The Dancing Goats Folk Festival will happen in my hometown of Ellijay, Georgia, the last week of September. And a couple of months ago, I received the honor of an invitation to be part of the festival and tell a few stories. Soon after receiving this invitation, I discovered that the festival will give me the chance to see something I did not know exists, something I could never have imagined.
The folks who run the festival play it up big on their website: a “juried folk art show, mountain music, storytelling, traditional foods — AND don’t miss the goat beauty contest!”
I have no idea how a goat beauty contest works. Put “goat beauty contest” into the Google machine, and you will find many references to a small village called Ramygala, Lithuania, where there is an annual goat parade. For the parade, villagers dress up goats, as you can see in this photograph, then parade them around their village and ultimately choose which goat is the most beautiful.
How this tradition migrated to my hometown is a complete mystery to me, but I will see with my own eyes — and ask folks a lot of questions about it — next month.
In my youth, I loved community gatherings around the Ellijay town square. In the 1960s and ’70s, when I was growing up, the biggest gathering of all was the annual wagon train. The Murray County Saddle Club in nearby Chatsworth staged it. Folks from Chatsworth and Ellijay would meet up with their horses and horse-drawn vehicles at Nine Mile United Methodist Church, about halfway between the two towns, then roll out toward Ellijay.
I think the parents of every kid in town brought the young’uns to the town square to see a long parade of folks on horseback or riding in wagons, carts or buggies around our square. If memory serves, they would head southwest of town to the grounds of the Gilmer County Saddle Club and camp out for the night before returning to Chatsworth.
That tradition — at least Ellijay’s part of it — died many years ago. According to a 2014 article in the Dalton, Georgia, newspaper, “Everything was fine until participation grew so large that Ellijay officials said there was no longer room for everyone.” The Murray County Saddle Club keeps the tradition going, but it now revolves around the club’s grounds just outside Chatsworth.
These days, the Dancing Goats Folk Festival is just one of many events that happen on the Ellijay town square these days. What was a very sleepy little town in my youth has become quite a hopping place, a popular place for folks in Atlanta who want an easy weekend getaway or to build, as they say, “a mountain house.”
These days, restaurants and bars downtown offer “craft cocktails.” When I was young, restaurants couldn’t serve any kind of alcohol. Your only option was to buy beer or wine from a “package store.”
These days, the restaurants offer dishes like lobster bolognese and concoctions with locally grown oyster mushrooms. When I was young, I remember the choices being fried chicken, hamburger steak, and other simple dishes you’d be just as likely to get at home as you could in a restaurant.
It some ways, it makes me happy as I can be to see these changes in my hometown. In others, it makes me sad. But resisting change has never done me a lick of good, really. My job now is to celebrate the progress of my little hometown and to cherish my memories of how it was long ago.
Can I do both things at the same time? I think so. And who knows? Maybe I’ll tell a story about that at the Dancing Goats FolkFest. I hope to see you there.