It was just a regular spring morning in 1996 when a mama bear and her two cubs made their way into Dahlonega’s historic downtown square and caused a commotion.
While the mom and one of the cubs escaped into the woods, the remaining cub climbed a sycamore tree to hide. It was hours before the cub finally came down and was delivered unharmed back into the woodlands — at least that’s how the story goes.
The tale of those bears is now the inspiration for the city’s annual Bear on the Square Mountain Festival, which celebrates Appalachian culture through live music and storytelling. Lovers of all things bluegrass can visit the downtown square on April 23-24 to join in the fun.
“Take a trip down Appalachian culture and hear the music and culture that basically created country and bluegrass as we know it,” said Sam McDuffie, director of tourism for the Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Chamber & Visitors Bureau.
Next to its annual Gold Rush event, Bear on the Square is the city’s largest festival, McDuffie said, drawing up to 50,000 visitors to Dahlonega in a single weekend.
The event’s main stage tent next to Hancock Park will feature concerts all weekend long as bands like 'Crooked Mile,' the 'Foreign Landers,' 'Ugly Cousin and John Grimm' bring head-bobbing, foot-tapping ballads to the square.
Concerts last from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Saturday and 11:00 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. on Sunday.
“The festival really focuses on the old southern storytelling aspect of music,” McDuffie said. “It’s similar to pre-radio where families would just play out on the porch.”
Beginning Friday afternoon, musicians will gather throughout the square to jam in groups. Anyone with a guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo or another instrument can join in with other players for a day of freeform mountain music. The festival is also providing free “instrument sitting” so guests can enjoy their weekend without having to worry about their instrument being stolen or damaged once they’re finished playing.
“Historic downtown becomes covered with musicians,” McDuffie said. “Guitar players, standup bassists — it feels like the time of foot-tapping Appalachian music and really fits with the historic element of downtown.”
Storytelling is another major aspect of the festival. Bear on the Square has been known to feature storytellers from the Southern Order of Storytellers and Kuuma Storytellers of Georgia, both of which are affiliated with the National Storytelling Network.
Listeners can hear tall tales, moral lessons, riddles and history in stories passed down through generations at the Zak McConnell stage in Hancock Park. “Tall Tales from the Hills” kicks off the fun at 11 a.m, preceded by a storytelling sampler at 10:30 a.m. on the main stage. A full storytelling schedule can be found on the festival’s website.
“The festival really gathers the story of our history in a weekend,” McDuffie said.
Attendees looking for more hands-on fun can learn the ins and outs of clogging, singing harmony and playing the ukulele thanks to a series of free workshops that will be held during the festival in Hancock Park, Pick & Bow Tent and Woodrow’s Tent.
The Bear on the Square website cites the festival as a not-for-profit Cultural Arts Organization whose mission is to help preserve and celebrate the history of and culture of the southern Appalachian Mountains. The festival’s artist marketplace continues this mission by connecting guests to approximately 70 regional artists and their wares, spanning mediums like fiber and textiles, furniture, drawings and pottery.
The 2022 festival marks a return to Dahlonega after a two-year hiatus owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fans of the event can give back to the event by donating and joining the Friends of the Bear. “Baby Bear” memberships cost only $25, while those really wanting to give back can become Gold Patrons for $250.
For more information on Bear on the Square, visit bearonthesquare.org.
This article was originally posted by the Gainesville Times, a sister publication to Forsyth County News.