GEORGIA | HELEN
Today we’re heading back down South, to a beautiful state known best for its peaches and peanuts. This week’s colorful wall honors Helen, Georgia- an alpine town located a short drive north of Atlanta in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Helen was one of a few towns that inspired me to start this project in the first place! Its unique Bavarian/German style and placement in the mountains have helped make Helen the third most-visited town in all of Georgia. And with an estimated population of just over 500 native residents- that is no small feat indeed.
But how exactly did this small town become the themed tourist magnet it is today?
HOMETOWN HERO: John Kollack
When I first began researching this town- my primary goal was to determine how and why Helen became "Georgia's Alpine Village.” Did it have to do with its settlement and history or the presence of a local Bavarian community? I was pleasantly surprised to trace the source back to something else entirely, something unique and unexpected- one local artist.
John Kollack was an artist that grew up in Northern Georgia; he attended school in Atlanta and spent summers on his grandmother’s farm in Clarkesville, a town near Helen. John grew up with a pencil in his hand and fell in love with drawing comics as a way to pair storytelling with visual art. John attended art school (though he promptly left) and eventually earned a degree in theatrical set design that would inform his later work. After school, he was drafted into the Army’s Special Services division and traveled around Europe writing scripts, performing, and designing sets of plays to entertain troops.
When he returned to the States John settled in Clarkesville on his grandmother’s farm and continued his art practice. Over time, he became a prolific watercolor artist with pieces in the White House art collection and several governors’ collections across the country. As he became better known for his art, an opportunity arose in nearby Helen.
In January of 1969, three Helen businessmen held a meeting at a local restaurant. They were brainstorming a way to revitalize the town to encourage tourism, as its long-running lumber industry was beginning to fizzle out. Helen was already situated near the tourist-attracting Unicoi State Park- but how could it capitalize on those visitors staying in town?
One of the men offered to speak with an artist that he knew from church in Clarkesville to see what he could come up with. That artist was none other than John Kollock, and John agreed to take some photos and draw up sketches of ideas to transform the town. Upon walking up a hill to the main street in Helen, John was struck by inspiration from his time touring Europe. Seeing the mountains surrounding the town, he was reminded of his time spent in the alpine villages of Bavaria. He drafted sketches of how to transform the town’s buildings and landscape, they were well received by the citizens and the merchants, and the rest is history.
John Kollack’s contribution to Helen’s revitalization is a testament to his visionary nature and diverse artistic abilities. He also built a small English village on his own homestead in Clarkesville, where he resided until his passing on March 10th of 2014, at the age of 85.
John may be gone, but his lasting impact on Helen is still felt to this day- and he is a native North Georgian that will not soon be forgotten. He is survived by his wife and children, as well as a memoir recounting his journey as an artist in his own words. The Lieutenant Governor of Georgia once said of him:
“John Kollock is a true Georgia treasure; no person has better expressed the beauty of North Georgia and the character of its people. From the beauty of a mountain sunset to the quiet peace of springtime mountain mornings, John Kollock brings to life the joy and challenges of life in the North Georgia Mountains.”
I think John’s meaningful impact on his home through his artwork is something all of us artists can admire, and aspire to do in our own ways.
THIS TOWN IN HISTORY: Oktoberfest in America
What Bavarian-inspired alpine town would be complete without a massive, beer-filled, stein-hoisting, pretzel-tying, annual Oktoberfest celebration?! Well, we’re in luck because Helen is home to the longest-running Oktoberfest celebration in the US of A. And they do it BIG.
Of course, the original Oktoberfest was held on October 12, 1810, in Munich to celebrate the marriage of the crown prince of Bavaria to a French princess. But the subsequent German holiday was first transplanted to the US via this small mountain town, and thousands of people visit Helen each year to carry on this boisterous tradition.
Sadly, due to state-mandated COVID precautions, the main event for Helen’s Oktoberfest was canceled in 2020. However, that does mean that this year they will be celebrating their 50th annual Oktoberfest! I for one hope that by then events are back to (somewhat) normal and that their 2021 celebration can be bigger than ever.
If you’re lookin’ to join in on the celebrations this year yourself- I would recommend checking out the Castle Inn and its bar-under-the-bridge, the Troll Tavern. The tavern is known for its German fare, and I can think of no better place to end a day of Oktoberfestin’ than at a bar a few short staircases away from where you’re staying for the night ;)
Natural Beauty: Unicoi State Park
One of the main reasons Helen successfully converted from a logging town to a tourist destination is its proximity to the vast and beautiful Unicoi State Park. This 1,050-acre park in the Chattahoochee National Forest centers around placid and temperate Lake Unicoi.
This park has a bit of everything to offer: from ziplining and an archery range to watersports like kayaking and paddle boarding and a vast network of hikes at varying levels of difficulty. There is one easier walk from the reserve to Helen itself, and another more difficult path following a gold mining ditch to the beautiful Anna Ruby Falls.
One thing I noticed when looking into this park is that they have some stunning accommodations available! There’s a recently refurbished main lodge (complete with a restaurant and tavern) as well as satellite cabins outfitted with complete kitchens. I, for one, would love to check out one of their two-story “barrel cabins” that are situated right on the river. They have campgrounds available as well- but the opportunity to “rough it” all day and come back to a luxurious and comfortable place to sleep is the best of both worlds in my book!
Wacky & Weird: Cabbage Patch Kids Babyland General Hospital
Last but not least, this particular Helen attraction is just too… iconic to leave off of my list. This is Babyland General Hospital- the literal birthplace of the Cabbage Patch Kids. Also, one of the Top Ten Toylands as listed by the Travel Channel.
What shocked me is that one of the primary marketing lines for this, um, doll hospital is that you can witness a Cabbage Patch Kid birth. You can also experience something called an “adoption consultation” and see the vaccination of Cabbage Patch Kids with “Imagicillin”??
All in all, I can’t say I 100% “get it.” BUT I love the dedication to the theme seen throughout- and just how popular this attraction has been/is despite my being utterly confused by it. I mean, they mention that some of the earliest dolls in their collection are worth tens of thousands of dollars. And they keep them here on display instead… I mean, that is just wild! It’s also said that one of the original creators of the dolls, Xavier Roberts, continues to work on the gardens and landscape surrounding the beautiful 70,000 sq foot home that is home to Babyland General.
Luckily for all of us, admission to Babyland is free to the public- and I definitely intend on paying a visit someday just to see what it’s all about. Other than the doll births from the magical tree that they’ve already sold me on, obviously. But, as a one-of-a-kind location that draws thousands of visitors each year- Babyland and all of its strangeness warrants a stop in on any trip to Helen.
Helen, Georgia is the smallest town (by population) that I’ve researched in this project so far, yet it’s also one of the better-known tourist destinations on my list. This story of reinvention and rise to popularity is one of local entrepreneurship and civic cooperation that transformed a dying lumber town into a heavily trafficked tourist destination. Though decades have passed since Kollack first introduced its alpine inspiration, the German influence on Helen won’t be saying “auf wiedersehen” any time soon.
"Blue ridge mountain memories I gotta get back to my home Among the ferns and dogwood trees That's the dirt where I was grown Backwoods living set me free Gotta get back to my roots This city life is killing me Pretty soon I'm gonna shake my boots" - Lyrics by Larkin Poe, North-Georgian musicans