Pete Hodkinson III -
The Original Helen Balloonist by Phil Garner
The balloon, a bubble of hot air adrift in a sea of cool mountain currents, hovers over the valley.
The pilot, wearing a bush jacket and jaunty blue tarn, leans out from the gondola and shouts to tourists who have stopped by the highway. "Which way to Alpharetta?" "What'd he say?"
"He wants to know the way to Alpharetta." The pilot laughs, reaches above his head to open a valve and a long tongue of orange flame shoots from twin cylindrical burners into the open bottom of the balloon. "Welcome to Helen," he shouts, waving goodby.
The craft settles, seems to breathe for a second, then sweeps slowly upward. A stream of air rolling off a ridgetop captures the balloon, changing its course. Like a weighted fishing cork in a mountain river, the craft bobs gently away on an easterly wind, rising up and over the far ridges that fold one upon another to form the Blue Ridge Mountains of northeast Georgia.
Week after week the scene was repeated: the red nylon balloon with the white Swiss crosses; silent, porpoising flight; the thundering, hollow sigh of the propane burners; landings in distant valleys, jubilant reunions of pilot and chase crew with a cooler of cold beer; and the triumphant return of the adventurers whose tales of free balloon flight lasted long into the evening.
The pilot and owner, Peter Hodkinson III, had made his balloon the major symbol of the town of Helen, Ga., a small community that had redesigned itself under his leadership into an Alpine-styled village attracting thousands of tourists each week. In the shadows of the gentle hills and rugged peaks city-dwellers shared the life-styles of those who had long since fled from concrete and rush hours or had lived all their lives in the mountains.
The people of Helen call themselves "free spirits," and Hodkinson was the freest of them all, working long hours as the president of a citizens' corporation with large developments underway, but carrying it off with a lack of self-importance and an infectious gaiety that informed the town.
Hodkinson, always the promoter, saw to it that his balloon was kept flying, always visible. He trained others to fly. When business kept him out of the gondola, another pilot took his place.
In that manner a handful of kindred spirits in the north Georgia mountains became devotees of mountain ballooning. They shared a bond forged of downdrafts, power lines, barbed wire fences and irate landowners.
written by our long
time Helen friend, Mr. Phil Garner
A hearty welcome to you from Georgia's Alpine Village, Helen. The first impression people get when they enter Helen is that they have somehow stepped into a Bavarian village, right in the middle of the Georgia mountains. And that's exactlythe feeling we want to perpetuate. Helen is an impression of a Bavarian village. We do not pretend to be an authentic German town. However, if losing yourself for a few hours or days in a town that imparts a feeling of being in Europe is appealing; if you like seeing glassware, candles, candy and woodcrafts produced before your eyes; if you enjoy balloon rides, clogging, live theater and authentic German festivals; then, you're going to love Helen. We offer all this, and more.
One of the most frequently asked questions is, "How did this town get started?" Elsewhere in the Helen magazine (see History page) you will find what is pretty much the accepted version of the "Helen story." But there is so much more to the story. If getting Helen started was difficult, keeping it going with so many people continuing in the same direction might have been impossible without a strong willed dreamer Peter Hodkinson III. When things went wrong, Pete had an answer. When Helen needed something to attract tourists, Pete had an idea. When the press needed a story, Pete had one, or created one; and all the time he would tell you (with his tongue deep in his cheek) this was all impossible. "There can't be a town like this in Georgia."
Pete was instrumental in starting the first Theater Helen featuring "The Sound of Music", The Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race, a golf course (now gone, but plans are in the wings for another course), and a thousand other projects that helped make Helen what it is today. He operated the International House as a showcase of what he thought a gift shop should be; and the Wurst Haus, a restaurant he then owned, was the center of activities in town. He hosted several Oktoberfests there until that event became tent-sized and now is housed in our pavilion. Pete taught us how to be a tourist town, and then he died tragically in a balloon accident in 1976, promoting an event and a town that were both so important to him. When he died, people thought Helen might fade, but he taught us too well. The spirit of Pete lives today in so many whose lives he touched and some he never knew. It's embodied in Winston Lusk, balloon pilot; Mervin Fried of the Old Norway shop; Lanier Chambers, realtor; Roy Sims, former mayor and a builder; Hue Rainey, motel operator; Jim Wilkins, land owner and developer; Dave Jones, candy maker; and so many more. That's the "real" story of Helen. It's what we are and why we are. Tourist trap? Hardly. Over commercialized? I think not.
We are here for you to have a good time. We are affordable, ever-changing, and unique. Enjoy us.
Written in 1982 by then Helen Chamber of Commerce President, David Jones.
David & Janet Jones
Pete's "Swiss Cross"
balloon over downtown - 1975
If you have stories and photos of Pete that you would like to share, please email them to us at: PIII@helenballoon.com
more images of Helen
the 1st balloon ascent in Helen
go to the Helen Story
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