Craft collectors and food enthusiasts hit it big this weekend at the Gold Rush Days festival on the downtown square in Dahlonega.
The Dahlonega Jaycees organized the two-day festival that celebrated its 53rd year with more than 300 booths featuring down-home cooking and homemade items such as jewelry, clothes, candles, quilts and toys.
The festival boasted one of its largest crowds this year, drawing visitors from surrounding areas for the event, which honors the discovery of gold in Dahlonega in 1828.
"We had more than 250,000 people," said Sabrina Gooch, Gold Rush Days chairwoman. "It’s been more this year than in the past.
"It was a beautiful weekend," she said. "Everybody wants a funnel cake, roasted corn on the cob and a Bayou Billy Home Brew."
"Bayou Billy" has been selling his beer at Gold Rush Days for several years.
Gold Rush Days visitors also enjoyed fresh sweet potato biscuits, fried cheese and frozen chocolate-dipped cheesecakes as a parade of 98 vehicles and floats, 35 horses and eight horse-covered wagons traveled down Main Street on Saturday afternoon. Several antique tractors, local marching bands and ROTC cadets from Lumpkin and White county high schools followed parade grand marshal Jason Isgrigg, a North Georgia College student who is in the military and has been to Iraq twice.
Shilo Bruhl, vice president of management for the festival, said at least nine streets were shut down to make way for the parade, vendors and inflatable park for children.
Other children’s activities included face-painting, panning for gold and Dr. Seuss-inspired hairstyling that Bruhl called "Fairhair."
Sandra and Johnny Smith were crowned king and queen of the festival on Saturday before the parade. Bruhl said Dahlonega residents nominate candidates for the crown, and then the Jaycees vote to determine two people who have "made a difference in Lumpkin County" and feature them in the parade. "It’s a tradition of this town," Bruhl said. "This town is very prideful of this town and their traditions."
Elementary school students learn from a young age about the royalty at Gold Rush Days. Each year, Lumpkin County elementary schools participate in Old Fashioned Day in the weeks prior to the festival, where students honor former Gold Rush Days kings and queens with a luncheon.
Bruhl said several residents who annually participate have helped build the strong tradition surrounding Gold Rush Days.
Benny Armour and his family were responsible for the six-horse drawn wagon that pulled Isgrigg during the parade. Bruhl said this year marks the 32nd year the Armours’ wagon has led the grand marshal down Main Street.
And Doc Johnson has acted as emcee for the numerous contests held at the festival for more than five years now. He leads the competitors through many contests, including matches between cloggers, wheelbarrow racers, hog callers, liars, bearded men, cross-cut sawers and buck dancers. And then there’s the culminating contests, where wrist wrestlers and gold panners draw crowds of participants’ friends and family.
"The guys love it," Bruhl said. "It’s a huge attraction."
With the money raised from contest entry and booth fees, the Dahlonega Jaycees are able to give back to the community.
Gooch said that all the money the Jaycees collect at Gold Rush helps them to fund charitable events, such as sending handicapped children to Camp Dream in Warm Springs, or funding college scholarships for seniors graduating from Lumpkin County High School.
But roughly $20,000 of the funds raised from Gold Rush Days goes to a program called White Christmas, Bruhl said. White Christmas benefits disadvantaged children and their families during the Christmas season. Families are given clothing, toys and a Christmas dinner, she said.
Several booths are also established at the festival to raise funds for other charities.
Shanna Cochran of Cherokee County attends North Georgia College and sold sweet tea at the festival with Phi Mu sorority to raise funds for the Children’s Miracle Network.
"You get to see a lot of old friends and spend the day together," she said. "It’s a fun weekend. No schoolwork gets done on the weekend of Gold Rush."