Helen, Ga.: Where Alpine meets Appalachian
GAGL Helen GA 1
More than 2 million visitors annually pass through 2.1 square miles of Northeast Georgia, lured to the tiny town of Helen by its charming combination of Alpine and Appalachian cultures.
Helen successfully reinvented itself 40 years ago by transforming what was then a logging town on the decline into the recreation of a Bavarian village.
The appeal of cobblestone alleys and gingerbread-trimmed buildings in a picturesque mountain setting has boosted Helen to third among Georgia's most-visited cities, behind only Atlanta and Savannah. Since its rebirth, Helen has become synonymous with Oktoberfest.
"I enjoy seeing all the people from different parts of the world who come here," said Helen businesswoman Linda Monroe, a transplanted Floridian. "They'll come from Germany just to see the Alpine village of Helen."
AT A GLANCE
• Population: 510.
• Best things to do/places to visit: If not there for Oktoberfest, take advantage of the outdoor beauty by hiking or camping at Unicoi State Park or tubing the Chattahoochee. Two tubing companies accommodate visitors: Cool River Tubing Co., 800-896-4595; and Helen Tubing, 706-878-1082. For calmer water, take the family to the Helen Tubing Waterpark, 706-878-2803.
• Biggest employer: City of Helen.
• Miles from Chattanooga: 132.
• Landmarks: Anna Ruby Falls, Unicoi State Park.
• Date founded: 1913.
• Historic info: Before 1800, the area was Cherokee grounds. Near the end of the 1800s, lumber companies discovered the area. Matthews Lumber Co. located in Helen, continuing operation until 1931. When the forests were depleted, associated businesses slowly left the area until there was nothing left by the early 1960s. Concerned businessmen developed the Alpine village theme and began the transition from ghost town to tourist town in 1969. Zoning mandated the facade of every business duplicate German style.
• Famous residents: Settler John Nichols, who bought the land that is now the 1,600-acre Anna Ruby Falls Scenic Area. Helen McComb, daughter of a Mathews sawmill owner, for whom the town is named. Pete Hodkinson, businessman who led the charge to recreate Helen into a tourism destination, creator of Oktoberfest.
• Unique traditions: The annual Oktoberfest, this year Sept. 22-Oct. 30. For five weeks, crowds cluster nightly in the Festhalle to polka, hear oompah bands and dine on German dishes. An Oktoberfest parade is scheduled Saturday, Sept. 24, at noon through downtown Helen, followed by the popular "Tapping of the Keg" in the Festhalle. Lederhosen is optional.
• Best-kept secret: Visitors to Helen can't leave without a stop by Ain't B's Bakery and Cafe on Mulberry Drive for one of Linda Monroe's original, 17-inch cinnamon roll pies. Ain't B's is owned by Monroe and her husband, Mike, who is the great-nephew of musician Bill Monroe. The name is their nod to Andy Griffith and life in his small town of Mayberry.