DAHLONEGA, Ga. — One cannot visit Dahlonega without being overwhelmed by its gold history. It’s said the first gold was discovered by accident as a man stumbled over a big nugget of gold while out in the woods one day. That accidental discovery led to thousands coming to the North Georgia mountain town in search of their fortunes. From panning in streams to strip mining and digging mines into the mountains, the town became a frenzy of gold fever.
With the establishment of the Dahlonega Mint, gold was coined using Dahlonega gold. Before it closed in 1861, it had minted almost 1.5 million gold coins with a face value of more than $6 million.
All of this history and more can be learned at the Gold Museum, formerly the old Lumpkin County Courthouse. It was built in 1836, and many of its bricks are flecked with bits of gold. The museum includes a gift shop, a movie in what was once the courtroom where trials were held, pieces of equipment used in gold mining and replicas of a jury room and judge’s office.
If you have time, take the Crime and Punishment Tour around the old courthouse and town square to learn how justice was dealt back in the 1800s and early 1900s. You might ask yourself: If only one year was given for murder, what about moonshine, hog thieving, jail breaks and bank robberies? You’ll be surprised at the answer.
GO FOR THE GOLD
If you’d like to try panning for gold yourself, two gold mines offer tours that include a lesson in panning. And you can take home the gold.
Consolidated Gold Mine takes “miners” 200 feet beneath the earth in a mine that was once the largest in the county. It’s a tour that opens your eyes to the hazards of gold mining and the men who worked for pennies a day. When finished, take time to pan for gold yourself. It’s not as easy at it looks, but gold pros are on hand to show you the right way to force water through the sand in the pan and bottle up your gold when done.
Crisson Gold Mine is one of two working gold mines in the United States. Mine owner Tony Ray uses a large stamping machine that crushes quartz from the nearby hills. It’s a loud process, but the result is enough gold to keep the mine going, including enough to help wrap Atlanta’s capitol dome in gold. The tour at Crisson is an above-ground, self-guided tour that ends in an opportunity to pan for gold as well as mine for gems — sapphires, Amazonite, tiger’s eye and others — in dirt/sand brought over from nearby North Carolina.
A visit to Crisson or Consolidated is truly a treasure hunt that’s fun for families, or just on your own. You never know what treasures lie beneath.
ON THE SQUARE
Downtown Dahlonega is wrapped around the town square with historic structures from the 1800s, now housing restaurants, crafts and retail shops, like the General Store where whoopie cushions and Slinkies are stocked next to shelves filled with jars of Georgia peach preserves and bags of grits. Or open the door to Humble Candles, and you may discover what heaven smells like.
The Square is also home to Paul Thomas Chocolates, a shop filled with handmade pottery by Brad Walker and a number of gift and clothing stores.
If you want a bird’s-eye view of the town square, enjoy a meal on the second-story porch at Bourbon Street Grille. Overlooking the Gold Museum and the busyness of the square on any given day, it’s a place where you can relax with a cold glass of tea or cocktail and order from a menu of Cajun favorites.
Just off the square, you’ll find The Smith House, which has been serving Southern cooking family style for 100 years, making it one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants in Georgia. It’s famous for its platters of fried chicken and country-fried steak, bowls of vegetables, hand-mashed potatoes and homemade desserts.
A stone’s throw from the square is Accent Cellars, one of several wineries on the Dahlonega Wine Trail and the only one within the city limits. The tasting room is open seven days a week and is open until 8 most evenings, with live music Fridays and Saturdays.
A TOWN WITH TALENT
As you walk out of the General Store, it’s hard not to notice the booth housing Zelda’s Fortunes. Put your coin in the slot and have your fortune told. I had no idea what a fixture she is in Dahlonega until sitting in the audience at Canopy + The Roots, a coffee bar on street level and music venue in the basement.
Singer-songwriter Radford Windham was the first onstage this evening, and his first song was all about Zelda.
Roots is part of the town’s thriving arts community and gives locals a chance to show their talent. Windham is a high-school teacher. Then there was Sam McDuffie, director of tourism for the Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Convention & Visitors Burea, who sang his original tunes and played guitar. Hughes Taylor has toured the U.S. and U.K., but calls Dahlonega home and plays his blues-rock at Roots. Music store owner John Grimm played the fiddle, and Betsy Grimm of the band Bloodkin and who has written songs for Widespread Panic, was there to play. There’s something going on most every night at Roots, whether it be music or comedy. Check out the schedule at canopyandtheroots.com.
Holly Theater is another arts venue that offers a different, more formal experience than its neighbor, Canopy + Roots. The theater opened as the town’s moviehouse in 1948, and now, on the National Register of Historic Places, is the place where full-scale productions are performed onstage five times annually. The Holly is also the scene of an annual film festival and also a place for tribute band concerts. For a schedule of events, visit hollytheater.com.
SPENDING THE NIGHT?
There are only 804 rooms in Dahlonega/Lumpkin County, and that includes all known Airbnb’s and other rental properties. The town is known for its many festivals, from Gold Rush Days in October to the Christmas season and, in spring, the Dahlonega Arts and Wine Festival. During festival seasons, rooms are at a premium and often hard to come by. So what that means is planning ahead and making reservations.
Some suggestions that are convenient and on or near the town square are Dahlonega Square Hotel, rooms at The Smith House, Hall House Hotel, Twenty Seven on Park and Holiday Inn Express and Suites.
Interested in discovering Dahlonega? Log onto dahlonega.org to learn more about its restaurants, hotels and wineries.