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Kevin Benefield

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A road trip along Georgia’s coast invites travelers to take a walk on the wild side

Coastal Georgia road trip map

Illustration by Steven Stankiewicz

Georgia’s coast has long called to visitors with its rich cultural history and world-class hospitality. From the nation’s first planned city, Savannah, known for its lush public squares and centuries-old structures; to Jekyll Island, once an enclave for America’s Gilded Age elite; to Sea Island, the only resort in the world to receive four Forbes Five Star ratings twelve years running, many of the state’s coastal destinations may well be regarded as wholly civilized. But there’s another side, a wilder side, to this 110-mile stretch of coastline and its fifteen barrier islands, which holds its own timeless appeal.

Forests of pine and magnolia, live oak and cabbage palm roll up to sweeping salt marshes bright-green with cordgrass and cut through by tidal creeks. These enchanting landscapes, along with miles of dunes and beaches, are home to an astonishing diversity of life—from hermit crabs and alligators to wild horses and armadillos. More than 300 species of birds flock to the area—migrating songbirds, wintering waterfowl, even nesting egrets and wood storks—making it a birder’s paradise. In addition to exploring the varied ecosystems and spying native wildlife, visitors to coastal Georgia will discover a bison ranch, a sea turtle hospital, and a renowned jewelry store selling wildlife-inspired pieces such as shark vertebrae necklaces and rattlesnake rib bangles.

Tybee Beach Ecology Trips

Courtesy of Tybee Beach Ecology Trips

Tybee Beach Ecology Trips
Throughout his tenure as a professor of marine biology at Savannah State University, Dr. Joe Richardson helped local schoolteachers plan and lead field trips to the beaches of Tybee Island. When he retired a decade ago, he found himself in increasing demand as a guide. Today, he leads groups of twenty or so on walks along Tybee’s North Beach at low tide in search of live animals like sea anemones and crabs. He also nets fish and sometimes stumbles upon sea cucumbers, soft coral, and starfish that have been washed onto the beach. After the two-hour-plus tour, all animals, including the occasional stingray or squid, are released where they were found.

A cougar at Oatland Island Wildlife Center

Courtesy of Oatland Island Wildlife Center

Oatland Island Wildlife Center
For forty-six years this center just east of Savannah has been connecting visitors to the natural world. More than fifty species, most native to coastal Georgia, live on the center’s 175 acres. A two-mile nature trail, which moves through maritime forest, freshwater wetlands, and salt marsh, winds past the habitats of cougars, bobcats, alligators, and foxes. Dominating the campus is the sprawling red-brick Conductor’s Home. Built in 1927 by the Order of Railway Conductors as a retirement home for its members, it houses the visitor center, classrooms, a veterinary clinic, and the gift shop.

Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge is known for having a staggering range of birds

Courtesy of Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge

Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge
The history of this national refuge near Townsend is arguably as diverse as the wildlife that call it home. The land was the site of Guale Indian villages for two centuries, a Sea Island cotton plantation for decades, and a training facility for fighter pilots during World War II. Since 1962, it’s been a protected habitat for hundreds of species, most notably a staggering range of birds. In fall and spring, hundreds of thousands of songbirds, raptors, and waterfowl pass through on their annual migrations along the Atlantic Flyway. During the winter, ducks congregate in the marshes and ponds. And summer sees colonies of wood storks and other wading birds nesting in the refuge, as well as painted buntings that also come for breeding season.

Iron Bison Ranch

Courtesy of Iron Bison Ranch

Iron Bison Ranch
According to ranch owners Brian and Amy Maddern, buffalo roamed parts of Georgia as recently as 1911, when the last wild herd was eliminated in one fateful hunt. Learn about the one-ton American icon as well as the growing bison ranching industry on a guided tour of this Townsend attraction. From raised observation decks along the fence line, visitors can watch the herd of twenty-three and feed apples to some of the more outgoing animals, including the stud, Number 5, and Bernie and Ernie, a couple of high-spirited juveniles. Stop in at the general store for branded T-shirts and packages of buffalo meat.  

Open Gates Bed and Breakfast

Photo by Laurie Poole

Open Gates Bed and Breakfast
Zach Rath honed his hospitality skills as a chef on small cruise ships and private yachts. His wife, Carrie, learned the ropes of running a business in the property management industry. Together, they transformed a circa-1876 mansion built by a timber baron (whose spirit is rumored to linger) into Darien’s premier historic inn. Large guest rooms with soaring ceilings and the tranquil cedar-paneled library, perfect for reading or playing cards, are major draws, but breakfast is the main event. With a bit of luck (or a request), you’ll enjoy Zach’s award-winning mascarpone-stuffed crepes topped with fresh fruit and whipped cream.

Skippers’ Fish Camp
As you’d expect in a historic port town turned fishing village known for its Georgia wild shrimp, Darien is home to a standout seafood restaurant. Skippers’ sits on the banks of the Darien River, just steps from the docks where the local shrimp fleet brings in its daily catch. Start with a bottle of beer and a pound of peel-and-eat shrimp, then move on to the crispy, fresh-caught flounder with homemade onion rings and collard greens. Settle in for sunset views over Key lime pie or peach cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream.

Lady Jane Shrimpin’ Excursions
Following an exhaustive refurbishment, this retired commercial shrimping trawler got new life taking passengers on ecotourism excursions in the salt marshes off the Brunswick coast. Captain Cameron and his crewmates, naturalist Jeffery Benson and John Tyre, bring decades of experience on these waters to the three-hour tours, which include three trawls. With each bringing up of the nets, expect a bounty of sea life—crabs, rays, squid, a range of fish from grouper to puffer, even baby sharks—which Benson identifies and describes before returning the creatures to the water.

Village Inn and Pub

Photo by Anna and Daniel Shackleford

Village Inn and Pub
Sheltered in a stand of moss-laced oaks, this lovely little inn attracts both St. Simons locals, who congregate in the cheery pub from happy hour until last call, and couples looking for a romantic getaway. A renovated 1930s beach cottage serves as the reception area, breakfast room, sitting room, and bar. The twenty-eight guest rooms wrap around the cottage beneath the boughs of stately oaks (not a branch of which was cut during the construction of the inn), lending the property a cozy, cloistered feel.

Gogo Jewelry

Courtesy of Gogo Jewelry

Gogo Jewelry
Jewelry designer Gogo Ferguson, a descendant of Thomas Carnegie, spent many childhood summers at the family’s estate on remote Cumberland Island, often searching for natural treasures with her grandmother, Lucy. She returned to the island in the late 1980s to live full time, and today she continues to seek out rattlesnake bones, boar tusks, and armadillo scales from which to create necklaces, rings, bangles, and sculptures. Fans include Hillary Clinton, Bill Murray, and the late John F. Kennedy Jr. Stop in at her boutique on St. Simons Island to pick out a piece of your own.

Georgia Sea Turtle Center

Courtesy of Jekyll Island Authority

Georgia Sea Turtle Center
The only sea-turtle rehabilitation facility in Georgia, this Jekyll Island center treats sick and injured animals and offers visitors the opportunity to see their care firsthand. In addition to the chance to visit patients and watch surgeries and other medical procedures, visitors can get in on the action on ranger-led programs, including dawn and night rides with the island’s sea turtle patrol in search of nesting or injured animals.

Wild horses on Cumberland Island

Photo by Peter Frank Edwards

Cumberland Island
Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island, Cumberland is among the state’s most remote locales and the site of some of its most pristine landscapes, from dense maritime forests inhabited by wild horses and nine-banded armadillos to expansive marshes and wide spans of beach. In addition to the wildlife, visitors enjoy ranger-led tours of the ruins of Dungeness Estate, the once-grand Queen Anne mansion built by Thomas Carnegie in the 1880s. Note: This island is only accessible by a passenger ferry operated out of St. Marys by the National Park Service; check for times and availability of seats.

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Southbound.

Simple pleasures await on a road trip through North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, northwestern North Carolina was a frontier, separated from the eastern part of the colony by a number of rivers. When settlers of Scotch-Irish and German descent began to flow into the backcountry in the 1730s, they arrived from the north by way of two major roads, the Great Indian Trading Path and the Great Wagon Road. These early settlers planted corn, as well as tobacco, which thrived in the sandy soil and proved a valuable export to Europe. Over the course of the next two and half centuries, the area’s tobacco industry would boom, affording farming families a reliable source of income.

In the last few decades, the decline in demand for tobacco has forced farmers to begin casting about for other crops. Many have turned to winemaking, and today, dozens of small wineries dot the rolling hills of the Yadkin Valley. Visitors traveling through the valley along US 601 from Yadkinville to Mount Airy will pass vineyards pocketed alongside fields of corn, soybeans, and the occasional chartreuse span of tobacco. They’ll also discover a number of attractions worth a stop, from a popcorn factory to a century-old general store to the childhood home of actor Andy Griffith.

Yadkin Valley Popcorn

Photo courtesy of Shallowford Farms

Shallowford Farms
The home of Yadkin Valley Popcorn, this farm-to-bucket Yadkinville enterprise began in 1987 with a couple of acres of cornfields and one customer to which it sold corn kernels. Today, it spans 2,000 acres and ships three to five trailer truckloads of its gourmet flavored popcorn to grocery stores along the East Coast every week. It also exports its fresh-popped confection to customers as far away as Dubai, Vietnam, and Zanzibar. The factory is open for tours (call ahead to schedule a time), which include tastings of its nearly twenty varieties, among them green apple, caramel, birthday cake, and piña colada.

Rockford General Store

Photograph by Sara Brennan

Rockford General Store
Opened in 1890, this general store, located a few winding miles from downtown Dobson in the historic community of Rockford, has been a gathering place for residents for decades. Today, locals and visitors alike sit at the long oil cloth–covered table in the heart of the store to sample a classic North Carolina dessert: sonker. Like a cobbler—but juicier—sonker consists of fruit (apple, blackberry, peach, or whatever is in season), unshaped dough, and sugar or sorghum-cane molasses. After enjoying a warm bowl a la mode, stock up on penny candies and stroll the surrounding village and its dozen or so historic structures built between 1790 and 1900.

The Wine Lodge at Stony Knoll Vineyards
The land on which Stony Knoll Vineyards sits has been in Kathy Coe’s family since 1896. She and her husband, Van, are the sixth generation to work the farm, which produced tobacco until the mid-eighties. In 2002, they brought in their first grape harvest, and five years later, they transformed an 1860s cabin overlooking the vineyard into a rental property for visitors. The low, exposed-beam ceilings, stone fireplace, braided rugs, and family photos dating back to the 1920s, lend the interior a warm, homey feel. And the front porch, with its knockout view of the vineyard, provides the ideal setting for enjoying a glass of Stony Knoll’s rich barrel-fermented chardonnay or smooth cabernet franc.

Andy Griffith Museum

Photo courtesy of Surry County Tourism

Andy Griffith Museum
This busy little museum a block off Mount Airy’s Main Street celebrates the town’s favorite son, actor and musician Andy Griffith. Visitors follow Griffith’s life from his birth in 1926 through his early years on stage and the big screen to his television career. Expect plenty of props and costumes from The Andy Griffith Show set in the small town of Mayberry, North Carolina, which was inspired by Mount Airy. Pick up a copy of Aunt Bee’s Mayberry Cookbook or a Floyd’s Barber Shop T-shirt in the gift shop.

Snappy Lunch
One of the only Mount Airy sites specifically mentioned in The Andy Griffith Show, this Main Street diner, open since 1923, is a must for Mayberry pilgrims—so expect a wait. Inside the narrow dining room (complete with a three-stool lunch counter), patrons can take in historic photos of the town while filling up on bologna sandwiches, hot dogs, and signature pork chop sandwiches. For dessert, snag a handmade chocolate pie from the basket beside the cash register.

Wally’s Service Station

Photo courtesy of Surry County Tourism

Wally’s Service Station
During his childhood, Griffith often walked to the station from his nearby home for a snack. Opened in 1937, it was converted to a tourist destination in 2001 and christened Wally’s Service Station, a major Mayberry locale in The Andy Griffith Show. Today, it’s the home of Mayberry Squad Car Tours, which offers an hour-long tour of Mount Airy in a 1965 Ford Galaxy 500 outfitted with a gumball light and vintage police siren. Cruise past sites associated with Griffith’s childhood, as well as local landmarks, such as the world’s largest open-face granite quarry. After your tour, stock up on souvenirs in the gift shop or snap a selfie in the jail cells at the recreated Mayberry Courthouse next door.

Andy Griffith’s Homeplace

Photo courtesy of Surry County Tourism

Andy Griffith’s Homeplace
Diehard Griffith fans will want to book a stay in his boyhood home on Haymore Street, a short walk from downtown Mount Airy. Griffith lived in the two-bedroom house with his parents until his graduation from high school in 1944. Furnished with pieces from the 1930s and forties and decorated with period knickknacks and pictures, the tidy little house transports guests back in time. After picking up your key at the nearby Hampton Inn, which operates the property, settle into the living room to watch episodes of The Andy Griffith Show on DVD.

The Oil & Gas Memorabilia Museum

Photo courtesy of Surry County Tourism

The Oil & Gas Memorabilia Museum
You could say that Thornton Beroth has oil in his blood. In 1958, his father founded Beroth Oil, a North Carolina gasoline and heating oil distributorship for Amoco. In 1969, Thornton joined the business, eventually working with his three brothers to add a couple dozen convenience stores, known as Four Brothers Food Stores, to the operation. When he retired in the early aughts, Thornton shifted his focus to this Pilot Mountain museum showcasing his enormous collection of items related to the petroleum industry. After purchasing and renovating the circa-1900 Bank of Mount Pilot building, he transferred five tractor-trailer loads of memorabilia into the space. Today, visitors (who should call ahead to schedule a tour) will find dozens of vintage gas pumps and scores of brilliant neon signs, their light reflected in the highly polished pine floors. Floor-to-ceiling shelves are lined with hundreds of oil cans bearing vintage labels, and counters display a host of promotional items from petroleum companies and gas stations across the nation, including model tankers, clocks, road maps, and paper service-station hats. 336-757-7600

Pilot Mountain State Park

Photo by Richard Hill

Pilot Mountain State Park
A quartzite monadnock rising 1,400 feet above the surrounding valley, Pilot Mountain was used as a navigational aid for centuries by American Indians as well as European settlers traveling south, who marked its sighting as their entry into North Carolina. Today, it’s a popular recreation spot, offering more than a dozen hiking trails, including the 100-yard Little Pinnacle Overlook Trail, which takes visitors to a bluff overlooking the countryside. From this vantage point, hikers can spot the nearby towns of Pilot Mountain and Mount Airy, as well as the skyline of Winston-Salem, some thirty miles southeast of the mount. Also on view (at least on sunny days) are dozens of high-flying raptors, such as red-tailed hawks and black vultures. Be sure to stop in at the brand-new visitor center to pick up maps and check out exhibits on native wildlife and plants and the history of the mountain.

This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Southbound.

Dive into Cajun culture on a trip along the Bayou Teche Byway in south central Louisiana

Shaded by bald cypress trees and moss-laden oaks, thronged with alligators, and resonant with the calls of frogs and birds, the Bayou Teche slowly winds its way 125 miles through south central Louisiana. Until a few thousand years ago, this waterway was the main channel of the Mississippi River. But as it became increasingly clogged with silt, the Mississippi altered its course—a process known as deltaic shifting. What remained in the former bed was a slow-moving waterway, no longer a river but not a swamp, something in between—a bayou.

The Chitimacha Tribe, who began settling along its banks around 500 CE, offered another story of the bayou’s origins, one involving a monstrous, miles-long serpent that terrorized their villages. Their legend holds that when their warriors slew the snake, its turning and writhing created the bed of the Bayou Teche (“teche is the Chitimacha word for “snake”).

In the 1700s, French, Spanish, and Anglo-American settlers began moving into the area. They were followed at century’s end by the Acadians—French Canadian exiles who would come to culturally dominate the region known today as the heart of Acadiana or Cajun country.

Travelers along Louisiana Highway 182, part of the Bayou Teche Byway, will find themselves immersed in Cajun culture. Family-owned establishments serve up steaming bowls of crawfish etouffee and oven-fresh loaves of French bread. Small museums and stately historic homes showcase stories of life along the bayou and the rise of the sugar and rice industries in the nineteenth century. And one-of-a-kind attractions, including the Tabasco factory and a revolutionary offshore drilling rig known as “Mr. Charlie,” afford behind-the-scenes looks, respectively, at one of Louisiana’s iconic brands and the state’s booming petroleum industry.

Bayou Teche Museum

Photograph courtesy of Jane Braud

Bayou Teche Museum
This smart museum in downtown New Iberia reveals the historic centrality of the Bayou Teche to life in the region. Models of watercraft, from workaday pirogues to grand steamships, speak to the importance of waterborne travel and commerce. Other exhibits spotlight local industries, illuminating the process of sugar production and the history of salt. The museum also pays tribute to a pair of native sons whose artistry reached far beyond the bayou: author James Lee Burke and artist George Rodrigue. The former is honored with a reconstruction of Dave Robicheaux’s bait shop, which figures prominently in his popular series of detective novels. And the latter’s relocated studio features a paint-splattered floor, an unfinished Blue Dog painting, and works from his childhood in New Iberia.

Shadows on the Teche

Photograph courtesy of National Trust for Historic Preservation

Shadows on the Teche
This Classical Revival home was constructed between 1831 and 1834 for wealthy sugar planter David Weeks. In 1958, it became the first National Trust for Historic Preservation site in the Gulf South. Standing in the heart of New Iberia’s historic district and overlooking the Bayou Teche, the property was home to four generations of Weekses and is furnished almost entirely with the family’s American Empire pieces from the 1830s and forties (a mahogany dining room table set with Vieux Paris china and amber-glass tableware, a walnut petite armoire filled with young ladies’ clothing). A short film, screened hourly at the visitors center across the street, presents a short history of the town, the family, and the area’s sugar industry

Conrad Rice Mill

Photograph courtesy of Iberia Parish CVB

Conrad Rice Mill
A visit to the oldest operating rice mill in the nation begins at the neighboring KONRIKO Company Store (KONRIKO is an approximate acronym for Conrad Rice Company, coined in the 1950s). After viewing a film on the history of the Cajuns and rice planting, take a guided tour of the three-story mill, constructed of cypress in 1914. Head back to the store for complimentary coffee and samples of KONRIKO products, including the popular Wild Pecan rice, a Cajun staple developed at Louisiana State University and prized for its nutty aroma and subtle pecan flavor

Tabasco Factory

Photograph courtesy of Tabasco

Tabasco Factory
A half hour southwest of New Iberia on Avery Island, the McIlhenny family produces and bottles its famous Tabasco pepper sauce, just as they have since 1868. Follow the process from the pepper plants all the way to the bottling line. Stop in at the museum to check out a host of vintage promotional items, including a 1935 sewing thimble, a copy of the sauce’s eponymous 1959 pulp fiction novel, and a 1995 Zippo lighter. Drop by the country store for a souvenir (perhaps a Tabasco bottle Christmas ornament), and sidle up to the tasting bar to sample Tabasco soda pop or ice cream drizzled with raspberry-chipotle pepper sauce. And don’t miss the 1868 Restaurant, which serves up Cajun classics such as gumbo and red beans and rice alongside a dozen varieties of Tabasco.

Jungle Gardens

Photograph courtesy of Iberia Parish CVB

Jungle Gardens
Avery Island is also home to a 170-acre garden and wildlife sanctuary created by Edward McIlhenny, son of Tabasco inventor Edmund McIlhenny, and opened to the public in 1935. Four miles of gravel roads wind around enormous oak trees and past lagoons filled with alligators, turtles, and wading birds. Specialty gardens feature rare palms and cacti, sixty types of bamboo, and 700 varieties of camellias, as well as the Cleveland Oak, a 300-year-old tree named in honor of the former president and measuring twenty-three feet in circumference. Other highlights include the 900-year-old Buddha surrounded by hundreds of azaleas as well as Bird City, a sprawling rookery that is home to thousands of egrets, herons, and other waterfowl

LeJeune’s Bakery
At this bakery situated in a red-brick building in the heart of tiny Jeanerette, a fifth generation of LeJeunes turns out French bread and ginger cakes using the same recipes and hands-on methods employed when the store opened for business in 1884. Follow locals through the side entrance (no one uses the front door), and pick up hot loaves of crusty bread fresh from the oven. Take notice of the large cypress desk, which has been in use since opening day and now serves as a checkout counter, and peruse dozens of browning newspaper clippings and family photos, which tell the story of this first Louisiana bakery to be placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Chitimacha Museum

Photograph courtesy of the Cajun Coast Visitors & Convention Bureau

Chitimacha Museum
One of a number of indigenous Louisiana peoples, the Chitimacha is the only tribe in the state still living on a portion of its original homeland. In 1971, it earned another distinction, becoming the first Louisiana tribe to adopt a constitution. Discover the history and artistry of the Chitimacha at this museum on their 900-acre reservation bordering the town of Charenton. Displays showcase clothing, from traditional skins to cotton designs unique to the tribe; a 500-year-old traditional dugout; and the tribe’s ten-article constitution. Perhaps the highlight of the museum is its collection of more than forty river cane baskets, fashioned by the Chitimacha in a number of shapes and styles featuring patterns of native plants and animals. 

Yellow Bowl Restaurant
This restaurant a couple miles east of downtown Jeanerette began in 1927 as a stop for hungry travelers on the Greyhound bus line and continues to dish up Cajun classics. During lunch and dinner, the little butter-yellow building is packed with longtime patrons, who are happy to recommend favorite dishes. Topping almost everyone’s list are the fried crawfish tails and the crawfish bisque. Try them both by ordering the crawfish platter, which also includes a bowl of etouffee, a crawfish ball, and a serving of crawfish au gratin, the Cajun cousin of lobster mac and cheese.

The Fairfax House

Photograph courtesy of the Fairfax House via Facebook

The Fairfax House
A stately house constructed in 1852 in the heart of a Franklin sugar cane plantation today serves as the setting of a bed and breakfast. Large guest rooms furnished with antiques, sweeping porches overlooking tree-shaded lawns, and conversations with longtime innkeeper Cheryl Kemper are reason enough to linger. But hundreds of noteworthy structures, from antebellum mansions to Victorian cottages, in the surrounding historic district beckon. Pick up a map, get some suggestions from Cheryl, and follow the row of century-old cast-iron street lamps running down Main Street on a self-guided walking tour of the town.

Mr. Charlie

Photograph courtesy of the International Petroleum Museum & Exposition

International Petroleum Museum & Exposition
The undeniable centerpiece of this singular museum in Morgan City is a towering oil rig known as “Mr. Charlie.” Built in 1954, this first transportable offshore drilling rig revolutionized the oil industry and continued in operation until 1986, drilling hundreds of wells in the Gulf of Mexico. Today, Mr. Charlie serves the industry as a training center for offshore oil workers, engineers, Coast Guardsmen, and Navy Seals. It’s also a popular attraction, affording visitors the only opportunity in the world to go aboard a drilling rig. In addition to getting a behind-the-scenes look at life on the rig, guests will learn about the history and future of offshore oil drilling in Louisiana and around the world.

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Southbound.

Embark on an Alpine adventure in Helen, Georgia

Helen Square

Bigstock

In 1968, the tiny mountain town of Helen was dying. The Byrd-Matthews lumber mill, which had fostered Helen’s founding in 1913, had closed in the early days of the Depression. During the fifties and sixties, a couple of manufacturing outfits, the Wilco Hosiery Mill, which produced socks, and Orbit Manufacturing, which made ladies apparel, had barely kept the town afloat. Residents could only look on as a new industry—tourism—blossomed around them, with motorists whisking by on their way to hike, fish, picnic, and take in the waterfalls north of Helen in the Chattahoochee National Forest.

Over lunch, three local businessmen, Pete Hodkinson, Jim Wilkins, and Bob Fowler, decided the town needed to add some street appeal if it hoped to capture the interests of passersby. They approached John Kollock, an artist and theatrical set designer from nearby Clarkesville, about adding some “color” to Helen. To Kollock, that meant a lot more than a simple coat of paint.

Rendering by John Kollock

Photograph courtesy of Alpine Helen/White County Georgia CVB

Kollock visited the town on a misty December day, and the setting reminded him of the villages in Bavaria he’d visited while serving in the Army during the 1950s. Inspired, he went to work reimagining the town as a German village. He placed tracing paper over photos of existing buildings and added Bavarian architectural details—decorative shutters, wood-railed balconies, and iron sign brackets. He also painted watercolors of the town as he envisioned it. When he presented his sketches and paintings to the Helen City Council, they approved his daring plan. For the next nine months, two crews worked around the clock painting facades, adding gingerbread trim, and installing window boxes spilling over with flowers. By the time the leaves began to turn in 1969, Alpine Helen was born.

White Horse Square

Bigstock

Word of a Bavarian-like town in the foothills of the Appalachians quickly spread. Soon, Helen was not only siphoning off its share of mountain-bound travelers (many heading to the newly established Unicoi State Park two miles north of town), it was welcoming visitors who came with the express purpose of seeing the reimagined village. Encouraged by the response, city officials added more upgrades: Cobblestone alleys were laid, and trees and flower beds were planted. Kollock painted murals on the walls of prominent buildings depicting the area’s early history—from its Cherokee villages to its pioneer settlements. And specialty shops selling European imports and restaurants serving German fare opened for business. Helen had become a destination in its own right.

Fifty years later, Alpine Helen continues to draw crowds. The handful of original buildings has been joined by hundreds of new structures spanning two square miles, all adhering to the city’s Alpine motif. In-the-know visitors sit down to a traditional German spread at Hofbrauhaus, feasting on bratwurst and weisswurst served with heaping sides of red cabbage, sauerkraut, and German potato salad. They also stop in to Hofer’s of Helen for apple strudels and Black Forest tortes on the bakery’s large front deck, flipping through copies of German celebrity gossip magazines while they eat. And they squeeze into picnic tables at the always-bustling King Ludwig’s Biergarten situated in White Horse Square to enjoy thirty-two-ounce mugs of Warsteiner beer and soft pretzels while listening to live music and taking in the scenery.

Oktoberfest parade

Photograph courtesy of Alpine Helen/White County Georgia CVB

Shops sell an assortment of European imports and even traditional Old World attire. In addition to hand-carved Anton Schneider cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest and ceramic Thewalt beer steins, Lindenhaus Imports carries wooden toys, nutcrackers, and a large selection of Russian nesting dolls. The Old Bavarian Inn Gift Shop sells authentic lederhosen, dirndls, and felt Tyrolean hats adorned with feathers or decorative pins. And though it departs from the Alpine theme, Windmill Dutch Imports is popular for its wooden shoes and Delft porcelain, tiles, and figurines. In addition, it operates a small grocery stocked with windmill spiced cookies, milk chocolate clogs, licorice candies, and stroopwafel mix.

Helen Square

Bigstock

Two downtown attractions also draw crowds. Charlemagne’s Kingdom, a model railroad display which opened in 1990, features 400 feet of track winding through Germany from the North Sea to the Alps (represented by a twenty-two-foot-high mountain). The meticulously detailed layout also includes a lively Oktoberfest celebration, an Autobahn trafficked by moving vehicles, and ascending hot-air balloons. Down the road from Charlemagne’s, the newly opened Georgia Mountain Coaster loads visitors two by two onto bobsled-like cars and shoots them down a three-quarter-mile-long mountainside track at high speeds. Constructed by German company Wiegand, the luge-inspired coaster is entirely gravity-driven in its descent.

Visitors who want to dig deeper into the story of the town’s transformation may do so at the Helen Arts & Heritage Center. After strolling through small galleries showcasing Alpine Helen’s “pre-history,” guests reach a room dedicated to “alpinization.” A short film narrated by John Kollock offers a firsthand account of the transition, and his recreated studio allows guests to envision him hard at work, the reimagined town emerging before him on his drafting table. A display of the original renderings and watercolors he presented to the city council transports visitors back to those fateful days in the winter of 1968, when a European village began to rise from the ashes of a dying Georgia town.

MORE TO EXPLORE

Helen to Hardman Heritage Trail
This recently completed mile-long trail connects Alpine Helen to Hardman Farm, Georgia’s newest state historic site. Winding through the forest alongside the Chattahoochee River, the path features placards describing native plants and animals and telling the history of human settlement in the area.

BabyLand General Hospital

Photograph courtesy of BabyLand General Hospital

BabyLand General Hospital
Seven miles south of Helen stands the palatial birthplace of, and adoption center for, Cabbage Patch Kids and their predecessors, the Little People. Created by Cleveland folk artist Xavier Roberts in 1978, the dolls (which are strictly referred to as “babies” at BabyLand General) became an international sensation in the eighties after toy company Coleco began mass production. Discover more about the history, see vintage babies, visit the massive gift shop, and check out the wall of fame featuring hundreds of photos and notes written to Roberts by the likes of Michael Jackson, Luciano Pavarotti, Richard Simmons, and Donald Trump.

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Southbound.

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