Mike Clark walks 200 feet underground into the Consolidated Gold Mine in Dahlonega, Ga. (pop. 3,638), and shines a flashlight onto a large nugget embedded in the ceiling of the century-old mine.
"See that?" asks Clark while leading a tour of the cool, dark mineshaft. "That's what dreams are made of."
Dahlonega, the site of the nation's first gold rush in 1829, long has attracted prospectors hoping to strike it rich, or at least try their luck at finding a few flakes of the precious metal.
Named for a Cherokee Indian word that means yellow or golden, Dahlonega was established in 1833, five years after deer hunter Benjamin Parks stumbled upon a gold-laden rock, sparking a stampede of 15,000 miners into the foothills of northeast Georgia.
When many of the miners prepared to head west in 1849 with the discovery of gold in California, local assayer Matthew F. Stephenson pleaded with them to stay by pointing to nearby Findley Ridge and proclaiming, "Theres millions in it," which gave rise to the expression "Thars gold in them thar hills."
Today, Dahlonega is a thriving community of small shops, restaurants and inns that capitalize on the appeal of small-town Southern charm and the eternal allure of gold.
"Gold brought us into being and it's our gold-mining heritage that keeps us growing," says Ann Amerson, 70, author of eight history books about Dahlonega, her hometown.
Evidence of Dahlonega's gold mining past is showcased throughout the town. The Dahlonega Gold Museum, housed in the 1836 Lumpkin County Courthouse, chronicles the regions mining history and contains a complete collection of gold coins produced by the Dahlonega branch of the U.S. Mint, which stamped $6 million in coinage from 1838 to 1861.
The Dahlonega Branch Mint building burned in 1878, providing the foundation for Price Memorial Hall, whose gleaming, gold-leafed tower rises above the town and whose rooms today house the administrative offices of North Georgia College and State University.
A few blocks away, an abandoned mineshaft has been preserved inside The Smith House, a historic restaurant and inn. Workers discovered the 31-foot-deep hole in 2006 while removing the concrete floor of the 1899 home of a former Dahlonega mayor and postmaster. Owner Freddie Welch lighted the shaft and encased it in a room that allows people to view the mysterious piece of Dahlonega history through a glass window.
"It's very gratifying to hear kids come out and say, 'Isn't this a neat place,'" says Welch, 59, who has owned The Smith House since 1970.
Townspeople read the local news in The Dahlonega Nugget, watch their children march and play in Lumpkin County High Schools Band of Gold, and welcome 200,000 visitors during Gold Rush Days each October. The two-day celebration features a parade, gold-panning contest, wheelbarrow race, and coronation of a king and queen.
During the festival, fortune seekers stop by the 1895 Consolidated Gold Mine, once the largest hardrock mine east of the Mississippi River, or the 1847 Crisson Gold Mine, the oldest operating gold mine east of the Mississippi, to try their hand at gold panning. The tedious process involves repeatedly washing a pan of sand until the lighter grains of sand wash out, and possibly, if you're lucky, revealing heavier—and shiny—specks of gold.
"The gold found here is the purest gold in the world," says Rachel Wilkerson, 64, owner of The Gold Shop, a jewelry store in downtown Dahlonega. "It has characteristics that you don't see anywhere else."
While large-scale gold mining ceased in Dahlonega decades ago, some residents continue to pan along local streams looking for pay dirt, and to scour nearby hillsides for veins of gold-bearing quartzite.
"You might run across a nugget every now and then," Mike Clark says. "But mining gold ain't easy; it's hard work."