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Fact Check: Helen

New Georgia Encyclopedia editors continually update the resource in order to keep the encyclopedia's 2,200+ articles fresh and accurate. Here, they report on recent interesting changes.

Helen started seriously attracting tourists in the late 1960s, when local businesspeople decided to transform the downtown to mimic a Bavarian village. By 1972 the half-timber framing, intricate roof lines, and bright blues of Munich, Germany, had established themselves along Helen's skyline. Tourists, who had originally passed through to see the nearby mountains and waterfalls, began to stop in the town. Today, Helen is the third most popular city for tourists in the state, after Atlanta and Savannah.
Before Helen could become the "Georgia Alpine Village," however, it had to become "Helen." An encyclopedia reader wrote us last year claiming that we had misidentified Helen’s namesake. Here’s what we found.
The city of Helen was founded in the early twentieth century, in what was once the heart of Cherokee and gold-mining territory. After the Cherokees had been brutally forced west and the prospectors had left for California, executives from the Byrd-Matthews Lumber Company found vast virgin forest reserves in the region in 1911. By 1912 they had built a massive lumber mill just to the south of what is now downtown Helen. Shortly afterward, the Gainesville and Northwestern Railroad built a depot in Helen, connecting the burgeoning mountain lumber town to Gainesville, in the Blue Ridge’s southern foothills.
 
This is where we crisscrossed our claims. We claimed that Helen was named after a railroad surveyor, which doesn't seem to be the case. The Helen Arts and Heritage Center and the Southern Highroads Trail Association both claim that Helen was named after Helen McComb, the daughter of a Byrd-Matthews manager, not the daughter of a railroad surveyor. 
 
Though a Byrd-Matthews executive named the town after his daughter, the town didn’t stay with Byrd-Matthews for long. The Mores Brothers Company took over the sawmill in 1917 and continued operations until 1931, when the sawmill was packed up and moved to Mexico. The town struggled for nearly forty years, until a fateful meeting gave birth to the idea of the alpine village.
 
The encyclopedia user was right. We misidentified Helen’s namesake. We changed the article’s second paragraph to correctly identify Helen’s namesake as the daughter of a Byrd-Matthews executive.
 
This piece originally appeared in the Georgia Humanities newsletter. You can sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox here.
 
Interested in suggesting your own revisions? Visit our Contact Us page. If you found our Helen article interesting, then you might also like our articles on Cherokee Indian Removal and Forest Removal in the Georgia Mountains.
 
 
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