The Resilience of a Small Mountain Town

Helen, GA  photo by Dale R. Carlson

Helen, GA  photo by Dale R. Carlson

There is a tiny town tucked away in the mountains of Georgia referred to as Alpine Helen.  With only 542 residents it draws thousands of tourists every year.  The evolution of this town through history is an amazing story!  The area began as the center for Cherokee culture.  The oldest road in Georgia began outside of Helen when the Cherokee granted the Unicoi Turnpike could be built in 1813 for white settlers.  Sadly, this was later to be the very same road the Cherokee used to exit the area on their "Trail of Tears".   

Unicoi Turnpike - Photo by Dale R. Carlson

Unicoi Turnpike - Photo by Dale R. Carlson

Gold was discovered in the Nacoochee Valley (now known as Helen Valley) in 1828.  Thousands of miners and tons of gold transformed the valley.  Extensive mining was carried out until the end of the century.  This brought on another group of opportunists who saw the value of the virgin timber and large lumber companies arrived.  Timber naturally brought the railroads as well to ship the timber.  The lumber companies located along the Chattahoochee River and this began the mystery of where Helen got its name.  A variety of stories have "Miss Helen" as the daughter of a variety of men from a sawmill owner, mill manager, surveyor, an official of the North Western Railroad and perhaps even the man who founded the town.  A book called "The Story of Helen" by Matt Gedney gives a great description about finding the correct Helen.  Naturally Helen became quite prosperous again.  However, when the timber was gone the lumber operations ended in 1931.  Once again the opportunists moved on and by the 1960 Helen was nothing but a row of sad looking concrete buildings.

In 1968 a group of local businesses got together to discuss what they could do to change the sad conditions of their town.  Now comes our favorite part - they decided to consult a local artist for ideas.  Yep, an artist!  His name was John Kollock who lived in nearby Clarksville.  He was known for his watercolors of Georgia landscapes.  They asked Kollock if he had any ideas how they might dress up their buildings in town.  Kollock visited Helen took photographs and presented the business with watercolor sketches the next week.  His idea of turning the town into an Alpine village came from his time being stationed in Bavaria while in the Army.  His idea was embraced by the business men and work began almost immediately.  Thus, modern day Alpine Helen was born!  

It sounds simple but think about it -- what if they had asked a marketing firm!  No disrespect to marketing firms but my gut tells me that only an artist could have created such a beautiful concept.  Kollock was thinking beauty first!  He had few expectations that his idea would be embraced by the town but to his surprise ALL the downtown businesses agreed even though they had little faith that profit could come from tourism.  Things moved quickly once local builders J.S. Chastain and Roy Sims came on board.  They began working on the first buildings less than a month after the idea of renovation was first discussed.  Most of the old downtown buildings were converted before the end of 1969 and things never slowed down.  This was something new in the Georgia mountains and the novelty brought crowds immediately.  Helen was an instant success!  Civic cooperation, imagination and determined locals created nothing short of a miracle for their community.  Kollock himself also went around down and added his artistic touch by adding paintings of local history on the white Bavarian stucco.  This also brought him commercial success for his sketches, watercolors and books.  In our opinion this is the perfect marriage of art and business.  Oh what a wonderful world it would be if this could always be so!

Downtown Helen today - photo by Dale R. Carlson

Downtown Helen today - photo by Dale R. Carlson

Downtown Helen GA - Photo by Dale R. Carlson

Downtown Helen GA - Photo by Dale R. Carlson

As the years went on many changes and new additions have been made in Helen.  Since we had lived in Germany for three years, it was a treat to once again to eat German cuisine, drink German beer and experience a trip down memory lane.  Our visit coincided with the last weekend of the famous Oktoberfest!  The event in their Festhalle transported us back to Munich.  They truly have captured the authenticity.  

Festhalle during Oktoberfest in Helen GA - Photo by Dale R. Carlson

Festhalle during Oktoberfest in Helen GA - Photo by Dale R. Carlson

Helen's story is unique but there are definitely things that other communities can learn from them.  They are not a theme park, they are real people who set out to change their town for the better and continue to do so.  So when you hear someone in your community rail against tourism remember that the meaning of the tourism is traveling for pleasure.  Helen definitely left us feeling as if we had a pleasurable experience.  Our next visit is going to be see their traditional German Christkindlmarkt.  When you want to go back again you know it was a good travel choice! 

Helen GA at Night - Photo by Dale R. Carlson

Helen GA at Night - Photo by Dale R. Carlson