Located on the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River at the edge of the Nacoochee Valley in White County, Helen is about sixty miles north of Athens. It emerged in the early twentieth century in what had been, a century earlier, the heart of both Cherokee and gold mining country. The Byrd-Matthews Corporation, a timber company attracted by the area's vast virgin hardwood trees,
In 1968 a group of local businessmen met for what has become a legendary lunch. In seeking to stop some of the considerable traffic that moved through Helen on the way to the mountains and waterfalls beyond, they came upon the idea of sprucing up their storefronts. They consulted John Kollock,
Hodkinson, as much a visionary as an entrepreneur, infused the enterprise with as much a spirit of fun as of place. He drew crowds to Helen throughout the year by staging hot-air balloon races, motorcycle races, Easter olive hunts, and what remains the biggest annual event, a three-month long Oktoberfest. (Hodkinson was killed in a balloon accident in 1976.) Nearby Anna Ruby Falls, Unicoi State Park, and other natural attractions contribute to Helen's appeal, as does the Chattahoochee River, which flows through the middle of town and draws tubers and fishermen as well as shoppers to the community.
Wine-making is a growing industry in the area, and Habersham Vineyards and Winery, one of the state's oldest wineries, is in Helen.
In 2000 Helen's residents numbered only 430, and yet the town supports more than 150 shops, 30 factory outlets, about 40 restaurants,
Fred Brown and Nell Jones, eds., The Georgia Conservancy's Guide to the North Georgia Mountains, 3d ed. (Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 1996).
John C. Inscoe, "Appalachian Otherness, Real and Perceived," in The New Georgia Guide (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996).
John C. Inscoe, University of Georgia
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