The first Gold Rush & the first nascar champion owner

"There's Gold in Them Thar Hills" was said of Dahlonega, Ga in the early 1830's. In the following century, the area around Dahlonega & Dawsonville would become the hotbed of early stock car pioneer's.

Benjamin Parks, late in life, circa 1890.    Photo courtesy Georgia Archives

By Cody Dinsmore


*Cover photo courtesy of UGA Library*


What does Nascar racing and gold have to do with each other? Well more than you think. The first persons to have success in both shared the same last name. 

The man who was considered to start the first gold rush in the United States, was a Parks.  And about 120 years later, the man who owned the car that won Nascar’s first championship was a Parks. Coincidence? Not at all...  They were from the same town and the same family. 

Nascar Hall of Famer, and Georgia Racing Hall of Famer, Raymond Parks, was the owner of the car that won the first Nascar race, in 1948, and also would win the title later that year. The following year, the Parks team won the first iteration of what is now known as the Nascar Cup Championship. Raymond was a highly successful car owner, with his cars always having the best of drivers, the best tuning, and usually the best appearing cars on track; never with battered fenders or dulled paint. Mr Raymond’s operation was first class. He raced from 1938 - 1950 and his cars won races from Florida up to Pennsylvania and everywhere in between. He was the Rick Hendrick of his day. 

Born in Dawsonville Ga, in 1914, Raymond Parks left home at the age of 14 in 1928, to pursue a life of more than just farming. He learned to make moonshine as a still hand. He eventually bought his own still (during prohibition), learned to make it himself, delivered it, and eventually hired others to take his spot. By the age of 18, he owned two automobiles, his moonshine operation running at night, and had bought out his uncle’s service station in downtown Atlanta.  After prohibition, he was one of the first legal liquor store owners in the state (at one time owning 16 locations in the Metro Atlanta area), as well as keeping his ‘behind closed doors’ moonshine operation going. He had built his own lottery system (decades before the state of Georgia created their own lottery), and after prohibition, he had built an empire of coin operated machines that were placed in businesses of every kind in the Metro Atlanta area - everything from Jukeboxes, to Pinball and Cigarette Machines. Chances are, if you dropped a dime in a coin op machine in Atlanta back in the day, it probably belonged to Raymond Parks.  Later on, he dabbled in real estate, ice cream shops, foreign car dealerships and other prospects. This helped Mr Parks fund his hobby of racing. He was considered a Sportsman for his involvement in early stock car racing. As stated above, his racing operation was first class and was NOT a weekend warrior. And now you can see how he was able to do that. 

You could say he had a ‘gold mine’ of his own.....

About 120 years prior to Raymond becoming the first Nascar Champion team owner, his maternal great uncle, Benjamin Parks, went deer hunting one morning in the North Georgia Mountains on a cool fall morning. “Benny” had relocated to the area from Virginia years prior to live among the Native Indians in what was then, Cherokee territory. On that cool late October morning in 1828, Benjamin was out breaking in a new pair of boots and tripped over a large rock. On the ground, he looked over what he tripped on and noticed that the rock was the color of an egg yolk. At first, Parks didn’t think much of his find and reports say he used this big yellow rock as a door prop in his modest cabin for over a year before a visiting friend had inquired about it. Parks was not the first person to have found gold in the United States; there had been findings of yellow rocks in North Carolina about 20-30 years prior, but had been few and far between.  Word of Benjamin’s yellow rock had soon spread and very quickly, tens of thousands of prospectors flocked to the area in hopes of finding the same riches that ‘found’ Benjamin. Men from every state at the time would come by wagon and exhaust and exhume the land to find it’s golden minerals. It is said that by 1831, over 15,000 miners were in Lumpkin County alone. With dozens of mines in the area, its estimated that there was over 870,000 troy ounces of gold removed from the mountains during the boom. 

In 1832, Georgia legislature voted to create ten counties out of the Cherokee land, via the land lottery,  including what became Lumpkin County. The following year, the county seat of Dahlonega (Cherokee for ‘yellow rock’) was established, and 25 years later, part of Lumpkin was divided off to create Dawson County. 

Years later, the elder Parks would regret his discovery of Gold - as it created a frenzy in the area that he enjoyed his quiet life. It also encouraged the United States Government to eradicate the Cherokee Indians with  the "Indian Removal Act of 1830", which then led to the 'Trail of Tears' in the following year of 1831. By 1838, the Cherokee were totally and forcibly removed from their native home. At one time, Parks was set to marry a Cherokee. 

Parks would recall later, "The news got abroad, and such excitement you never saw. It seemed within a few days as if the whole world must have heard of it, for men came afoot, on horseback and in wagons, acting more like crazy men than anything else. All the way from where Dahlonega now stands to Nuckollsville (present day Auraria) there were men panning out of the branches and making holes of the hillsides"

Benjamin would later sell his lot where he found gold to a future US Vice President, John Calhoun, who went on to mine thousands of dollars worth of gold. His son would then use those profits to found and establish Clemson University in South Carolina.

In 1835, the US Government established a mint in Dahlonega, producing over $6 Million in gold coins before closing at the start of the Civil War.  The original mint burned down and is now the site of Price Memorial Hall at the University of North Georgia, it's steeple adorned with real Dahlonega gold.  Gold Mining in Dahlonega stayed constant until 1849 when word traveled that California was rich in gold, which encouraged droves of miners to trek west to again try their luck. Some stopped short in Colorado and also made riches. Three men who mined in the settlement of Auraria, about 5 miles south of Dahlonega, founded the town of Auraria, Colorado, which years later which became a neighborhood of Denver, now spelled Aurora. Shortly thereafter when much of the commercial mining dried up, much of North Georgia went back to being a poor farming community. 

Benjamin passed away about 20 years before Raymond Parks was born, just south in Dawsonville, Georgia. Raymond, too, lived into his 90’s, and created a gold mine in his own right. North Georgia is filled with history no matter where you turn. Whether it’s gold, racing history or liquid gold (Moonshine). Coincidentally enough, Dahlonega holds its annual ‘Gold Rush Days’ festival a week before Dawsonville holds its annual ‘Mountain Moonshine Festival’, both held in late October, on the 3rd and 4th weekends; around the same time Uncle Benny first discovered gold in 1828. The North Georgia Mountain people are proud of their heritage and their history, and we have a lot of it to share. 

Raymond Parks with his collection of stock car racing trophies, circa 1950.

Photo courtesy Peach State Speed Archives