Helen Arts & Heritage Center

Serving the Arts & Artists - Preserving Our Heritage

       

HELEN'S HERITAGE

The Story of Helen

Northeast Georgia is filled with a deep rooted heritage and a history that goes back hundreds of years. Helen's 100 years holds many significant events that contributed to who she is today. Join us as we reflect on some of those events. This is a work in progress because there is so much to tell, so many stories and legends. We invite you to visit often to see what else we've added. We hope you enjoy reading the stories here and viewing the photos. Much credit is due to all those who have tediously researched the facts. David Greear, Emory Jones and Matt Gedney just to credit a few.

First Pioneers

Few visitors strolling through Helen today are aware of its dramatic history. Some are curious and ask about the origins of the alpine motif. But few would imagine the area as a lush riverside bottomland home to pioneer families, their crops and livestock. Helen’s history and that of the surrounding areas begins with some of the earliest native hunter-gatherers in North America. They formed advanced native chiefdoms with monumental architecture and intensive agriculture. Included are stories from the Colonial period, where traders, settlers, and militia units first interacted and clashed with Cherokee towns and villages.

The Discovery of Gold

Treaties that displaced the native groups from the area permitted mountaineer settlers to come to the Helen Valley in the early 1800s. Originally seeking fertile land for farming and raising cattle, the 1828 discovery of gold on Dukes Creek in Nacoochee Valley brought a new intense interest to the area. Gold was first discovered near Helen in 1828. Scores of prospectors came to the area to seek their fortunes. Many of those same folks left the area for the California Gold Rush of 1849. But for the next 75 years there were at least three more episodes of gold mining efforts in the Helen area, including the 1890s' use of hydraulic water cannons that had devastating effects on the landscape.

The Sawmill Era

The town of Helen can trace its birth to 1911, when in Sikeston, Missouri, A.R. Byrd, the owner of 36,000 acres of virgin Northeast Georgia timberland, met with C.D. Matthews to form a company that would become one of the largest band sawmills east of the Mississippi River. The Byrd-Matthews Lumber Company chose to locate their mill in the bottomland along the Chattahoochee River and set about establishing a company town to house and accommodate the workers. One of the partners, R.M. McCombs, named the town Helen, after his daughter.

Helen Becomes a Town

The Morse Brothers Lumber Company took over operations of the Byrd – Matthews sawmill and operated profitably for 20 years, clearing nearly 56,000 acres, until most of the available lumber had been harvested. In 1931, the sawmill was closed, dismantled, and shipped to Mexico. Shortly thereafter, with the help of visionaries Charlie Maloof and Arthur Woody, the land harvested by the lumber companies became the core of the Chattahoochee National Forest.

The Quiet Years

When the mill left the town in 1931, many of the residents associated with the lumber business were also forced to leave Helen to find work elsewhere. The Depression had begun, and Helen went into a slow decline. The railroad was abandoned after the lumbermill closed, but tourists still made the trek to the mountains, now by automobile. Those who remember this difficult period also recall the remarkable sense of community that helped neighbors persevere. When someone needed help, everyone pitched in. It drew people closer.

Birth of Alpine Helen

In January 1969, three Helen businessmen, Jim Wilkins, Pete Hodkinson, and Bob Fowler, met at a local restaurant and began discussing the idea of refurbishing the town to entice tourists to stop on their way north to the mountains. Hodkinson consulted an acquaintance for ideas, artist John Kollock from Clarkesville, whose family had deep roots in the area. Agreeing to draw up some sketches, Kollock knew almost immediately what he would propose. When he had been stationed in the army in Germany, he had become fascinated with the similarity between the Bavarian mountains with those in North Georgia.

Kollock's Vision

Kollock drew many sketches of alpine villages he saw, including detailed renderings of the trim, features, and colors used, believing the ebullient style was the perfect backdrop for tourists, “How great,” he recalled “if there could be some spot in our mountains that could reflect this image for the vacationer.” Over the next 40 years, the town grew dramatically, evolving new ventures, shops, and venues, some successful, some not. Helen’s remarkable rebirth and success was wrought by the creativity and dash of its citizens, a spirit of local entrepreneurship, and a demonstration of civic cooperation that united a dying lumber town and became Georgia’s third most visited city.

To learn more about Helen's rich and intriguing past, visit the Helen Arts & Heritage Center's History Museum located at
​​25 Chattahoochee Strasse, Helen, GA 30545

Our history museum makes an effort to preserve and share the rich history of these beautiful mountains and the people who have made their home here for generations. Your donation helps us continue this effort to expand and add to the displays. Donations are tax deductible.