There's more than gold in "them thar hills"!

By Becky Samford, Duluth, Norcross, Johns Creek & Peachtree Corners Macaroni Kid Publisher March 8, 2015
Is you family staying in town for Spring Break? Exactly one hour from our front door in Duluth, straight up 400, is an exciting day-trip close to home! 

Katie, Johnny and I arrived in Dahlonega, GA. early one morning for a fun filled adventure. After a quick stop at the Dahlonega-Lumpkin Visitors Center in the heart of downtown for maps and brochures about things to see and do, we walked around the Public Square on the way to our first stop. The square is lined with a plethora of shops ranging from country stores, clothing boutiques, toy & antique shops to cafes, fudge shops, ice cream parlors and wine tasting rooms. You could literally spend the day just shopping and noshing! But we had gold fever and were anxious to get to our first destination.

In 1965 Dahlonega built a new modern courthouse and sold the old one to the state of Georgia for $10.00. Built in 1836, the oldest surviving courthouse in Georgia is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now the home of the Dahlonega Gold Museum. This is particularly apropos since the building is made from local, hand-made bricks that actually contain flecks of gold! We headed upstairs to the old court room to watch "America's First Gold Rush", a 17-minute film about the first gold rush, not in California, but right here in Georgia!

In the late 1820's, over 15,000 prospectors from all over the country descended on the lands of the Cherokee Nation in north Georgia. The film explains who found the first gold nugget and where, why that land is now called Cherokee County, what happened to the Indians, what Dahlonega means and why Georgia's gold is more valuable than that found in California. We were fascinated with all of the old photos showing the daily life of miners, how massive the gold mining industry became and what a large area of land was involved. We even saw one of the large hydraulic cannons used to blast soil from the mountainsides.
We were amazed to learn that so much gold was found, that Congress approved one of the first branch mints to be built in Dahlonega to mint the coins. Along with many other interesting artifacts in the museum downstairs, we were able to see one of only three known complete set of Dahlonega minted coins, which are the most rare collectible coins in the United States. These coins have a distinctive green-gold color that is due to the alloy's high silver content.
Be sure to allow several hours to explore everything. The museum is staffed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and these curators were so knowledgeable and interesting, that we almost missed our lunch reservation! 

By the time we hurriedly walked the 2 blocks to The Smith House, we had worked up quite an appetite. Touted as a world-famous, family-style dining establishment, they definitely live up to their reputation! After serving us sweet iced tea, they loaded up our table with some of the best fried chicken I ever tasted, ham slices, stewed cabbage, creamy mashed potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, crispy fried okra, green beans, creamed sweet corn, collard greens, slaw, macaroni & cheese, corn bread and fluffy biscuits with butter and jelly! It's all you can eat, so just when we thought we could not possibly eat one more delicious bite and still walk out of the door, they brought peach cobbler for dessert!
Although I was in serious need of a nap at this point, Johnny and Katie got a second wind and were raring to go see the Gold Mine Shaft under the Smith House. While building the house, a worker unexpectedly punched a hole into a mine shaft below. Leaving it exposed and glassed over, it provides an exciting finale to a fabulous country meal! 

On our walk back to the car, we stopped to see the Chestatee River Diving Bell, a free outdoor exhibit on the other side of the Public Square. This is possibly the only remaining example of a 19th Century diving bell in existence. Dating from the Civil War, the huge iron bell, measuring 6 by 14 by 8 feet high, was brought to Dahlonega in 1875. When lowered down to the river bed, air was pumped in to expel the water, so men could mine gold from the bottom of the Chestatee River. One year after it's arrival, the barge on which it sat sank into the river and the bell was forgotten until it was discovered in 1983. Fully restored, it was placed on display in 2003. We had a lively discussion trying to figure out how the miners got into and out of the bell. We still don't know!
Just two and a half miles from town, at the Crisson Gold Mine, you can see the only working stamp mill in Georgia. Over 130 years old, it is still used today to crush gold bearing quartz. Part of the gold on the Georgia State Capitol dome came out of the Crisson Mine, and they used the stamp mill to find it. 

Dating back to 1847, the Crisson Gold Mine was owned and operated by the Crisson Family for four generations. Beginning as a tunnel mine, when more modern equipment was invented, all the tunnels were dug out and it was turned into an open pit mine, which is more productive. 

Opened to the public in 1969, it is the oldest gold panning establishment in Georgia. Their expert instructors will teach you the exciting art of gold panning. You can purchase ore by the pan, bucket, wheel barrel, or even a tractor scoop. More serious miners can purchase the raw ore, use their crusher, then pan it all in one process.

The Crisson Mine has several different exhibits including a mining museum, machinery, shaker tables, and other methods of processing the quartz to extract the gold and even an old moonshine still display. 
Our last stop was Consolidated Gold Mines. After a short film about the mining operation and a quick wagon ride to the mine, we traveled 200 feet underground for a 40 minute underground adventure in the largest hard rock gold mine east of the Mississippi River. This was definitely Johnny's favorite activity of the trip, especially wearing the miners hard hat! We had been forewarned that the mine is 60 degrees year round and were thankful to have our jackets with us. Our guide was extremely  knowledgeable. We learned so much about how they mined the gold and the dangers they faced. But he was also hilarious! He kept the kids entertained the whole time and patiently answered all of their questions. Another highlight for Johnny was seeing the bats that live in the mines. Don't freak out... there were only two and they were both asleep, but we got a great close-up look at them. 

The time just flew by and before we knew it we were back on the surface and ready to try our luck at panning for some gold, which is included in the price to tour the mine. After receiving our sand-filled pan, the staff taught us to pan like a pro! Gold, which is heavier than sand, sinks to the bottom and after a few minutes of swishing in the water, eureka!...we saw a few gold flecks in our pans!

We didn't strike it rich panning for gold, so we decided to try our luck at "Gemstone Grubbin". We bought a large bucket of dirt, swished in the water again, but this time, our screen pans came up loaded with jewels! One of the staff separated the rocks from "the good stuff". Most were quarts of different colors and I also found a "dessert rose" rock which was very unusual. But to my amazement, we found 2 large amethysts, a smoky topaz and a citrine, plus a thumb-nail size ruby, 2 aquamarines and an emerald! I was flabbergasted!

We took our treasure to The Gem Studio, an onsite lapidary that can cut and polish rough gems. Their gemologist, Mary, further divided our jewels and advised us which would be the best choices for jewelry. The amethyst that Katie found was a beautiful dark purple and large enough for me to have it made into a pendant for her as a memento of this trip. She LOVED it!!  And, my emerald was large enough to make a gorgeous ring for myself, which I adore!
What an exciting adventure! We browsed through country stores, ate way too much comfort food, has lots of learning opportunities about Georgia history, gold mining and even bats plus we scored some pretty nice bling! Now, that's my kind of staycation!

Disclosure Statement: Thank you to the Dahlonega Visitors Center, the Dahlonega Gold Museum, The Smith House, the Crisson Gold Mine, Consolidated Gold Mine and The Gem Studio for inviting us to be their guests for the purpose of this review. As always, the opinions expressed are my own. 
Please follow the links above to their websites for more information.