, 1967, it opened as the Dahlonega Gold Museum.
For the past three years, a new plan for the museum has been in the works. On Monday, June 18, that plan — a $550,000 renovation — was completed.
“We got all new exhibits and basically did a complete 180 of what we did have,” said Sam McDuffie, historic site manager at the museum. “They’ve added bits and pieces over time, but this is the biggest overhaul we’ve had.”
The only thing that remained the same were the historical artifacts. New, large glass panels displaying information were installed along with a few interactive pieces and layout changes.
With about 26,000 visitors each year, the museum is one of Georgia’s most visited state historic sites. It needed upgrades to keep visitors coming and local residents involved.
“The three themes that this renovation consisted of was the old Lumpkin County courthouse, the gold rush of 1829 and the Dahlonega Mint,” McDuffie said. “So everything you see in the new renovations are actually tying back to those themes.”
In the theater upstairs, part of the carpet has been removed, exposing the original hardwood floor where court proceedings once took place. The judge’s chambers and jury room have remained the same, but with a few new props added.
A large wall separating that area from the rest of the theater has been installed with a photo of the courthouse spanning the entire wall to give a sense of what it felt like to walk in, McDuffie said.
“We want people to come in here and realize that ‘Hey, this is a museum,’” McDuffie said. “This is something that we want to share, and it’s something that we want to be able to share through many, many generations to come.”
New exhibits were installed in the theater that show different methods used to mine for gold. A new rotating exhibit, “Discovery Drawers,” was added. Knobs on certain drawers allow guests to open them and see different artifacts.
One of the biggest changes is the actual theater. After the curtain that divided the room was removed, sun came through a window and shone on the screen. The museum flipped it around to avoid that.
“That curtain was from the 1970s or 1980s, so it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing thing to see,” McDuffie said. “The whole museum renovation was amazing, but this has probably been my favorite thing out of all of it because it really transformed this room.”
Downstairs, plenty of renovations and rearrangements have taken place, too. An exhibit on the “Trail of Tears,”
the forced relocation of Native American Cherokee in the 19th century from the Southeast to reservations in Oklahoma, used to be the first exhibit visitors would see. Now, it is in another room and takes up an entire wall. An exhibit on Benjamin Parks, who is often attributed as the person whose discovery of gold led to nation’s first gold rush, has replaced it.
“I think it changes the narrative slightly,” said Marcia Bennett, exhibit guide at the museum. “At first, I was concerned about that because as important as Benjamin Parks is, he’s not the origin of the North Georgia gold rush story.”
After the “Trail of Tears” exhibit was moved to another room and given a larger space, Bennett was happy with the new display.
“We still want to share the history of Dahlonega, but we want to express it in a visually modern way and that’s what we kind of did,” McDuffie said.
The biggest change downstairs is the location of the safe. It used to sit behind the welcome desk, but it now has its own room and new safe. McDuffie said it’s the only one of its kind, “made specifically for this renovation.” It houses more than $1 million in gold coins, so security was increased during the renovation.
“Because the coins are so small and it’s kind of hard to read them, what we wanted to do with this room for guests and visitors is post some of the coins on the wall, larger designs of them so people could see the detail,” McDuffie said.
The gift shop was renovated and stocked with new items. That’s where Sally Martin, a rising sixth-grader at Da Vinci Academy in Hall County, spent time before she left with her family and some colorful rocks. She was visiting for her first time and said her friends would like the museum.
“I love the fact that it’s in this beautiful historic building,” said Phoebe Martin, her mother. “I love the fact that the community is making use of a historic building. It’s absolutely beautiful.”
That’s the reaction McDuffie has seen from most people since the renovations. He said he feels the same way.
“I’m ecstatic about it,” McDuffie said. “I’ve already enjoyed seeing people’s reactions because, I mean, it really did give it a modern feel, but a pleasing feel. But I’m excited about it. I think the staff is excited about it. ... It’s top-notch. They’ve done it well.”