Thousands of people gathered in Dawsonville this weekend to toast the 40th Annual Mountain Moonshine Festival.
"There were at least 150,000 people this year," said Gordon Pirkle, a director of the KARE for Kids Inc. program that coordinates the festival. He said the festival raised about $50,000 last year that helped provide clothing, toys and holiday meals for disadvantaged families and children in Dawson County.
"We provide assistance for kids year-round," said Calvin Byrd, president of KARE for Kids Inc. "We helped over 250 kids with back-to-school supplies and medicines this year, and last year we helped 200 families and 500 kids during Christmas."
The two-day festival honored Dawsonville’s heritage of moonshine and fast cars with three live entertainment stages featuring cloggers and musicians, more than 400 food and craft vendors, a Saturday parade led by NASCAR legend Bobby Allison and a showcase of more than 300 shiny old cars.
"Dawsonville has always been known as the moonshine capital of the world," Pirkle said.
Dating back to the Prohibition era of the 1920s, moonshiners operated stills "up in the hills" and transported the corn whiskey to Atlanta, said David Sosebee, a volunteer with the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame in Dawsonville. "Trippers" drove black cars down Ga. 9 without headlights, and hauled the illegal liquor to Atlanta with only the moonlight to show the way, he said. After prohibition was repealed in 1933, drivers raced through the hills to dodge revenuers who attempted to tax their alcohol operation.
"They got away with a good bit," Sosebee said. "You didn’t want to get caught, so then moonshiners started talking about how my car’s faster than yours ... People started racing in the cornfields to see who had the fastest car ... and people started showing up to see this event on Sunday," Pirkle said.
And thus was the birth of stock car racing in Dawsonville.
Although the stars of the festival are the nearly 70-year-old "‘40 Fords" that were celebrated as moonshine haulers and early stock racing cars, the event didn’t begin until 1967. That fall, Fred Goswick, who ran a moonshine museum at the time, set up a table to sell goods to folks flocking to the mountains, Pirkle said.
"It wasn’t real popular to start with with some of the churches," he added.
But the festival grew to encompass not only the sale of baked goods and locally made crafts, but also incorporated the growing tradition of stock car racing made famous by Dawsonville natives such as 93-year-old festival attendee Raymond Parks, whose team won the first NASCAR-sanctioned race in 1948 at the Daytona Beach Road Course.
The festival was preceded by a Friday night induction ceremony that granted eight new members entry into the Thunder Road USA Georgia Racing Hall of Fame in Dawsonville. Phil Bonner, Bruce "Crash" Brantley, Billy Carden, Harvey L. Jones Sr., Paul McDuffie, Jody Ridley, Roy Shoemaker and Linda Vaughn were acknowledged for their contributions to the sport of stock car racing.
The 11th Annual Galaxie Nationals were also held at the festival, where 100 cars, some from as far away as Oregon and Wisconsin, registered to participate in the competition for a 42-inch first-place trophy. Car owners pitted their automobiles against one another to win prizes for best in show, best paint and best engine.
"We had 100 cars registered, 165 total in town and parked all over," said Lamar Owen, director of the Atlanta Galaxie Chapter of the Ford Galaxie Club of America. "It’s the second largest showing of Galaxies anyone can recall in the last 15 years," he said.
Robin Smith, director of the festival’s parking lot car show, said that on Saturday, more than 300 cars filled the lot and paraded through the city.
"It was all for a good cause, for the kids," she said.
Although cars are well advertised at the festival, the moonshine is a bit more difficult to find.
But it’s around.
Pirkle said that you can legally purchase some of Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon at RK Package Store on Prestige Lane off Ga. 400 in Dawsonville.
Pirkle, who has participated in organizing the festival for the past 38 years, said that all genuine moonshine is real clear like vodka, and that Johnson’s shine is no exception.
"I’ve had some before," he said. "It’s pretty good."