Though my first memories of Helen, Georgia were of fishing the Chattahoochee River through an almost abandoned village with one run-down motel and a few empty concrete buildings, its miraculous rebirth makes the old town unique during the holidays. Like one of the scenes from “The Sound of Music”, the Alpine village of Helen comes alive at this time of year.
The transformation began without much fanfare or any Federal or State handouts. Quite simply, the Alpine Village idea began when several local businessmen gathered at a riverside restaurant, looked out a window and saw their bleak hometown with its dull, dreary row of block structures. During that fateful luncheon, it was decided that something should be done to attract the tourists on their way to the lakes and national forest recreation areas.
It was late in 1968 when one businessman approached Clarkesville artist, John Kollock, about ideas for redecorating the town. John already had an idea in his mind from his days in the army, when he was stationed in Bavaria.
During his tour of duty, John had made many sketches of Alpine villages and was fascinated with the similarity of the landscape to the North Georgia Mountains.
The difference was in the trim, detail, and colors of the buildings that transmitted an excitement, which made everyday events seem like a vacation.
Mr. Kollock photographed the whole business section of Helen and within a week presented a series of water color sketches of what the face of Helen would look like in Alpine style. The businessmen eagerly accepted the sketches and a week later the townsmen and local carpenters began turning ideas into reality.
Wagons in HelenA vacant lot between two buildings was converted into a charming cobble stone alley of shops with an Old World flavor. On the face of the buildings, Mr. Kollock painted scenes reminiscent of the “air paintings” he had seen in Bavaria.
All of the cut work, balconies, facade trim, and details were created by two town builders, Ray L. Sims and J. S. Chastain. They took the simple sketches of each building and translated them into wood, block, and stucco.
Once the remodeling was begun, everyone pitched in on a beautification program to make Helen a true Cinderella town. Each shop owner paid for his own work. The city paid for the street lights and planters, and local citizens began planting trees and baskets cascading with flowers to hang from street lanterns in the true Alpine tradition. Even the local power and telephone companies put their power lines underground at their own expense.
Helen became a new town with a new industry for the community. The businesses of Helen employ more people, old and young, than most mills without the unpleasant side effects of machinery, storage yards, smoke, and water pollution. In contrast, the little Alpine village is able to produce income for its people and beautify the town with a new public park, flowers everywhere, fountains, quaint street lights, and freshly painted store fronts.
In the beginning, only nine businesses were changed. Now, more than one-hundred and fifty import shops and thirty factory outlets share the Alpine look. Shops range from bargains in legitimate factory outlets to gourmet food and dress shops. Imports are offered from Norway, Austria, the British Isles, and the Philippines as well as antique shops and craft shops. Something for any size pocketbook can be found, or one can come and not spend a dime and still enjoy everything that Helen has to offer. It’s also a rarity to find a village where one can easily park a car in the business section and go trout fishing in a gorgeous river that meanders through the town.
Despite growing commercialization, Helen is always fun to visit and beautiful to see, but never does it seem as festive and colorful as during the holidays! For more information, call the Alpine Helen/White County Convention & Visitors Bureau toll-free at 1-800-858-8027.