Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Helen: An Alpine Invention

Over the past two summers Russell Library intern Kaylynn Washnock assisted in curating the new exhibit, “Seeing Georgia: Changing Visions of Tourism in the Modern South” opening September 18th in the Russell Library’s Harrison Feature Gallery. The exhibit investigates how the state transformed itself from a way station along the route to Florida into a tourist destination during the twentieth century. It addition to highlighting six popular destinations in Georgia the exhibit considers questions of access, preservation, and economics – who could go, how they got there, and what motivated them to visit different attractions. The exhibit also explores the professionalization of the tourism industry and the roles of modern amenities in shaping the modern tourist experience. This post is one in a series where Kaylynn offers a preview of the exhibition.   

Welcome to Helen brochure, ca. 1970s.
Georgiana Ephemera Collection, Hargrett Library.
Nestled in the North Georgia Mountains, the Bavarian village of Helen known for fudge and beer was once a prosperous logging and mining town. By the late 1920s, the lumber industry had decimated local resources and moved on. Without logging traffic, the 1.5 mile rail line into Helen shut down in 1928. In the decades that followed locals looked for new ways to attract visitors to the area, with limited success. In 1968, after years of dwindling population and economic prospects Mayor Bob Fowler and entrepreneur Pete Hodkinson met with community stakeholders to discuss ways to revitalize the business district. When local artist John Kollock suggested that the town capitalize on the beauty of the surrounding mountains and transform itself into a Bavarian village, inspired by his time spent in Germany with the military, business owners agreed.

Helen was reborn in April 1969 with a new charter that granted the city control over the exterior appearance of buildings downtown. By the early 1970s, the European ambiance was taking shape and visitors inundated the town, taking part in hot-air balloon races or a range of festivals like Oktoberfest.  A 1971 brochure featuring Kollock sketches encouraged tourists to “leisurely enjoy the charms” and “Old World atmosphere.” Despite the popularity of Helen’s German façade, the town found many critics who bemoaned the campy commercialization detached from authentic Appalachian history. In 2003, Helen was the third most popular tourist destination in Georgia, behind only Atlanta and Savannah. The appeal continues to expand as shops and roadside stands on the outskirts of Helen attempt to allure tourist with homespun gifts, local food stuffs and several options for tubing down the Chattahoochee River.

Roadside stand on the road to Helen.
Photo by Kaylynn Washnock, July 2015.
Want to find out more about Georgia Tourism? Visit Seeing Georgia: Changing Visions of Tourism in the New South on display in the Harrison Feature Gallery in the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries from September 18, 2015 through July 30, 2016. The Russell Library gallery is free and open to the public weekdays from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 1-5 p.m. For more information, email or call 706-542-5788

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