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The Sweetest Festival in the World
by Kathleen Walls American Roads Travel Magazine

The mountains of Union County
Photo by Kathleen Walls

Once it was part of the land of the Cherokees. They roamed at will in its green valley and brought forth abundant crops from its red clay soil. In spring, they watched the white dogwood flower in its bridal splendor. In summer, they shared the multitude of wild fruit and nuts-blackberries, wild strawberries, black Walnuts - with the black bear and the raccoons. When the leaves on the surrounding mountains turned every shade from vivid yellow to flaming orange to scarlet red, they knew soon it would be winter, the time of stark beauty. White snow would lie on the ground. The leafless trees would cast a sharp shadow on the earth. The crystal columns of ice would climb the steep cliffs. And always there was music in the mountains. The babble of a rushing stream, the moan of the wind, and the song of the people blessed by this beauty. Every day was a celebration of life.

The Cain't Hardly Play Boys entertain with some old time blue grass music at the Union County Courthouse
Photo by Kathleen Walls

The early settlers came in the 1830’s, spurred by the gold found nearby. They stayed to farm the land. They brought their dulcimers, fiddles, and banjos, and sang of their mountain life. Sadly, the beginning of a way of life for the settlers chronicled the end for the Cherokees. Most were exiled to Oklahoma via the infamous ‘Trail of Tears’. Fortunately, a few remained behind and many more returned when they were able. The mountains that sheltered the settlers also isolated them so that their way of life remained the same long after the rest of the country had become homogenized. Even though life in the mountains was hard, they loved to gather at one or another of their simple cabins and commemorate the harvest season. Banjoes and dulcimers dueled into the morning hours and shavings from the whittler's knife littered the wood porches. Home baked goodies were sweetened with sorghum. These people knew how to enjoy life’s simple pleasures.

Progress came, as it will, and in the 1900’s, roads were cut into the gaps in the mountains making Union County accessible to the rest of the world. Even then access was difficult. The early Fords used gravity to send gas to the engines of the model Ts. The steep grade of the mountains prevented the gas from flowing into the engines. Enterprising drivers learned to back their vehicles up the mountains then turn around and tie a log to the car on the way down so their brakes would’t burn out. Fortunately, modern automobiles can cross the now paved mountain roads with no problem. This area, perched at the highest point in Georgia, was famous in the old days for two superb products that came in a Mason jar. Only one was legal, the rich sorghum syrup that served as a sweetener for the isolated mountain folks.

Although modern facilities such as dozens of excellent restaurants, motels, mountain cabins, groceries, and shops are available, the soul of its early settlers still is alive and well here. The people of Union County still take pleasure in the old time get togethers. Thus was born the sweetest festival in the country, The Sorghum Festival. Sorghum making is almost a lost art today but in pioneer times, sorghum was the upland South’s answer to sugar cane. In the mountains of Georgia, every village and many of the farms had a mill for producing the thick sweet syrup similar to molasses. Today, there are less than thirty.

Sorghum made its debut in the United States in the 1850s from France. It had come there from China. It took hold in the mountainous Appalachian area. By 1860,Georgia was the fourth largest producer of the sticky sweetener in the United States. With the advent of supermarkets and packaged sugar, the need for sorghum diminished until it has become part of the lost culture of Appalachia.

Making Sorghum at the festival
Photo by Kathleen Walls

To help preserve that culture, Blairsville began its Sorghum Festival thirty-two years ago. It is always held on the last three weekends of October, which just happens to be the peak of the leaf-changing season.( This year it will be Oct 11 – 13, 18- 20, 25 –27) The Jaycees built a special setting for the festival, Fort Sorghum. The profits from the festival go to fund many county charitable projects. The main one being the Children’s Christmas Party, which provides a memorable Christmas for underprivileged children.

Although the festival offers many of the mountain arts and crafts; dulcimer playing, buck dancing, log sawing and many others but the highlight of the festival is the production of sorghum. The stripped cane is run through a mule-powered grinder to squeeze out every drop of the juice. It is then filtered and allowed to flow down into a huge open trough. The fire is set in such a way that the juice boils at the upper end of the copper-bottomed pan. The hard work here is the skimming. As the syrup boils a greenish foam collects towards the back of the pan. This must be skimmed until it is all removed, a long patience trying process. The amber syrup is then filleted into a barrel and bottled before your eyes. The huge clouds of steam rising over Fort Sorghum would draw you by smell alone even if you weren’t rushing to enjoy the festivities. One of the favorite contests is the Biscuit Eating Contest. Anyone can enter. You must swipe the biscuit through sorghum then devour it. The winner usually shovels down forty to fifty in fifteen minutes. But if you eat at least five, you will come away with a tee-shirt.

You can also compete in pole climbing, log sawing, rock throwing and horseshoe throwing contests. Arts and crafts overflow from Fort Sorghum into the school auditorium. One of the things the Jaycees insist on id the genuine hand made craft. They want to preserve the authentic feel of the festival. Entertainment is provided by bluegrass bands, cloggers and gospel bands. An antique care show also increases the feeling of nostalgia

The festival parade is held downtown on the first Saturday of the festival. The revelers and floats are decorated in "Old Time’ motif. Bands, horseback riders and costumed marchers add to the flavor. For a festival that offers a trip back in time as well as a treat for your taste buds, The Sorghum Festival is a must.


Sorghum Candy

In the old days, kids enjoyed candy making as much as the eating. Cash money was scarce and could not be used to purchase things like candy but sorghum was plentiful and kids could be kept occupied for quite a while pulling the sticky sweet.

1cup sorghum (molasses can be substituted)
1cup of water
Pinch of salt

Combine all ingredients and boil without stirring until it reaches the hard ball stage. Remove from heat and put in a buttered bowl to cool enough to handle. Grease your hands with butter and pull it in small pieces until it changes color and becomes hard to work. (This works best with two people pulling. Remember in the mountains, families were usually large.

Popcorn Balls

Corn was a favored crop in the mountains for many purposes. Many families grew popcorn. It was harvested in the fall shelled and saved for use on winter nights when the cabin fireplace blazed.

Large bowl of popped corn
1 quart sorghum (molasses can be substituted}
Butter to grease your hands
Boil the sorghum till it forms a thread when dripped off the spoon. Traditionally an iron pot was used because it heated evenly and was less apt to burn the syrup. When done, grease your hands well. Put a handful of popcorn in the palm and add, carefully since it may still be hot some of the syrup. Work together to form a ball then cool on waxed paper.

Blairsville Chamber of Commerce 706-745-5789 Contact person for festival is Brad Sherman , Jaycee President 706- 745- 4745

Provided by American Roads Travel Magazine - Visit American Roads Travel Magazine website.

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