Owners of a ghost tour business in Dahlonega say new restrictions from their city could send their operation to an early grave.
In 2014, then-27-year-old Jeremy Sharp created an LLC to bring in cash to help pay the bills while he studied at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega. His idea: A ghost tour, using the Gold City’s rich and sometimes rough history as a foundation for his scary stories.
Being focused on Friday and Saturday evenings, the business fit into his schedule despite the tour’s busiest season of the year, September and October, falling in the middle of the fall semester.
In 2016, he combined his tour with a business owned by his mother, Penny Sharp, and now the pair are equal owners of Dahlonega Walking Tours, which includes the ghost tours and downtown food and pub tours.
The major portion of the ghost tour is an after-dark trip through the Mount Hope Cemetery, which dates back to the early 1800s and is a nexus for interesting and potentially frightening Dahlonega storylines.
“It’s the highlight,” Jeremy Sharp said on Tuesday. “It’s what the tour was designed around. All the stories, they tie into people who are buried there.”
But with the ghost tour’s busy season imminent, there’s a problem: In July, the Dahlonega City Council approved new restrictions for the business that allow the Sharps to only use the cemetery during daylight hours or within 30 minutes of sunset.
The council also created a $250 annual “business regulation fee” to be paid by the Sharps, according to minutes from the Aug. 7 meeting, and requires them to add the city to the business’ liability insurance.
“The killer for us is limiting our tours,” Sharp said. “When we make a good third of our revenue in September or October, it’s because we’re running three or four tours a night. Instead of running three or four tours, we’re only going to be able to run one.”
For the past three years, tours averaging 20 to 25 people each have been led through the cemetery until about 9:15 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. With the new rule, tours will have to be out of the cemetery by 7:50 p.m. at the end of September. By the end of October, the cutoff will be about 7:15 p.m. The cemetery closes to the public at 9 p.m. during the summer months and earlier in the winter.
The worry about people walking in the cemetery after dark was prompted by the land’s proximity to the University of North Georgia’s Dahlonega campus.
“The university police had a concern about illegal activity in the cemetery next to their dorms,” said Dahlonega’s acting mayor, Bruce Hoffman.
With the tours using the area after dark, police wouldn’t know whether people in the cemetery were up to no good or whether they were simply on a tour, Hoffman said.
Dahlonega doesn’t have its own police force and relies on university police and the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement.
The Sharps argue that their tours are a force for good in the cemetery and keep out vandals and other abusers of the property. Along those lines, Lumpkin County Sheriff Stacy Jarrard wrote a letter on the Sharps’ behalf in July.
“I feel that your walking tours could help keep people out that are up to no good,” Jarrard wrote. “Also your presence could help identify people who might be doing something wrong at the time you come through.”
He noted that he “will respect the city’s decision” regarding use of the cemetery, however.
Public skepticism about the tours began building this summer. Dahlonega City Councilman Mitchell Ridley said the council received “numerous emails from people who didn’t want them to use the cemetery.”
Among those opposed to the tours were members of Camp 1860 Blue Ridge Rifles Sons of Confederate Veterans. Camp Commander Tim Ragland told the council in August that there are 69 Confederate veterans buried in the cemetery and their graves should be respected, according to meeting minutes.
Camp historian Terry Grizzle told the city that he was worried about inaccuracies in the historical accounts relayed during the ghost tours.
Sharp’s stories include tales about strife in the North Georgia mountains during the Civil War — bloody stories about conflicts among communities and families who were split about whether to support secessionists and the Confederate cause.
Much of his Civil War history comes from “A Separate Civil War: Communities in Conflict in the Mountain South” by Jonathan Sarris, a textbook about life in the North Georgia mountains during the Civil War.
In his book, Sarris delves into the history of North Georgia communities and families that wanted no part of the Confederacy and the conflict that created in the region with secessionists.
“There was a series of skirmishes that were fought by anti-Confederate families,” Sharp said. “It basically depended on what church you went to, what holler you were in. A lot of people were geographically isolated and didn’t want anything to do with the war.”
But it wasn’t just historians of the Confederacy who objected. Dahlonega families with relatives buried in the cemetery chafed at their loved ones being part of a ghost tale.
“Those family members are still around and it’s still very relevant to them how (their relatives) passed and how they died,” said City Councilman Roman Gaddis. “It may have happened 40 years ago, but it’s still fresh to them because it was a significant loss.”
As part of the restrictions, the council requires the Sharps to allow a city employee to attend tours at no cost and at any time.
Members of the council told The Times that the requirement is no different from giving a code enforcement officer access to a restaurant for an inspection or any other business, but Sharp said he’s feeling pressured to change his stories.
“Is (the employee) going to go back to the city and report me that he didn’t like my history or that I told the story that they don’t like me to tell?” Sharp wondered. “Am I going to get retaliated against? It bothers me so much because I spent so much time researching the history and then I get slapped in the face saying my history isn’t on point.”
Gaddis and Ridley both said the employee would be there only to ensure tourists use their flashlights, walk on the cemetery’s paved areas and don’t step on graves.
“From the city’s perspective, we’re not censoring them in any way,” Gaddis said.
Ridley proposed the sunset compromise for the tours. He said the new rules didn’t stop the business from using the cemetery, especially during daylight hours.
The Sharps said they aren’t sure what to do about the new restrictions or how they’ll handle tours this fall. Jeremy Sharp said he’s reworking his ghost stories to accommodate the new restrictions and hoping the business keeps paying the bills while he finishes his last semester at UNG and moves on to law school.