For four years now, people have been asking a daily question on the streets of Helen. The question is usually the same: "How did this town happen?" They are part of the thousands of people that flock to see the minor miracle that transformed the tiny town into an Alpine Village.
Helen during the Gold Rush years, 1828-1878
The transformation began without fanfare, preliminary publicity, without endless meetings, reports and fund raising and without 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 like an old western town done in cement and saw the town with fresh eyes. During that fateful luncheon it was decided that something should be done to clean up the town to attract the tourist driving through on their way to the lakes and national forest recreation areas nearby.
Helen during the years as a Lumber Mill town, 1913-1928
It was late in 1968 when one businessman, Pete Hodkinson, approached an artist, John Kollock, who has a home in the neighboring town of Clarkesville. John was asked if he had any suggestions for painting or decorating the buildings. When Mr. Kollock came to look, he already had an idea. It was eighteen years old and nestled in the back of his mind from his days in the army when he was stationed in Bavaria. While there, 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. Something about those buildings transmitted an excitement to walk among them and made everyday events seem like a vacation. "How great," he thought, "if there could be some spot in our mountains that could reflect this image for the vacationer."
Just before the transformation - 1968
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 Jim Wilkins, President of Orbit Manufacturing Co., said "Let's do it. You can do my building first." A week later the townsmen and local carpenters began turning ideas into reality. That was in January of 1969. The work continues to date.
One of hundreds of sketches done by John Kollock depicting the transformed
Helen. The top of the tower depicted here can be seen in the photograph
Just after the transformation - 1969
"From the outset," says Pete Hodkinson, one of the businessmen responsible of Helen's success, "we wanted to control our own desting. We didn't want any of the big interests from outside coming in and changing our plans, and we've resisted their attention pretty well so far. So we formed the Alpine Valley Corporation and bought up all the land needed to insure Helen's Alpine look. It came to 1100 acres. In some respects we were crazy. The officers of the corporation do not receive salaries. We just want to make sure this isn't a hodgepodge affair."
Now all of the downtown stores have been renovated. The City Hall has been rebuilt and enlarged to hold the Post Office, Fire Station, Jail, Clerk's office, town meeting room, a welcome center, and a new public library. Several new buildings have been built for incoming business. At the beginning there were nine businesses, now there are over twenty-five. What was at one time a vacant lot between two buildings was converted into a charming cobble stone alley of shops with an Old World flavor. On the faces of the buildings, Mr. Kollock has painted scenes depicting the area and history of the county in murals reminiscent of the "air paintings" done in Bavaria.
All of the cutwork, 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 town streetlights and planters. The 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.
"Most of the shops are owner operated, which is primarily the reason for our success," says Pete Hodkinson.
And successful they are! Thousands of eager tourist pour into this town of 250 citizens every week and you can't stir'em with a stick during the Bavarian Oktoberfest in September and during the leaft tour time in October, its's bumper to bumper traffic all the time.
Helen has accomplished two things in one action. A new town has been created and a new industry for the community has developed - tourism. This business employs more people old and young than most mills and does not require unpleasant side effects of machinery, storage yards, smoke and water pollution associated with most factories. In contrast, Helen is able to produce income for its people and have a new public park, flowers everywhere, fountains, quaint streetlights and freshly painted storefronts. With tourism, the individual has a chance to excel if he has a good idea. Most of the shops in Helen are owned by the people who run them; one can tell the difference in how he is treated.
The future aim of Helen is to continue this standard of quality for the visitors. Helen will never be a tourist trap. The shops range from bargains in legitimate factory outlets to gourmet food and dress shops as good as you will find anywhere. There are shops offering imports from Norway, Austria, the British Isles and the Philippines as well as antique shops and craft shops. There is something for any size pocketbook or one can come and not spend a dime and still enjoy everything that Helen has to offer. Where else can one park his car in the business section and go fishing or canoeing on the Chattahoochee while his friends or family shop.
So this is the story of Helen, the miracle of a small community that is today debt free and forging ahead with planned and controlled expansion. It all happened quietly, but word spread. Helen is helped by that good word passed along by those who have come and will come again.
Pete's "Swiss Cross"
balloon over downtown - circa 1975
Pete and the rest of the story...
1st balloon ascent in Helen
more images of Helen
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