I thank God every day that I live in Dahlonega and not somewhere else. Like Clayton County.
I have great memories of the town and Lumpkin County. Of course, it helps when your family's been around these parts since the early 1800s.
I come from a long line of gold miners and moonshiners. My Granddaddy, Bob Free, used to pan for gold anytime his family needed money for necessities. My cousin spent time in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for making moonshine. Other cousins never got caught.
I have more than a lifetime of stories, which I tell with only the slightest embellishment since truth is stranger--and in my case, better--than fiction. Which means I don't have to make anything up. So, here go some memories:
--Uncle Johnny's Dairy Queen caught on fire early one Sunday morning. I don't remember much, other than the smoke coming out the back of the building and Uncle Johnny sliding down the "bank" behind his house (he and Aunt Rutha lived next to the DQ) in an undershirt and trousers, buckling his belt as he slid. Someone had left the fry cooker on the night before and it caught on fire. The fire was extinguished, Uncle Johnny was...mad, and the Dairy Queen is still there today.
--over at the "milk house" (Uncle Johnny owned the Better Maid milk distributorship) I had all the chocolate milk and King Sun orange juice I wanted. I helped unload tractor trailers full of loaded milk crates more than once, and caught my hand between two crates on several occasions. On Saturday mornings, Luke Carder (another cousin) and Gene would crank up Uncle Johnny's race car, a 1956 Ford Fairlane with straight pipes from the exhaust headers. You could hear it all over town, since the milk house was two blocks from the Square. Uncle Johnny later sold that car to a fellow from North Carolina who wanted to get his son Dale his first modified stock car.
--going to the Holly Theater with Sheriff Ralph Ridley's daughter Jana. We were ten or eleven years old and in love. Her daddy didn't think so. After he talked to me, neither did I.
--racing my cousin up Wahsega Road towards Grandma Berry's house. We called it "straightening the road" since Wahsega Road was a series of "S" curves all the way to the Ranger Camp. We weren't trying to break the law; we just couldn't wait to see Grandma and Grandpa.
--Grandma Berry made the absolute best fried apple pies I've ever had. You could put one on top of your head and your tongue would fly up and slap your brains out.
--Grannie Free made the best apple pie in a pan I've ever had. And the best biscuits, a trait she handed down to her daughter, my Mama. If you've never had milk gravy and homemade biscuits, you haven't lived. Cracker Barrel wishes desperately they had Grannie's/Mama's biscuits. They don't.
--the Courthouse was in the center of the Square in Dahlonega. There was a covered wagon sitting off the road as you went south out of town, up the two-lane road to Crown Mountain, the wagon Lumpkin Countians used when they delivered gold to Atlanta to cover the Capitol dome. Now there's a McDonald's there. Something is wrong with this picture.
--Lumpkin County was the second-poorest county in Georgia at one time. The poorest? Dawson county. I'm not so sure we're not poor again. We've been taken over by "come-heres" who know much better than natives what Dahlonega needs. What used to be a gold-minin', moonshinin' town has gotten respectable. And lost its soul in the process.
But out where I live, in the heart of Auraria--gold-mining country--I see the mist some mornings as I drive to work. Cherokees walking, I've been told, on the Trail of Tears. My ancestors walked by the creek that flows in my backyard, some to Oklahoma, some to their death. I feel them in the mist.
It's quiet in the country, the kind of quiet I knew a generation ago in Dahlonega. Before the imported collectable shops on the Square, there was Kenimer's Grocery, Dahlonega Ford, Fred Jones Chevrolet, the Holly Theater, the Pure Oil gas station. And one traffic signal, with the red light on the bottom and the green light on top. You were a dead man if you were color blind.
I listen to the birds in the morning, the deer at dusk, and the bears during the night. It's heaven on earth.
Just like Dahlonega used to be. And still is, in my memories.