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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.