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GOLD HILL — It was a hush-hush, touch-and-go operation from the start.
But there was a chance, maybe better than a 50-50 possibility that Gov. Pat McCrory was going to attend Saturday’s 13th Annual Lighting of the Fall Fires in this historic mining village.
The plans had him arriving at sundown and coming into “town” on the rented Salisbury trolley. He would mingle with the visitors, homeowners, merchants, musicians and historical society members, then be whisked off to say a few words, deliver a proclamation and officially light one of the village’s large Christmas trees.
Who knows, he might have even stayed for some hot cider and Brunswick stew around one of the two huge bonfires.
But McCrory shot an email to friend Carla DuPuy at 6 p.m., saying he couldn’t make the trip. He had an ailing wife at their home in Charlotte, and it also happened to be her birthday.
DuPuy, a former chairman of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, was with Gold Hill property owner Jerry Helms and still had the governor’s proclamation in hand.
So without McCrory, Gold Hill became ablaze in its white lights of the holidays, and everyone had a blast handing in their gold nuggets for food and prizes, visiting the shops and cabins and soaking in the warmth of fires and pot-bellied stoves.
Governor, you missed a good time.
The annual Lighting of the Fall Fires celebrates the impressive redevelopment and preservation that have gone into making Gold Hill one unique place.
“It’s fun, and I enjoy seeing all the customers who come through the year and making it special for them — and the new folks, too,” said Jodi Davis, proprietor of Mauney’s 1840 Store and Museum.
Mauney’s and the E.H. Montgomery Store across from it are the two buildings original to the gold mining town.
Everything else has come later, including over the past 25 years, the construction, saving and moving of all manner of old stores and cabins to Gold Hill and recreating a village with a frontier feel to it, down to its wooden sidewalks.
The governor’s sealed proclamation designated Saturday as “Gold Hill Day” in North Carolina.
“Visitors can easily get lost in time as they discover all there is to see in Gold Hill,” the proclamation noted.
The $12 tickets to the Lighting of the Fall Fires entitled buyers to a bag of gold nuggets, which they could redeem at every stop for a small prize or food.
Davis was dishing up vegetable soup at Mauney’s. At the E.H. Montgomery store, Poppy and Vivian Hopkins offered samplings of Morgan Ridge wine, while Jim and Peggy Wood served apple and pumpkin biscuits.
The wine and biscuits were next to bluegrass musicians jamming in the back.
“They’re all good, that whole group,” said Lonnie Reavis, who often comes to the Montgomery Store’s Friday night bluegrass jam sessions, where he usually plays the mandolin.
Next to one of the bonfires and near his metal working shop, Fred Kessler offered guests cups of Brunswick stew, cooked over an open fire.
“It’s an old recipe,” Kessler said, figuring there were about 50 ingredients but no possum.
Lamar Yelton, president of the Gold Hill Preservation Society, was helping dish out Kessler’s stew.
“Tonight’s perfect, it’s just perfect for a bonfire,” Yelton said.
Blackberry cobbler was the treat of the day at the 1820 cabin where author-songwriter Nancy Brewer was selling some of her books, including the latest, “The House with the Red Light.”
That book is being sold with a CD by bluegrass queen Rhonda Vincent.
Brewer wrote five of the songs on the new CD, which was released Thursday in Nashville.
Brewer and her husband, Vernon, have a home in Concord, but they often spend time at their cabins in Gold Hill, where Nancy likes to write.
“We liked what we saw in Gold Hill,” Vernon says of their decision three years ago to buy two cabins from the 1800s.
They were attending a bluegrass night at Montgomery Store, made a few inquiries and, before they knew it, had decided to purchase the cabins pretty much on a handshake.
Nancy, who only started writing in 2010, thought she would be selling her books at all the Civil War re-enactments the couple attends.
“But it took off like crazy,” she says of her book career. She has now written eight over the past three years.
Lindsay and Henry Pless, whose bakery operates out of an 1840s miner’s cabin, had samples of the breads, cookies, cheese wafers and pound cakes they had for sale.
“We made everything here since Wednesday,” Henry Pless said of the tables of baked goods. Among the craft and gift items sold at the bakery are baskets Lindsay makes herself.
Pless cushioned the top of the low door frame in back, just in case any tall people, such as himself, knocked their heads against it coming in or going out.
Jerry Helms is a typical Gold Hill story. He moved to the village, piece by piece, a long-forgotten cabin that once belonged to his great-grandfather Abram Helms.
Abram, who died in 1952, raised goats and had a blacksmith shop about two to three miles outside of Gold Hill.
Helms remembered having a goat, Billy, that came from Abram’s farm and how it used to try to follow him to school in Charlotte.
Eight years ago, by finding the right old-timers, Helms tracked down his great-grandfather’s cabin and bought it for $1. The move to Gold Hill and its reconstruction proved to be a lot costlier, Helms acknowledged.
Fast forward to today, and Helms has a cabin getaway that sleeps 10, Gold Hill’s restaurant property, which is between tenants, and an attractive 1870 farmhouse that’s for sale.
The Lighting of the Fall Fires offered other things too numerous to name. Gold Hill United Methodist Church provided barbecue dinners in its basement. There were $5 carriage rides and don’t forget the Windsong Recorder Ensemble.
The group Saturday night included nine recorders and a percussionist. “Christmas music works really well with this,” musician Gwen Sembroski said. But the ensemble can do it all — from polkas to ragtime.
Gold was discovered in Gold Hill in 1824, and its boom-town growth by 1843 made it rival Salisbury and Charlotte in size.
But “quaint,” as first-time visitor Deborah Conner described Gold Hill Saturday night, is a word that suits it just fine today.
Governor, or no governor.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.

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