Spotlighting special towns across the country, Good Towns is about the character, the history, the people and the unique things that make a town a special place.
Fifty years ago, the alpine-themed village of Helen, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia, was little more than a gathering of bland buildings, the kind of place that barely warranted a glance from campers on their way to the new Unicoi State Park within the Chattahoochee National Forest. The fledgling timber community was on the brink of despair. Helen probably would have slipped right off the map had it not been for the brilliant idea of a city to reinvent itself.
In December 1968, a group of local businessmen including Peter Hodkinson and then-Mayor Bob Fowler gathered at Paul’s Steakhouse on the edge of the Chattahoochee watching cars fly past Helen without bothering to even tap on the brakes. If the travelers had a reason to stop, the men wondered, perhaps they would spend some of those dollars in Helen.
They decided the drab buildings along Main Street could be livened up with fresh coats of colorful paint. Hodkinson took this idea to John Kollock, an artist in neighboring Clarksville, and asked if he could recommend an eye-catching color scheme. “But, being an artist, John wasn’t satisfied with that idea,” John’s wife, Nancy, says.
Kollock went to Helen and saw its natural beauty situated along the southern Appalachians, the rolling waters of the Chattahoochee crossing its path. It reminded him of an alpine village in Bavaria, Germany, where he was stationed during the Korean War. “He loved the architecture there. It was very charming, and he had taken lots of pictures,” Nancy says. “He knew that Bavarian style would look perfect in Helen.”
Kollock painted his vision – a village of white stucco cottages with wooden balconies and painted trim – and presented the idea to Pete and the other businessmen. “And they absolutely loved it,” Nancy recalls.
Hodkinson wasted no time convincing the townsfolk to embrace the concept. They not only took to the idea, they reached into their own pockets to make it happen. Kollock provided contractors with sketches for each establishment that included details like shutters, fascia boards, balconies, and iron side brackets. Two crews worked full time rebuilding all the shop fronts in the entire village.
That April, the town revoked its original charter with the state and created a new one, giving the city control over the outside appearance of the buildings, requiring businesses there to follow the same Bavarian theme. Within a matter of months, Helen unveiled its new Bavarian-themed village to the media with music and street dances.
At that moment, Helen became a tourist attraction.
The following year, the fall of 1970, Hodkinson established the Bavaria-inspired folk festival Oktoberfest, which is held in the city’s community center, the Festhalle. It is now the longest Oktoberfest in the country, beginning each year in early September and running – off and on – through the end of October.
Kollock died three years ago, but some of his early building designs and other artwork can be seen at the Helen Arts & Heritage Center.
By 1973, the City of Helen was still getting comfortable in her new alpine dressings. Realizing that tourist destinations need accommodations, Hodkinson spearheaded the construction of the Helendorf River Inn, a 30-unit condominium building on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, to serve as rental units for visitors.
A year later, Barbara Gay, a former high school classmate of Hodkinson’s, and her husband Dick, took over management of the property. Eventually, the Helendorf was converted to a hotel and expanded to add more guest rooms, a fireside lobby and a conference room. Now, Barbara’s daughter, Catherine Gay Cleiman, manages the business.
A narrow promenade runs between the hotel and the riverbank, with three large castle stone staircases providing direct access to the cool waters of the Chattahoochee. This waterway is considered a blue-ribbon trout stream and is ideal for fishing brown and rainbow trout.
Warmer months bring hordes of visitors floating on colorful inner tubes from the two tubing companies in town.
The yells and laughter die down before sunset, when the last of the tubers returns to the outposts. “Shooting the ‘Hooch” is as big of a draw to Helen as the shops in the nearby village.
A Flighty Idea
The Helendorf had only been open for a few months when Hodkinson proposed that the town host a Helen-to-the-Atlantic Balloon Race. The race begins in Helen and ends when the first balloon reaches the Atlantic, or crosses I-95 anywhere from Maine to Miami.
Hodkinson’s premise was that the colorful, floating orbs lured the media and spectators, and would bring more attention to Helen. Through he years, the balloon race has brought hot air balloon pilots such as the founder of the famous Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and world-renowned entrepreneur Malcolm Forbes.
Hodkinson also commissioned his friend Tarp Head to make him the city’s official hot air balloon featuring a Swiss cross emblem and “Helen, Georgia’s Alpine Village” printed on the sides. Head later established Head Balloons, based in Helen, one of a handful of hot air balloon manufacturers in the country.
The Helendorf has consistently served as the host and headquarters of the annual Helen balloon race, which celebrated its 45th anniversary last June. Cleiman is the event organizer. Head is the official balloonmeister.
In 1973, David Jones bought Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen. It is now the longest continuous proprietorship in Helen.
Hansel & Gretel started as a small shop with just 200-square-feet of retail space. Since then, it has moved to a larger shop in the village and a second location down Main Street.
Hansel & Gretel’s village location stands shoulder-to-shoulder with dozens of boutiques, souvenir and novelty shops, Christmas stores, and restaurants. Lindenhaus Imports has an impressive collection of beer steins and elaborate Anton Schneider cuckoo clocks. Troll Tavern’s outdoor patio sits right along the Chattahoochee. Bodensee Restaurant serves gigantic helpings of traditional German fare.
Outside, Ekim Beau plays to passersby on his homemade, cross-string zither.
About two million people visit Helen each year. The weeks of Oktoberfest are popular, but most come in October when the leaves change. The village’s over-the-top Christmas decorations also lure tourists. The important thing is that visitors keep coming, says Helen Mayor Jeff Ash.
Ash has been involved with the city in some capacity for nearly five decades, having first served as mayor in 1976. A banker, Ash also helped finance much of the early renovations and new construction in the village. During the past six years, four major hotels have been built in town. A mountain roller coaster attraction is scheduled to open soon.
“The best thing I see is growth spurs growth. Growth in sales tax, hotel/motel tax – all the trends are there for us to just keep on trucking. That’s what we’re going to do,” he says, adding, “But there is more to Helen than Bavaria.”
Nestled in the Chattahoochee National Forest, Unicoi State Park and Lodge offers lodge, cabin or campsite accommodations, and activities like hiking and biking, paddle boarding, kayaking, archery, fly fishing classes, and zipline adventures.
Within the park is Anna Ruby Falls a spectacular waterfall that marks the junction of Curtis and York Creeks. The creeks converge at Smith Creek, which feeds into Unicoi Lake and then on to the Chattahoochee River. The falls are less than a half-mile walk from the visitor’s center and are well worth the climb.
Perhaps the most unusual attraction in Helen is the Sautee Nacoochee Indian Mound, located in the middle of a cow pasture where Highway 17 meets Highway 75. The Indian Mound holds the remains of Native Americans who occupied the area between 1350 to 1600. The mound was excavated in 1915 and then reconstructed. In 1890, Captain John H. Nichols lobbed off the top two feet of the mound and built a gazebo on its new summit.
The mound sits across the street from Hardman Farm. Built in 1870, by Captain Nichols. This grand example of Italianate architecture was later owned by Atlanta businessman Calvin Honeycutt, and lastly by former Georgia Gov. Dr. Lamartine Hardman from 1927 to 1931. It was donated to the state in 1999, and is open for tours.