Today Helen is the third most popular tourist destination in Georgia. Only Atlanta and Savannah attract more people than this alpine village. The history of Helen is far more rough and tumble than the casual tourist could imagine during a visit to the Bavarian style town.
Prior to the creation of Rabun County in 1819 the north end of the Nachoochee Valley (sometimes called the Helen Valley) was home to both Moundbuilders and Cherokee. The mound south of the city is a remnant of this civilization. Captain James Nichols, who owned the mound in the late 1800's and farmed the land reported finding soapstone carvings, shell pins and pearls which indicate the wide-range of the Moundbuilders. He also reported intricately carved effigy pottery indicative of the advanced nature of the civilization. None of these materials is considered native to the area.
Between 1450-1500 the Cherokee Indians moved into the valley, which had been left vacant by the demise of the Moundbuilders in the area. For the next 300 years they would call this place the Land of 1,000 Waterfalls. During the American Revolution Andrew Pickens entered the valley and burned the Cherokee village near the mound south of present-day Helen. James Wyly and others built the Unicoi Turnpike (1812-15), which connected Maryville, Tennessee to the navigable end of the Tugaloo River. The road crosses the Chattahoochee River on a bridge in the same place the Main Street bridge crosses the river today. Completed about 1813, this toll road features banked turns, grades and a standard width of 12 feet. The road runs through Cherokee country until 1819, when settlers force the Indians to cede the area around the road to the state of Georgia. Wyly, who owned Traveller's Rest (near the end of the Unicoi Turnpike), would move west after selling his property and become an early settler in the Nachoochee Valley.
Gold was discovered near Loudsville, Georgia, late in 1828. By March, 1829 a Georgia newspaper reported a gold producing mine owned by Richard Lumsden near that city. Within a year, thousands of people would move into the area, marking the first of America's great gold rushes. Many were poor squatters who moved into shanty towns that sprang up in the region. One of these towns was within the borders of present-day Helen. The gold rush boom was short-lived; the "twenty-niners" left as quickly as they had come, following the gold belt south to Dahlonega. One of the few businesses in the area was a gold stamp operated on the Chattahoochee. By 1850 the valley is roughly the same population it was in 1828.
Mining operations continued on a much smaller scale until the introduction of hydraulic mining in 1857. The destructive nature of this form of mining, which destroyed a good deal of land near Helen, was eventually outlawed by the state.
Unscarred by the fighting of the Civil War, northeast Georgia was left in a state of anarchy because of a lack of civil authority. Reconstruction sees the valley begin to grow once again, partly because of the railroad to Gainesville completed in 1874. Among the settlers during this era is John H. Nichols. After the Civil War he begins to purchase land in the area, including what is now the 1600 acre Anna Ruby Falls Scenic Area, a few miles north of the town. In 1876 Nora Mill opened, just below the old gold stamp. The area about to become Helen begins losing people in 1890, a downward trend that continues for more than a decade.
Although the area is losing year-round population it is becoming more popular as a tourist destination. A number of homes take seasonal guests who come to visit the north Georgia mountains. A covered bridge is added over the Chattahoochee at "West End" and further east over the Soque to allow tourists easier access. Mail service (Rural Free Delivery) begins about this time and Lamartine Griffin Hardman, doctor and future governor of the state begins to buy land including the old Nichols estate and Nora Mill.
Around 1910 commercial interest began to grow when the Gainesville and Northwestern Railroad built a rail line to transport the wood that the Byrd-Mathews Lumber Company intended to strip from the Blue Ridge Mountains north of the tiny village. Helen was officially created, named for Helen McComb, the daughter of a Byrd-Mathews manager and niece of John E. Mitchell, who would be the major real estate developer in the area. Almost immediately there was tremendous growth in the city. A general store, a bank, a dry goods store, a newspaper (1914-1916), and a hospital with both a doctor and nurse.
Helen, however, was a mill town above all else. Along with Robertson, it's next door neighbor, Helen was home to large camps of "wood hicks", the common term used in the area to describe men who cut trees or work in the lumber mill. Each morning a blast from the mill's whistle would signal workers it was time to get ready for work. A similar blast at night signaled the end of the workday. Three quick whistles was a danger signal, and there were some of those. Parts of the mill burned on at least three occasions.
A narrow-gauge train traveling south from the Blue Ridge Mountains brings flatcars of trees to be offloaded at the sawmill. Trees are cut and treated, then they continue south, normally to Atlanta where the poplar and pine boards are redirected to markets in the Northeast and Mid-west.
In 1915 the plant is sold to the Morse Brothers from New York. In 1917 production reaches its maximum as an average of nearly 70,000 board feet a day of lumber comes through Helen. At this time in our country's history lumber companies were not active participants in the conservation movement and the land, stripped bare for lumber, is left as worthless. When all the trees are taken the rail line is abandoned and the camps of wood hicks leave. On May 5, 1931, in the midst of The Great Depression, the sawmill closes.
The federal government, under the encouragement of Arthur Woody, steps in and begins to purchase this bare land and organize the Georgia (later Chattahoochee) National Forest.
Almost immediately Helen begins to see the benefits of the national forest being close at hand. Area improvement include replacing on of the last original portions of the Unicoi Turnpike still in use north of Helen with a new gravel road. In the 1950's, Unicoi State Park becomes an attraction, and the state paves State Road 75. Jimmy Wilkins opens Orbit Manufacturing and Wilco. Still, the small town is struggling to attract the crowds that now regularly fill Unicoi Park and nearby campgrounds.
Local resident Charlie Maloof tried to improve the tourism traffic in the town. By the late 1960's though, the buildings looked rundown and in need of paint.
Enter Pete Hodkinson, whom locals who knew the man describe as "fun-loving, a free spirit". Pete, Jimmy Wilkins and another businessman met one afternoon at Westmoreland Steak House on the river in downtown in 1968, trying to figure out how to stop the cars passing by their establishments and getting the occupants to spend some of their money. Hodkinson knew the success another small Georgia town, Hamilton, had by repainting storefronts. He recommended contacting a local artist, John Kollack of Clarkesville, to come up with a color scheme, and the others agreed. Kollack had spent a number of years in the military in southern Germany and proposed a substantial remodeling of the town to resemble a Bavarian village. By 1972 his work begins to attract the tourists passing by and Pete Hodkinson develops "events" including the now famous Oktoberfest.
|City of Helen, 1975|
Shadow of Pete Hodkinson's balloon is in lower left of picture.
The town enters a boom phase. By 1976 thousands of visitors per year are coming to the town. The federal government studies the revitalization of Helen. That May Pete Hodkinson, who had organized the Helen-to-the-Atlantic balloon race was killed in Toccoa in a hot-air balloon accident.
Frequently asked questions:
Who was the third man in the meeting that created present-day Helen?In the Spring of 1968 three men, Peter "Pete" Hodkinson, James "Jimmy" Wilkens and Bob Fowler regularly met at Westmoreland's Steak House on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in downtown Helen. They discussed the problem (tourists not stopping) and over a six month period came up with a solution.
More about Helen, Georgia!