For the past 10 years Jeff McWaters has attended the annual Bear on the Square Mountain Festival, which was held on the historic Dahlonega square over the weekend. The two-day festival was rain-or-shine, and this year vendors and visitors had the chance to experience both.
The festival is a collection of the Southern Appalachian culture featuring bluegrass music, eclectic arts, craft vendors and unique tastes of local merchants that only Dahlonega can offer.
“This is Dahlonega’s best festival,” said McWaters.
He and his wife, Deanne Freeman, manage the Etowah River Pottery and Soap tent, featuring his wife’s work.
“I like that every local picker from the tri-county area comes here to pick banjos and bass and guitars and sing ‘I’ll Fly Away,’” he said.
All of the people carrying instruments that come to pick and play really make it a music festival, according to McWaters.
He said last year “folks from as far away as Kentucky and Arizona came here to play bluegrass.”
“There was a huge crowd here yesterday, every corner had somebody picking and a grinning, so it was good fun.”
While Saturday saw a break in the rainy weather, the rain was pouring on Sunday, which is unusual, according to McWaters, “Usually this festival is blessed with beautiful weather. It’ll rain something terrible Friday night and it’ll clear out Saturday morning.”
Visitors made use of the vendor tents and building overhangs, many sporting umbrellas, ponchos and rain gear.
McWaters referred to Sunday as locals’ day because after church people in the area will make their way to the square to see what’s going on and look for good deals.
“On Sunday you have a better chance of scooping up bargains,” he said.
Vendors are ready to pack up and will take a deal to avoid putting stuff back in a box.
Every year Freeman debuts a new bear collection at the festival to commemorate the bear that started it all.
“On a day in April a baby bear wandered into town, got scared and went up the tree,” said McWaters. “We didn’t even have cell phones, but everybody in Lumpkin knew about the bear on the square and everybody came down. They were singing and picking and having a good old time and pointing at the bear, and they decided we should do this every year.
“They couldn’t get the bear to come back, but the festival lived on.”
On the corner of the square in one of the sycamore trees there is a wooden baby bear for everyone to see.
With all the music and crafts and visitors from all over, McWaters added, “This is usually the best festival we work all year, and we do about eight to 10 festivals a year.”
Maria Shepherd and her husband, Howard, who travelled from Canton, braved the weather to see what the festival had to offer. With a jar of blueberry jam in her pocket, Shepherd was glad she did.
“I like rain, so we just thought we’d come up and support everybody and see what we could find that was unique and special,” said Shepherd, adding that she “felt sorry (for) everybody being rained on.”
Shepherd echoed that over the past several years she had never experienced the pouring rain the festival had this weekend, but still decided “rain or shine, let’s just go.”
“We enjoy the bluegrass bands when they play and just the spontaneous guys in the street that sort of group around and they get playing and that’s great,” she said.
This year’s Artist Marketplace featured a record high of 89 booths that were open over the weekend. The featured artists shared their talents through demonstrations, while others displayed a wide range of hand-made crafts, from jewelry and kitchenware to paintings and bath and body items.
“We enjoy the pottery, we enjoy the wood crafts, we like the specialty foods that you can’t just get anywhere, and the whole festival atmosphere,” Shepherd said.