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Dawsonville Strong: Histories of town, kindness go hand in hand at 54th Annual Moonshine Festival
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Many moonshine festival-goers browse products within local and regional vendors’ booths at Dawsonville’s Main Street Park. - photo by Julia Hansen

A tradition of altruism has endured for generations in Dawson County, all the way through this past weekend’s 54th annual Mountain Moonshine Festival.

Thanks to the event, sponsoring non profit K.A.R.E For Kids will be able to help at least 700 children celebrate Christmas and receive needed winter wear and school supplies. 

Thousands of people from northeastern Georgia and beyond attended the festival, many donating to K.A.R.E. or supporting small businesses by purchasing from booth vendors. 

One of Saturday’s three inductees into the National Moonshiners Hall of Fame was Dawson native Pete Bearden. The other inductees were Dean Bauguess and Bobby Anderson. 

Bearden was born into a family of moonshiners and has lived in Dawsonville for all of his life. K.A.R.E. board member Hayley Garrett described the first and only time he got caught was “Halloween night in 1974 when making and moving a stash of 1,352 gallons.”

For that, a judge sentenced Bearden to six months in prison and five years of probation and asked him if the penalties had taught him a lesson. 

“Pete said, ‘No sir, before I let my wife and children go hungry, I'd do it again,’” Garrett added.

“Moonshine really built Dawsonville. Believe it or not, it really built the churches, the stores...all of them were involved in some way or another in past years…[and] I’m proud of it.”
Pete Bearden

Longtime festival volunteer and classic car enthusiast Clarence Haven was also given this year’s Humanitarian Award.

“He took pride in getting up at 4 a.m. every year to get parked around the old courthouse, where he always brought his flashlight and helped get everyone else parked,” Garrett said. 

She continued by calling him instrumental to K.A.R.E. 's efforts, ending with “we love you.” 

Appropriately, no mentions of altruism would have been complete without recognizing the 2021 festival’s grand marshal, Dawsonville legend Gordon Pirkle. 

Rodney Robinson said Pirkle was one of a long line of people to sacrifice for his neighbors, quoting the adage that “true measure of character and integrity is what a person does when no one else is looking.” 

He cited examples such as Pirkle’s forming of Thunder Road and countless times providing food for bereaved families at the funeral home and at other community meetings.

As retired Atlanta Motor Speedway president Ed Clark said, “Everyone has a Gordon story.” 

Clark mentioned how Pirkle helped bring the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame to Dawsonville and create the world-renowned tradition of the Pool Room’s siren that sounds after every Elliott race victory. He also gave a nod to Gordon’s regular habit of sharing early racing stories. 

“Gordon loves his community, the people in it. He loves motorsports and preserving its legacy, and he’s a kind and caring person,” Clark said. 

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Grand marshal Gordon Pirkle, far right, listens as a group of K.A.R.E. volunteers sing him a song of thanks for his efforts uplifting others and preserving the histories of Dawsonville and American racing. - photo by Julia Hansen

“We’re going to make some happy kids on account of y’all being here,” Pirkle said to the audience of family, friends and other festival attendees. 

Before he stepped aside, a group of K.A.R.E. volunteers sang Pirkle a special rendition of the Ronnie Milsap song “What a Difference You’ve Made in My Life.”

The song’s name and signature refrain carried through the crisp fall air, perhaps reminding listeners that serving others can be in many ways its own reward.