In the early 1960s, Dawson County local Fred Goswick set up a table selling his handmade wood carvings off of the Dawsonville square. Each year, his friends and neighbors gradually joined him with tables selling their own wares, and bit by bit the annual Fall Festival was born. Over the years the festival would evolve, growing more and more until it would eventually become the festival everyone knows today: the Mountain Moonshine Festival.
Fred’s son Scott Goswick explained that his father originally started selling the wood carvings and hand carved gun stocks that he would make while at his job with the state highway.
“He worked with the state highway and the first day on the job it was raining, so he said, ‘How do we get paid if it’s raining?’ and they said rain, sleet or snow you have to show up and if it’s really bad weather you just won’t go out,” Goswick said. “So he’d already been carving some, and the second day on the job he brought some wood with him — and made about as much from carving as he did through the job.”
Scott Goswick said that his father decided to sell his carvings, so he borrowed a table and set up off the city square. As Fred Goswick repeated this each year, other local citizens began to join him with their own tables.
“It was during a time of recession in Dawson, and the goal was to help other people bring in a little extra money,” Scott Goswick said. “It was all local people and he didn’t charge for tables, he just wanted to help.”
Lloyd Crane was the Director at Veterans Memorial Park during the early days of the fall festival, and he recalls many years of selling barbecue at the festival to help bring in more funds for the park.
“If it hadn't been for the festival I don’t know what we’d have done at the park,” Crane said. “And it was a family affair; everyone would come out to help.”
Local resident Judy Harris was also in attendance at the original festivals, and recalls selling hot dogs with her aunt on the corner of the town square.
“My aunt and I set up and sold hot dogs, coffee and Coca-Cola,” Harris said. “People would drive by and order through the window, drive around the courthouse and we’d have it ready for them by the time they came back past. And I remember we sold so many hotdogs that I saved up enough to buy a pretty coat.”
The original festivals were much more informal than those of later years, with no one person or group in charge but instead with everyone pitching in to help with setup and cleanup.
“There was an honest innocence in those first years of the festival,” Scott Goswick said. “Whoever got there first would just set up wherever they wanted and people cleaned up after themselves, and we’d borrow tables from the school to set up on.”
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The original festivals took place over three consecutive Sundays, and usually locals would go out to the festival after church.
“In the early years it never rained out the festival,” Goswick said. “We’d go out and start after church on Sundays, and it was mostly locals.”
One of the largest differences from the early festivals to the festivals of today was that there was no organized car show or live entertainment, but locals would show up unofficially with their cars and their instruments.
“Guys always had musical instruments in their cars, so music and dancing would just randomly start up,” Goswick said. “And in the early years there was no official car show, but since they were pretty days people would get out their old family cars and just drive around in them. So it was all unplanned, off the cuff, and just worked.”
Another big difference from modern day festivals was that city streets didn’t shut down, but instead visitors would drive past in their cars, stopping at booths on their way past.
“The roads used to not shut down; people would space their tables out and shoppers would just drive past,” Harris said. “They’d just roll their windows down and drive slowly, but we didn’t really have any traffic backups.”
Goswick said that as more booths were added each year it eventually started getting too big for his father to organize.
“The festival started getting too big, so Dad went to the booster club,” Goswick said. “The booster club took over and was really birthed out of the festival.”
Crane was one of the booster club members who helped to organize and operate the festival.
“I would usually end up helping direct traffic,” Crane said. “So I’d be helping with that and still selling the barbecue too.”
As years went on, the Dawson County Jaycees took over operation of the festival, renamed it the “Moonshine Festival” and used the festival as a way to raise money for the Empty Stocking Fund for needy families in the community. When the Jaycees began disbanding, local group K.A.R.E. for Kids took the Moonshine Festival over, and profits from the festival now support the organization’s Christmas program, which provides Christmas presents to local children in need. 2020 will mark the 53rd Mountain Moonshine Festival.
Crane and Harris said that renaming the fall festival the “Moonshine Festival” with its nod toward the moonshining that took place in the Dawson County of the past isn’t something to be ashamed of, but rather something to be proud of.
“I’m not ashamed of the moonshining,” Harris said. “We would have starved without the moonshining business; a lot of people in the community wouldn’t have gotten by.”
Modern-day Moonshine Festivals include a parade, live entertainment, an official car show and dozens of vendors, and last for a whole weekend rather than being spread out over consecutive Sundays. Visitors no longer drive through the festival, but instead city streets are shut down in order to allow the hundreds of shoppers to better browse among the booths and enjoy the festival’s sights.
“I wish we could slow down a little bit and take a step back,” Harris said. “But those of us who grew up here remember when it was like the whole county was family, and I wouldn’t trade my time growing up here for anything.”