Old Fort festival presents golden opp to learn state history

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

Ask anyone about the gold rush in the late 19th century, and the first place most think about is California. But it happened in North Carolina first - a fact celebrated Saturday, June 2 at the 15th annual Official North Carolina Gold Festival in Old Fort.

Headlined by comedian Cledus T. Judd, the free event will celebrate that era's history in Western North Carolina. The day will begin at 9 a.m. with the first running of the Rugged Nugget 5K.

A lot of people aren’t familiar with the state’s rich history with gold, discovered in North Carolina in 1799 in Cabarrus County. Over two decades in the early 1800s, N.C. was the only state producing gold.

Children pan for gold during the 2017 Official N.C. State Gold Festival.

The state continued to be one of leading producers until gold was discovered in California in 1848. North Carolina's legacy is important, according to Deborah Millikan of the Bechtler House Heritage Center and N.C. Gold Trail Headquarters in Rutherfordton.

“There are at least 30 counties in the state that have some sort of gold heritage,” she said. “(The N.C. Gold Trail) works to bring all of those counties together keep that legacy alive.”

Mountain Gateway Museum in Old Fort, one of eight historic sites on the trail, has hosted the annual gold festival since 2004, the year it moved from Marion.

Judd, known for his country music parodies, will perform at 2 p.m. in the amphitheater, Millikan said. In addition to the comedic and musical stylings of the artist responsible for the song "I Love NASCAR," the festival will feature a historical artifact from the state’s golden era.

“Christopher Bechtler minted the first gold dollar, 17 years before the U.S. Mint,” Millikan said. “Those coins, on loan from the N.C. State Museum in Raleigh, will be on display in the Mountain Heritage Museum and we’re very fortunate to have them. They are real pieces of history.”

Bechtler's former home was built in 1837, after the goldsmith and native of present-day Germany moved his family to N.C. during the height of the state's gold rush. He minted more than $2 million in gold coins until his death in 1843. 

Stories about Bechtler, and other famous people and events from the state's gold rush, will be told throughout the festival, Millikan said. 

The free event will include food and handmade arts and crafts from about 40 local vendors, Millikan said. An inflatable bouncy house for children will be set up, as well as a trackless train. People will also have an opportunity to pan for gold. 

"That will be a lot fun," Millikan said. "We will have a station set up down by the creek."

The event opens with the running of the first Rugged Nugget 5K at 9 a.m. Registration for the race is $15, (free T-shirts to the first 50 people to sign up). Money raised by the race will benefit the Mountain Heritage Museum. To register, email Amy Parker at amy_paker@parkerlegwear.com.