From the September issue of Atlanta magazine
The woman at the Helen welcome center wears a low-cut dirndl made from denim, and her Clairol-blond hair is twisted into “Heidi” braids. She does not know, nor seem to care, who King Ludwig was, even though his 1810 wedding inspired Munich’s first Oktoberfest, and, by extension, the oom-pah orgy that overtakes this north Georgia town every autumn.
No matter; fussy Teutonic purists know better anyway than to venture near the ersatz Bavarian tourist village, where authenticity always has gotten trampled in the fun of rolling out the barrel. An estimated 370 kegs of beer will be tapped during the two months of Oktoberfest, billed as one of the country’s top five and as the longest celebration of its kind in the world.
Every September, Helen, a town of 750 people clustered on two square miles in a mountain valley, braces to accommodate up to 300,000 guests over the course of this uber-party. Steins will be hoisted; spindly, pale thighs will chafe under lederhosen; and someone inevitably will fall and sprain an ankle while doing the ungainly “chicken dance,” providing onlooking buddies with enough snickering material for another Blue Collar Comedy Tour.
Other spectacles just as memorable, but not likely to be remembered clearly, will unfold in the tavern parking lots, including fist-fights, heaving expurgations, and acts of urgent carnal release—sometimes all involving the same two people. In a strange hybrid of highland folkways, Helen is where gemütlichkeit—the arm-linking, swaying-together fellowship of the Alps—abets the hell-raising volatility of Appalachia. The enduring joke about Helen, along with the “Helen a hand-basket” puns, goes: “I wonder if somewhere in Bavaria there is a North Georgia tourist town of trailer parks, gun dealers, and live-bait shops?” If only Lynyrd Skynyrd could yodel.
The one sound the hills have not been alive with lately, though, is the music of cash registers. As tourism and construction falter everywhere in this straitened economy, Helen grapples with a $200,000 deficit in its general fund; rows of shuttered gingerbread storefronts that look as haunted and darkling as something out of Grimm’s fairytales; changing blue laws on alcohol sales that have realigned the area’s tippling privileges; and a police force—patrolling in cruisers labeled “Polizei”—that has a reputation for rounding up hapless revelers with all of the sweeping efficiency implicit in that German spelling.
Moreover, while a glassblower and a few odd craftsmen still ply their tasteful Old World talents for shoppers, most vendors have shifted irredeemably from artisanal to airbrushed—Rebel flag T-shirts; greasy funnel cakes; naughty, priapic troll dolls—in that curious kitsch zone of Hummel and “Hee Haw.” At some point in the town’s pell-mell evolution, the burghers threw up their hands and stopped reacting defensively to the groan of “tacky,” countering it instead with “wacky!”
“Helen is an impression of a Bavarian village,” David Jones, a former mayor writes with characteristic candor in an early manifesto, illustrated by a photo of him grinning beneath a Tyrolean hat and raising a lager in salute. “We do not pretend to be an authentic German town. … We are here for you to have a good time. We are affordable, ever-changing, and unique. Enjoy us.”
So remains the civic priority: an unpretentious “good time” that never really aspired to venerability in the first place. This year, Helen, in its Alpine incarnation, turns 40, with a few signs of unseemly midlife crisis. Its joints creak audibly during polka dances, and the hangover after Oktoberfest seems to stretch longer and more bilious every winter. Driving around, I counted two dozen vacant businesses, and earlier this year, the city laid off five employees and instituted monthly “furlough days” for its remaining 26 employees. “Our revenues from the hotel-motel tax are down by 10 percent, but we’re still faring better than a lot of tourist places where it’s down as much as 30 or 40 percent,” says city manager Jerry Elkins.
However, doomsayers need only look at the city’s best-of-times-wurst-of-times origins to understand why—even with little sense of meaningful growth to show for its expanding girth—Helen keeps right on partying like an aging, out-of-shape Shriner.
This rugged locale always has attracted a certain breed of free-wheeling opportunist, dating back to its genesis as a gold rush town, named for a railroad surveyor’s daughter. For decades, it revolved around sawmills, devouring the hardwoods around the headwaters of the Chattahoochee. In 1968, during a fateful “power lunch” that would become central to Helen’s creation myth, three businessmen gazed, dispirited, out the window of the Mountain Air restaurant and pronounced the dreary, cinder-block buildings in need of beautification. Well-heeled Atlantans were passing through on the way to Unicoi State Park and Lake Burton without even slowing down. Pete Hodkinson III, a restless go-getter who had moved to the mountains from Thomasville to develop outlet stores for a textile mill, wondered aloud if prettier colors and flowerpots would snag those motorists.
These young Babbitts consulted an artist Hodkinson knew from church. John Kollock, who lived nearby in Clarkesville, was trained in theatrical set design and possessed of the imagination to match Hodkinson’s go-for-baroque ambition. “I can’t help looking at something and slip-covering it in my mind,” Kollock says, explaining that when he surveyed the lumber town, he flashed back to his Army posting in Bavaria and saw a chance most dreamers never get: to conjure a whole, interactive storybook landscape with his paintbrushes. Within a week, Kollock produced sketches of eaves, gables, and lacy latticework—cosmetic flourishes that could spruce up buildings without major remodeling. A local carpenter summed up the game, what-the-hell spirit of the endeavor when he said, “I don’t know the difference between a Swiss chalet and a geisha house, but we’ll do it!”
Of course, not all of the mountaineers wanted their filling stations to look like cuckoo clocks.
“If someone resisted the idea, we would work on the buildings on either side until they saw how good it looked and got on board,” says Kollock, who was paid $100 for his concept. The town’s butterfly-like metamorphosis began in 1969 and was completed by the end of that year, with no government underwriting or debt, as local free-marketeers always point out; Helen was the ultimate D.I.Y. project.
Zoning laws soon mandated the confectionary building codes, and foreign words such as “haus” and “strasse” started popping up on street signs; to this day, the accepted local pronunciation for “Das Ist Leather” remains “Dass First Leather.” In fact, Jones initially gave his fudge shop—which started as a lark with a “calculator, a tackle-box for change, and no knowledge whatsoever of baking”—the unwieldy moniker of Das Bonbongeschäft before rechristening it the Hansel and Gretel Candy Kitchen. (He since has written one of those “Candy Making for Dummies” books and consulted for Nestle.)
So that first wave of bemused tourists in the ’70s was treated to a trout festival featuring a high school band, greased pig and pole contests, a coon-on-a-log show (whatever that is), and Southerners merrily mangling the language of Goethe. Soon enough came Oktoberfest; Fasching, the German Mardi Gras; hot-air balloon races; and parades of St. Bernard dogs bearing little barrels of whiskey.
“It was an informal place to say the least,” Jones says. “It was the kind of place where you could take an idea and just run with it, like the notion of riding an inner tube down the river—shoot the ’Hooch—and turn it into a thriving business. Look today,” he says, pointing toward the day-glow doughnuts gridlocking the Chattahoochee River. “Each day you just made up what you were going to do, with no idea what to expect. It was the sort of place where the stunt-men from ‘Smokey and the Bandit,’ which was being filmed nearby, would come into town and do something crazy.”
From the beginning, travel writers relished the cognitive dissonance of Helen, and throughout the 1970s, it provided a go-go, can-do parable for urban renewal seminars as it lured more and more fun-seekers and seasonal residents and established itself as Georgia’s second most popular tourist destination, just below Savannah.
The undisputed George Washington-meets-P.T. Barnum of Helen was Hodkinson, a brash, gimlet-eyed daredevil beloved by the ladies. He envisioned a “refuge of free spirits” in a Disneyesque “controlled growth” village of one-of-a-kind, locally owned shops bustling with candle-makers, wood-cutters, and other craftsmen, where visitors could enjoy a little performance art with their souvenirs. No franchises, and no meddling from outsiders. “We just want to make sure this isn’t a hodgepodge affair,” Hodkinson told reporters.
Of his many quixotic enterprises—the original Wurst Haus, the “Helen Transit Authority” trolley, a “Sound of Music” theater—he is best known for establishing his adopted hometown as a hot-air balloon hub and site of the first long-distance race between the so-called “center of the Earth” (Helen) to the “end of the Earth” (the Atlantic Ocean). The event has become another annual tradition, even though Hodkinson died in 1976 when his balloon, named the “Spirit of Helen,” struck some power-lines. Ironically, he had been trying to inspire the other racers to fly despite the stormy weather. An obituary in the Helen Mountain Eagle praised his “adventurous spirit,” with its reflexive “obligation to show others an alternative to obscurity.”
“Pete lived by the code in ‘The Prince’ by Machiavelli in that he could recognize individual talents people had and then draw them out to make them work for him and for the greater good,” Jones says. “He understood the power of eyewash, of catching people’s eye with fronts and flowers and facades, of making it look as if you had money when you didn’t. He could sell sizzle if there wasn’t any steak, and make the steak turn up later. In any situation, he knew exactly what would get the people to come.”
One surefire incentive, of course, is booze, which at first seems a straightforward matter of measured supply and demand, but not here, in this snug rivet of the Bible Belt. Alcohol is to Baptists what sex is to Catholics—a guilty pleasure to be savored discreetly, if not furtively, with much blushing. It is acceptable to sip from a flask in some ol’ boy’s shed or back room, and home-distilled moonshine is extolled as mountain heritage, not vice. But bars and package stores are another matter. “Southerners will drink wet and vote dry—so long as any citizen can stagger to the polls,” Will Rogers famously said.
The result in north Georgia is abstruse, schizophrenic “blue laws” that baffle our visitors, particularly the Catholics. In fact, Helen’s first biergarten, or beer garden, did not serve…beer or any other libation.
“I was driving from Florida to the north, and I had read about this German town in Georgia that did not have beer,” Chris Hammersen, owner of the Hofbrau restaurant, recalls incredulously, in the accent of his native Munich. “German with no beer? I had to see for myself. But the chef at the biergarten gave me a sip from the bottle he kept in back for himself. I liked this strange place. They said they needed some ‘real Germans’ here, so I stayed.”
By 1977, liquor sales by the glass and bottle were legalized. Helen became the only soaking “wet” spot for the hard stuff, as well as beer and wine, in the northeast Georgia mountains. The rest of surrounding White County, including Cleveland, the county seat, remained staunchly dry.
“The Helen leaders kept the referendum quiet and low-key, but they got people to turn out and vote for it, and in a place this small, it didn’t take many votes,” Jones says. “Travelers expect certain things when they’re trying to relax, like taking a six-pack back to their cabin. If the law hadn’t passed, we would have ended up like Cleveland.”
To clarify: If Helen is the smiling, beckoning St. Pauli Girl, Cleveland is the dowdy, poker-faced stepsister who tattles on you. I grew up in Cleveland. Like the yearning kid pressing her nose against the candy-store window—in my case, literally, at Jones’ Hansel and Gretel fudge shop—I always wondered how my sensibilities would have developed, coming of age in pseudo-Bavaria, or, as it was better known in my upright environs, “Sodom and Gomorrah.” To many rural Georgians, just as “Milledgeville” means insanity and “Reidsville” signals prison, “Helen” is shorthand for sinning. (I blame the irresistible taboo of it for the Wagnerian-looking, horned Viking helmet that was purchased at one of the Helen souvenir shops and sits in my lingerie drawer.)
As any tourist in Dockers who has stayed past midnight at one of the dives can attest, social dynamics do skew toward the primal; if you jostle someone’s drink or fondle the wrong thigh, achtung! After a brawl, my friend Bubba once bragged about being the “first to bleed” on the bar’s new deck, and “Big Becky” was known to look around on a Saturday night and announce with husky sincerity: “It’s a full moon—y’all wanna fuck or fight?” For awhile, at the saloon aptly named “Over the Top,” patrons could rent boxing gloves.
“There was no ring or anything — just a cement floor,” says Don Robbins, a Cleveland optometrist who witnessed some of the bouts. “Fellows would just go at each other using what could be called the ‘windmill technique’ of punching. I was there with a group of local businessmen, one of whom offered to pay everybody ten dollars to pretend that we’d never been there. It was the damnedest thing I ever saw — classic Helen.”
And in one afternoon at the courthouse, three divorce cases pivoted on acts of adultery committed in the parking lot of the Southside Tavern.
“Every week, the police blotter is crammed full of weird Helen stuff,” says Billy Chism, editor of The White County News. “I mean, the people who are there late on weekends aren’t there to eat fudge. There was a guy running down the yellow line of the main street, trying to flag down one of the horse-drawn carriages to hitch a ride to Habersham County, and another drunk fellow trying to be helpful by directing traffic. And that whole Jell-O wrestling thing. Last week, there was an item about a woman who had just passed out and slept in one of the grassy areas. We didn’t bother to put that in the paper because somebody having too much to drink in Helen is hardly news.”
My hairdresser, Jessica, philosophizes, “You can live in Helen, or you can work in Helen, but you can’t do both.” Asked to elaborate, she says, “Because you’ll go bat-shit. Everyone I’ve known became an alcoholic and ended up in that meat market, swapping wives and just inviting ‘crazy’ to come on in through the front door every night. I’ve seen too many things—little crack-heads without two teeth in their head taking off their tops right at the bar, you name it. These days, I only go to Helen to dance.”
So the city serves as a sort of geographic id for intensely vital Scots-Irish characters who are governed by the countervailing forces of the church and that ancient Celtic impulse to go wild, to kick ass, to self-destruct. Among the sepia-toned, old-timey costume photos displayed in the window of a souvenir photography studio are shots of an adorable baby—snuggling with a bottle of Jack Daniels in front of a Confederate flag backdrop. Despite the cultural homogenization of recent years, that old Saturday night/Sunday morning dialectic of Southern life persists.
Under the headline “In Helen, Ga., We’ll Do Backflips to Get on the Map,” a 1971 article in the New York Times warned, “Only one faint criticism has been heard (probably from a jealous Northerner who lives in some ironbound place that could never even try to stir itself out of its boring and old habits): Helen is kidding itself dangerously. It can not be a Bavarian town, and if it keeps on its mask too long, it will suffer schizotownia: Bavarian on the outside, Georgia Cracker within. But the Helenians are unworried.”
Today, some of them are fretting about a surprising turn in the last election, when voters approved beer and wine sales in unincorporated White County. Cleveland proper remains dry, of course, but more than a dozen vendors so far have acquired licenses and posted enthusiastic hand-lettered “Cold Beer!” signs, including a chainsaw shop which is doing brisk business on Friday evenings (six-packs and chainsaws—they just go together).
“I think Helen might feel the pinch from that change at first, but not over the long haul,” Jones says. “It’s like wondering if a McDonalds will hurt Wendy’s sales.”
Another business that could be affected by this liberalization is the polizei, or the “poe-leece.” Where there are blue laws, there will be blue lights. The annual average for D.U.I. citations by the Helen Police Department is 75 —a figure that is one-tenth of the town’s population — mostly issued to out-of-towners.
That number doubles for the public-drunkenness epidemics of urinating off balconies, sleeping on benches, and generally being a nuisance. The bigger roundups, which can give off an unsettling “Cool Hand Luke” vibe to certain “Georgia Crackers,” come with the regular roadblocks at the town line, enforced by the sheriff’s department and the Georgia State Patrol. Only one main artery, Georgia Highway 75, leads into and out of Helen, so the safety checks with alco-sensors act much like an angler’s trot-line. A fair-weather Friday or Saturday night can yield up to thirty arrests.
“We stopped a couple who both were just drunk on their butts,” says Chief Deputy John O’Brien. “She accused White County of entrapment for putting on Oktoberfest just for the purpose of catching drunk drivers.”
Helen suffers from a seemingly insoluble Catch-22: the frenzied hedonism ratchets up the genuine need for public safety measures. “I’d hate to imagine what Helen would be like without the police,” Chism says with a shudder. But the unchecked constabulary zeal ends up singeing every mild-mannered social drinker who downs a couple of beers, along with the occasional disoriented teetotaler who stumbles into the mix. A hamlet that trades on its hospitality winds up feeling more like a police state, as the black-and-whites sit, poised to spring, just yards from the bar exit.
“I think Helen was so wide open in the ’70s that it probably needed to be reined in a little, but since then they’ve overcorrected in the other direction,” says Debra Villiger, an owner of Alt Heidelberg restaurant, before relating her most recent unjust traffic citation, which prompted her Swiss husband, Leonhard, to accost the officers, slap one on the back of the head, and end up in handcuffs himself.
Everyone in Helen, it seems, including a deacon or two, can reel off a shaggy-dog story about some costly, nightmarish, and perhaps unconstitutional encounter with a cop. In the town’s frontier spirit of free enterprise, two taxi services have sprung up, charging anywhere from $23 to $55, depending on the attractiveness of the passenger, for a one-way trip to Cleveland, 10 miles away, with the motto “cheaper than a D.U.I.”
“The police here are stronger than they were in my country,” says a Hofbrau hostess, who is from Soviet Bloc-era Romania.
So a peculiar game of cat-and-mouse has developed, with the networking of the mice enhanced in recent years by cellphone calls and text messages about roadblocks and the specific hills, curves, and clumps of trees where a cruiser is lying in wait—a digital echo of the bootlegging era. Stratagems for dodging the police, such as taking Richard Russell Highway, the literal “scenic route,” or fooling the Breathalyzer with the old “penny under the tongue” trick (don’t try it) constitute as much of the late-night barroom chatter as NASCAR. Even O’Brien admits, “There have been a few times when I’ve seen a safety check, and if I had buddies who I knew were still in Helen, I would call them and tell them to go the other way, because we usually don’t set up at both ends of town.”
All of this “John Law” talk, along with the strip-shop sprawl and “made in China” dreck, was not part of Pete Hodkinson III’s original blueprint.
“There are a few things he might like, but I don’t think Pete would be pleased, overall, with Helen today,” Jones says. “It’s not as easy any more to have an idea and build on it, with all of the politics and regulation. We need rules, but over time we tend to forget what’s fun. The nature of the beast, I guess.”
Kollock has politely distanced himself from modern-day Helen, saying, “I had in mind something more pastoral with less sprawl, but you can’t put up a fence and halt that kind of progress — though they do in Europe.”
Nowadays, the town that inspired so many boosters in other sleepy crossroads is looking toward its once reviled neighbor to the north, Gatlinburg, which has spiffed up — somewhat — in recent years.
“We don’t want to become what Gatlinburg used to be,” Jones says. “You’re going to have your share of junk anywhere, except maybe for Highlands (N.C.). But if some people just don’t like Helen, I can live with that. The fact is, it’s a cute place that works—it offers visitors plenty to do and gives local people jobs and opportunities to own businesses with no smokestacks. There are people who complain that Helen isn’t as much fun as it used to be, but, hey, I’ve found that I can have a different kind of fun now that I’m older.”
The old moxie still flares from time to time, though. Rather than feel embarrassed about his head-smacking contretemps with the police, Leonhard Villiger has posted the newspaper article about his arrest on the wall at Alt Heidelberg as a sort of anti-authoritarian statement. He is known both for his mouth-watering schnitzel and for his vehemence of opinion.
When some sun-burned tourists walk in and order beer, he asks, “What kind of beer?” His High German accent turns the “w” to a “v.”
The patrons look confused for a moment and then answer in twangy unison: “Bud Light.”
“Ach, get a real beer!” Villiger barks, and then throws up his hands and walks away muttering, “I am so tired of Helen.”