Dahlonega locals and visitors alike had a chance to experience the town’s wide array of Appalachian arts and culture as part of the two-day 23rd Bear on the Square festival, which began on Saturday, April 27.
The annual event began in 1997 as a way to showcase local artisans, including the music, art, storytelling and dance, and has attracted from 40 to 50,000 visitors each year, according to Founder and President Glenda Pender.
The festival’s name, Bear on the Square, is in reference to a bear sighting that happened on the Dahlonega square in 1996. Since its start, the festival has sought to recapture the same sense of exhilaration the town felt at the time, and the collective organizers wanted to use that time to pay tribute to the art of the area.
“It created so much real excitement that didn’t go away, and we thought it’d be a good idea to try to maybe bring that excitement around every year in the spring when we needed a jump start in the middle,” Pender said. “Plus, so many of us were really Appalachian culture, bluegrass and old-timey music fans and we played.”
Visitors from Dahlonega and beyond gather every year because of the culture put on display by the musicians, artists and vendors who perform and sell their work.
Jeff McWaters, co-founder of Etowah River Pottery and a Bear on the Square vendor of 15 years, said the event’s sense of camaraderie is what helps it stand out against similar events in the area.
“This is the best festival that we do every year,” McWaters said. “We’ll do John C. Campbell, we’ll do Gold Rush, we’ll do some festivals down in Roswell, and they may be bigger, but this one’s always the best. The best thing about Bear on the Square is it’s just such a good time. You get every picker from the tricounty area to come through the town and they’ll sing ‘I’ll Fly Away’ and then follow that with ‘Rocky Top.’”
While artists who bring wares like pottery, quilts and paintings are a major selling point, most of Bear on the Square centers around local musicians. Several local groups gather around for jam sessions and performances across the Dahlonega Square.
Katie Johnson and Brittany Johnson, Dahlonega citizens who perform on the Square regularly as part of their alternative duo The Heartbreak Chasers, say festival goers seem more attentive to performances at the festival than at Gold Rush, one of Dahlonega’s other annual events.
“The crowd itself is different,” Katie Johnson said. “I feel like people aren’t just here to move through the booths and then leave, they’re here to actually enjoy themselves a little bit more.”
“We get to make eye contact and when people and kids come up we get to interact with families and connect with them on a level we don’t normally get to,” Brittany Johnson said. “Especially since this kind of where we’ve grown and started out. So it’s really nice to be able to give back and connect.”
That sense of unity is something Pender says was at the heart of Bear on the Square at its inception, and is what she and the rest of the organizers hope visitors understand about Dahlonega and Appalachian culture when they leave.
“The best part about it, this sounds kind of trite, this festival is a community in and of itself,” Pender said. “It has heart. I hope they carry away from this a feeling of having been part of a community and values the culture and creativity that belongs in these mountains and now has been brought forth and has a wider influence. [...] A man came up to me and thanked us all for coming up with this idea and making it happen, and he said ‘I don’t live here, but I feel like I’ve come home.’”