For at least one day per year, everyone in Rockmart is Welsh. Hailing from the southwestern corner of the United Kingdom, the Welsh are cited as one of the most influential groups to settle the Georgia coast, and as early as the mid-1800’s, they’ve existed and contributed to Rockmart and other surrounding areas.
Rockmart’s Welsh heritage remains a vital part of the city’s history, and in order to both celebrate the history of the group and to promote local tourism, various events in honor of Welsh culture are held within the city. While the annual WELSHfest draws hundreds of attendees to downtown Rockmart each year, fewer know about the hymn sing that takes place the day before.
Organized by former Polk County Historical Society president Greg Gray, the event is styled after the Welsh festival ‘Cymanfa Ganu’ where hymns are sung in a four-part harmony together by a congregation and a director.
Local acts such as the Scarlet Wool Band and the Dale Brumbelow Quartet were invited to perform favorites such as ‘I’ll Fly Away’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ before Wales-born citizen Dr. Rheinallt M. Jones directed the attendees through various Welsh hymns such as ‘Calon Lan.’
Jones would offer context to each song before asking the congregation to stand and sing with him, and while most songs were performed in English, Jones was able to treat guests to a performance in his native language of Welsh, too.
True to his idea of promoting local tourism, Gray held the hymn sing at the Historic Van Wert Church to help highlight interesting local stops. While they may come to indulge in a slice of Welsh history, they may return to visit the oldest standing church in the county.
Built in 1857, the building survived the wrath of the Civil War and it’s cemetery now serves as the final resting place for many soldiers. The historical society has spent thousands renovating and protecting the church, and it’s history with the Welsh is one of the main reasons.
“The Welsh came here in the 1860’s and started quarry in the slate,” Gray said. “They used this church building for their chapel. Out back behind the place are graves of some of those early settlers that came from Wales to quarry. Carl Welsh, of St. David’s Welsh Society, contacted me and we decided, for tourism, we would develop our festival to draw in people from out of town.”
Numbers from the U.S Travel Association and Tourism Economics state that Georgia’s tourism industry generated a record-high $63.1 billion in economic impact in 2017- an increase of 3.8 percent over 2016. While Polk’s own specific numbers are unknown, historical sites remain one of the most popular tourist attractions the state over.
In Wales, more than a thousand Cymanfa Ganu are held annually, but anywhere Welsh culture thrives, so does the festival. Rockmart first joined in the tradition in 2015, and the first Cymanfa Ganu in the North America was held as early as 1929 in New York.