(The following story was written in May 2010 and appeared in some publications and on some websites)
Dahlonega’s Bear on the Square has been a local legend since 1996, going back to the time when a bear cub took refuge in the sycamore tree in front of Brad Walker’s Pottery.
The story began on a spring morning 15 years ago when a mama bear with two cubs made its way into the town’s historic square, causing a “big commotion”. Like everyone else who heard about it, Gary McCullough, who is now the mayor of Dahlonega, left his office just around the corner from the scene to “see what was causing the commotion”. The mama bear and one cub apparently escaped from town after later being seen at the old Lumpkin County High School location on North Grove Street (now the site of Lumpkin County Middle School and Elementary School) that afternoon. The other cub, however, decided to climb the sycamore tree, where it remained for several hours.
The mayor said the Department of Natural Resources was notified, and the cub was eventually coaxed down from the tree by Forest Service rangers and was delivered unharmed back into the mountain woodlands.
During the time period which followed the bears’ Dahlonega adventure, several local residents began kicking around the idea of throwing a “party” to give a boost to local business during a slow time for business, and this ultimately led to what is now the Bear on the Square Festival.
Dianne Quigley, who was then the owner of Quigley’s Rare Books, and Gloria Smithers, owner of Gloria’s Added Touch, were serving as the Dahlonega Merchants Association’s events committee in 1996 and decided to try to come up with an event backed by the association which would take place early in the spring and help downtown shops draw tourists earlier in the season than normal. “Gloria and I met for coffee and brainstormed, trying to come up with a unique idea for a festival. We tossed around a few ideas among ourselves and others who were interested in the proposal, noting that at one time back in the early 1900s Dahlonega had a fiddlers contest. We pretty much decided that whatever we came up with, music should be a big part of the festival, and we also decided it would be a good idea to celebrate the Appalachian culture and include local handmade crafts and items. Once we had the basic concept of what we wanted to present to the Merchants Association, we had a lot of fun trying to come up with a name for the event. I remember saying to Gloria that lots of festivals stemmed from unusual, quirky ideas and specifically pointed out the ’Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’ festival in California based on Mark Twain’s book. After a few cups of coffee and more attempts at determining a name, I asked the group about what unusual thing had happened in Dahlonega the past year or so. At almost the same time, Gloria and I both said, “Bear on the Square”.
Quigley said she and Smithers took their basic idea and proposed name back to some of the merchants and gained unanimous support. She remembers later going before the city council to speak in behalf of the merchants to get the city governing body’s backing.
Glenda Pender, a Bear on the Square Mountain Festival founder who is president of the festival organization, remembers that “the visit of the bears caused so much excitement and so much buzz around town that we thought it was a perfect opportunity to usher in spring with an authentic Appalachian festival while we celebrated the occasion.” Hal Williams, who served as the chairman of the Bear on the Square Mountain Festival Committee during its early years, said that “another driving force was to get the tourist season here kicked off earlier in the year because the local economy was in a slow period. We were also committed to a festival focused on traditional mountain culture and music, and I’m proud of the fact that we have maintained its integrity through the years.”
Williams said the group considered as the founders of the festival included Glenda and Nick Pender, Dianne Quigley, Gloria and Dick Smithers, and himself. The Penders were enlisted to handle the music portion of the festival, Quigley and Gloria Smithers were in charge of exhibitors, and Kathy Aerts, who joined the early brainstorming sessions, was named treasurer, a position she still holds.
Williams also pointed out that much of the brainstorming at the group’s first get togethers over coffee at Wylie’s restaurant dealt with a name for the event. Several ideas were discussed, including one from Reggie Hughey, then the chef at Wylie’s and later the owner of Caruso’s, who said it should be called Frog on a Log. Several versions incorporating the idea of the bears’ adventure in Dahlonega were suggested, and Bear on the Square became the choice for a name.
The bears’ visit also led to the creation of a song called “Bear on the Square”, which was written by Glenda and Nick Pender and which is sung to the tune of “Rabbit in the Log”. This year, during the 14th annual festival, the song was performed at the event for the first time, being included in the Gold Rush band’s set and sung by Glenda Pender.
The first annual Bear on the Square Mountain Festival took place in 1996, and over the years, the event has evolved into an incredible weekend of music and art around the picturesque Public Square in Dahlonega. This year’s festival, held during the third weekend in April, drew a record crowd of over 50,000.
“Once things got going, it kind of took off really fast,” said Quigley. “Nick and Glenda Pender took hold of the idea and went to work getting together the music. Things snowballed from there on lots of great ideas. My husband Tim wrote a play, ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears on the Square’, to be presented by the Holly Theater, and it has been performed in the park or in the theater every year. Also, Kate McElliott suggested a Teddy Bear Picnic for a children's event, which is also a popular event for children every year. We hosted a Bear on the Square Dance on Saturday night in front of the Welcome Center, and this is now known as the Old-Time Mountain Dance. The Friday night Live Country Auction evolved as a way to make funds to seed the next year's festival. We really didn't have any funds for the first year. The only income we had was from booth rental deposits, and we solicited a few sponsors. Reggie and Axa Hughey catered food for the first auction and we sent out invitations to let the public know that there was free food and a country auction to kick off the Bear on the Square Festival.
“Gloria and I worked on getting vendors and craft people for the festival. It was decided at that time we would try to limit the number of vendors to 50 (we were hoping we could even find that many). The very first person to sign up was Lottie Lee with her quilts. We then had beekeepers, basket makers, food vendors, etc.; in fact, one of the first years, we even had a man bring down a still on his flat bed trailer and demonstrate how to make moonshine,” said Quigley. “It has been a lot of fun watching the Bear on the Square Festival grow to what it is today.”
An added tradition came about prior to the 2nd annual festival when Kevin Croom, who owned Radio Station WKHC at the time, came up with the idea of putting a wooden version of the bear cub in the sycamore tree on the square. Croom provided the bear carving, and he and Williams handled the installation, with “coaching and moral support” from Dale Solomich, whose balcony restaurant, The Front Porch, is right next to the sycamore tree.
This bear replica remained in place until recently when Solomich, who had assumed the job of maintaining the bear, decided that the years of continued exposure to the elements had taken too much of a toll on the wooden carving and that a replacement was needed.
Solomich purchased the replacement, which was officially installed at a recent ceremony after being installed by Skipper Bryant of the City of Dahlonega’s Street Department. Williams greeted the crowd of local officials, business people, local residents and others attending the ceremony, and Mayor McCullough unveiled the new carving of the bear cub, whose visit resulted in what he said “has turned into one of the best festivals we have.”