Ga. town yodels its way to fame in Alpine dress

November 11, 1990|By Chicago Tribune

HELEN, Ga. -- Back in the 1960s, Ray Sims used to stand outside his Gulf filling station hosing down the pavement next to the two-lane road that ran through town. He would watch four or five cars pass by in the morning. He would watch the same cars zoom back by in the afternoon. Helen, he noticed, was not on the highway to the future.

Worried that Helen would soon be a ghost town, Mr. Sims and other citizens began to ponder how they could induce the passing cars to stop. They considered the town's liabilities, notably the half-dozen squat, cement buildings that called themselves a downtown. They surveyed the town's assets, notably the wooded blue mountains that rolled toward the Appalachians, and the Chattahoochee River, which coursed through the heart of Helen.

An outlandish idea sprang to life: Why not turn this North Georgia hamlet into an Alpine village?

Twenty years later, without any billboards to announce it, Helen appears suddenly and freakishly along a mountain road, smack dab in the middle of a serene Southern landscape of fields, forests, white wooden churches, small cinder-block houses and boiled-peanut stands.

There on the horizon, at the far end of a traffic jam, looms a bustling Bavarian town. There are chalet-style roofs, turrets, gingerbread shutters, flower boxes, dormers, balconies and cobblestone alleys. There are motels called the Alpenhof and the Helendorf, along with stores called the Yogurt Haus, the Tobak Haus, the Strudel Haus and Das Ist Leather.

Wilkommen, y'all.

"No one, no one would have predicted this," said Ray Sims, who at the age of 59 finds himself at the head of an unlikely Alpine construction dynasty. "We didn't know what we were doing back then. We was just having fun."

The "miracle of Helen," as the tourist brochures call it, is particularly astonishing this time of year, when 300,000 tourists visit for Oktoberfest. The visitors come by the busload, to drink beer and eat strudel, to shop for beer steins and cuckoo clocks, to dance the polka down in the Fest Halle.

"Go abroad this year," urge the brochures. "Discover Alpine Helen."

Though the town's population remains under 300, Helen now has 160 businesses, all done in Alpine motif. In the past six months, the Days Inn and Comfort Inn have opened the town's first chain hotels, both in chalet style.

Helen's transformation is particularly remarkable because it was the work not of a corporation but of local people using their own money. An artist named John Kollock did the first watercolor sketches based on memories of his World War II service in Bavaria. Jim Wilkins, an entrepreneur who would become a multimillionaire, provided financing. Mr. Sims headed up the construction.

In 1969, Mr. Sims built an Alpine facade on the Orbit ladies' sportswear factory and then did the same to the Mountaineer dress outlet, the sock shop and the drugstore. The Dairy Queen metamorphosed into the Wurst Haus.

Passers-by stopped to ask what was going on. One of them was Bernd Nagy, an Austrian.

"It was unbelievable," said Mr. Nagy, recalling that day in 1969. "Here we were going through northeast Georgia, and there's this little town that reminds me of my hometown in Austria."

Mr. Nagy was so smitten that he stayed and opened Helen's first souvenir shop, the House of Tyrol, which has expanded into a hugely profitable mail-order company. In 1971, he organized the city's first Oktoberfest. It consisted of a couple of kegs of beer, a polka band on the sidewalk and 25 people dancing in the street.

The Alpine village grew so fast that by the mid-1970s Helen was in desperate need of an amenity that arrived late to many rural Southern towns -- a sewage system. In 1975, to celebrate its first sewage tank, the people of Alpine Helen burned a wooden outhouse in the middle of Main Street.

Not every old-time Helenite was thrilled to have a bit of Bavaria in the back yard, however. By the 1980s, the town had split into the pro-growth Mountain Party and the slow-growth River Party. The Mountain Party prevailed. Most of the old-timers, fed up with the down-home Disney, left town.

Helen continues to grow, but even its oldest boosters hint that some of the charm is gone. Too many of the "Bavarian" souvenirs are now from Taiwan by way of Wal-Mart. Few shopkeepers dress in Tyrolian attire. And the huge factory outlet mall, though outfitted in Alpine facades, betrays the fact that this is America, not Bavaria.

Even Ray Sims worries sometimes.

"I miss the peace and quiet," he said. "Used to be you knew every person you saw. Now I can't identify 10 people in this town."

"Do I wish it would go back to the way it was before?" he asked. "No. This is Helen's toehold to the future."

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