Ella Ray Oakes is not one to let July 4th slip by without a celebration.
In a small north Georgia town tucked in the foothills of the Appalachians, the Fourth of July means more than hamburgers and fireworks. Here, in Dahlonega, Independence Day is a sacred opportunity to bask in our freedom and to show unabashed love for our country and family.
The force behind Dahlonega’s celebration is Ella Ray Oakes, a venerable woman who refuses to let dust settle on the preamble to the Constitution, and who insists that the Pledge of Allegiance be recited and the National Anthem be sung after the Stars and Stripes are raised to begin the town’s July 4 celebration every year.
Ella Ray’s patriotic fervor has guided and kindled the local festivities for 25 years, reminding both townspeople and tourists that the flag, and all it stands for, is something to be honored and cherished.
Her enthusiasm is contagious. During the town’s “Family Day Independence Day” celebration, Dahlonega’s population of 6,000 swells to five times its size, drawing some 30,000 visitors from throughout the region.
What began as a simple community picnic commemorating America’s Bicentennial in 1976 has evolved into one of the most popular celebrations in the Peach State, and it’s been named a “Top 20 Event” by the Southeast Tourism Society.
“It’s a family affair,” says Ella Ray.
Indeed, after the ringing church bells, speeches, and rendition of “God Bless America” at the flag-raising ceremony, the day turns to pure fun and entertainment — offering everything from live music to bingo, crafts and blacksmithing demonstrations, and more than 100 vendors’ booths. Visitors can tour historic sites, eat free watermelon, or even pan for gold (Dahlonega was the site of America’s first gold rush in 1828). The day ends, as it should, with a spectacular fireworks show.
“I just feel strongly about a family focus and patriotic things,” explains Ella Ray. “I love Dahlonega and it’s a celebration that we can all be proud of from our hometown.”
“We appreciate her”
She and her late husband, Newton, who was a professor at North Georgia College & State University in town, are credited with transforming the town’s Independence Day from that friendly picnic of 25 years ago into the extraordinary celebration it is today.
“It would not be here if not for them,” notes Haines Hill, Dahlonega’s former mayor and longtime resident. “She … put it together and kept it going. Everybody who comes out, whether it’s craft dealers, or visitors, or people who graduated from the college, they all know Ella Ray.”
Streets that once teemed with gold miners looking for riches are now crowded each July 4 with thousands seeking something quite different — a home on this most patriotic of holidays.
“Everybody’s looking for Mayberry,” says Cindy Bailey, president of the Dahlonega Chamber of Commerce, referring to the fictional, idyllic town in television’s “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“Grandparents and parents are looking for the kind of events they went to as children. It’s a sense of family, and a sense of belonging, and having a sense of place. Dahlonega instills that,” she says. “Residents here have that feeling and they give that to visitors. It’s kind of like coming home.”
Patriotism itself seems right at home in Dahlonega, about an hour’s drive northeast of Atlanta. “We have a very strong military presence, starting back with the Blue Ridge Rifles, which volunteered during the Civil War,” Bailey explains. And part of Dahlonega’s landscape is the university — a military college founded in 1873 — and Camp Frank D. Merrill, home of the 5th Ranger Training Battalion and the mountain phase of the U.S. Army Ranger School.
“Add in those good mountain people who are just very patriotic,” Hill says.
Dahlonega’s place in gold rush history began in 1828 when gold was discovered in the area. The name Dahlonega (pronounced Duh-LAWN-uh-guh) originates from a Cherokee word meaning “yellow.” But when gold was discovered in California in 1848, miners packed up and headed west. The legendary phrase, “There’s gold in them thar hills,” is attributed to a gold assayer who urged the departing miners to stay — an account commemorated by a marker on the town’s square, which is listed in its entirety on the National Register of Historic Places.
Anchored in the middle by the stately Dahlonega Gold Museum — formerly the county courthouse — the square, along with some side streets, contain quaint shops that offer regional arts and crafts, homemade fudge, jewelry, collectibles, and a bit of nostalgia. “People like to come to Dahlonega because of its ambiance. It’s like an old-time feeling with little stores on the square,” says Jean Cuthbertson, president of the Dahlonega Club, which sponsors the July 4 festivities.
Dahlonega is proud of its history and strives to preserve the architecture and character of its origins. “This community had a vision 20 years ago to evolve into a tourist destination, and the leadership worked very hard and diligently in preserving the historic downtown and placing strict historic ordinances, from signage to sidewalks and so forth,” Bailey says.
A perfect example is Vickery House, one of the town’s most beloved structures, which was built as a three-room home in 1860 and later expanded to 12 rooms. In 1974, the house was given to the Dahlonega Club, which used grant money and contributions to restore this icon of the town’s heritage into a museum. It’s the first structure in town listed on the National Register. One room is dedicated to Ella Ray Oakes.
An endowment ensures its future care, paid for by rent charged to vendors at every July 4 celebration—usually about $2,500.
Planning for this day is a year-round task, says Ella Ray. “It’s on my mind from one time to the next.” Though she organizes the event and oversees most of the arrangements, she is quick to share the credit.
“I’m a great believer in involving everybody in one way or another,” Oakes says. “It has wide community support. We like to say that we close all the gates and no one leaves Dahlonega on the Fourth of July.”
Former Mayor Hill can attest to that. “She’s one of those nice people where,” he says with a chuckle, “if she asks you to do something, you wouldn’t dare do anything else.”