For a taste of Switzerland, visit the charming community of Helvetia, tucked into the hills of Randolph County.
Hidden in the Randolph County hills is a tiny unincorporated area called Helvetia—a place with less than 60 people according to the U.S. Census, but enough heart and creativity to fill any big city. Well off the beaten path, this rural community’s origin dates back to the late 1860s when Swiss immigrants settled the area.
Local archivist Eleanor Betler has lived in Helvetia since 1961 and works to preserve the colorful stories of the area as part of The History Project, housed in a log schoolhouse attached to the town library. “I married a local boy when I was here visiting over the summer. We dated for four years by mail,” she says. “He was in the service and I went to college, but it was always my dream to live here.”
Eleanor’s mother was born in Helvetia, but Eleanor grew up in Cleveland, visiting her family’s hometown on breaks from school. She always wanted to live in Helvetia for its Swiss heritage and history. The Helvetia Village Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The village’s traditions have been kept alive for many decades, even as the population dwindled from hundreds to a few dozen. “We are not typical Appalachian. It’s different here,” Eleanor says. “Everybody who lives here now really wants to be here. It’s very wholesome. You can have unrest in your body or your mind or your soul, and when you spend time here, it’s very healing.”
Helvetia is known for its square dances, yodeling, and, perhaps most famously, its Fasnacht celebration in February, which takes place the Saturday before Ash Wednesday. The whole town—not to mention people from all over the U.S. and the world—gather in Helvetia for a lively party that ends around a bonfire where patrons burn “Old Man Winter.” “It’s a celebration our ancestors brought here with them,” says Kevin Betler, Eleanor’s nephew, who manages a Fasnacht mask museum in the Kultur Haus (Culture House) in Helvetia. “It’s almost like Mardi Gras. It has grown into a huge deal and a lot of people come. They make beautiful, papier-mâché masks.” Fasnacht, or carnival, in Switzerland is a joyful time when participants seize the day in masks and costumes that, some say, help them take on a new identity as they parade through town, often singing, dancing, and playing music.
Like the tradition of mask making in Helvetia, music and dance can be traced back to the village’s first days. Eleanor says children grow up learning to perform, and they have no fear of taking the stage. “It’s second nature to them. Helvetia kids dance,” she says. Every month, a square dance takes place in Helvetia as part of the Mountain Dance Trail Program.
These days, Joe McInroy is one of the men inspiring everyone to have fun. An Ohio native, Joe went to Davis & Elkins College before landing a job in Pickens, five miles from Helvetia. These days, the retired schoolteacher leads the Helvetia Star Band and directs a group of singers and yodelers. The band plays for all of the dances, playing square dance music, polkas, and some waltzes.
Joe fell in love with Helvetia in the early ’70s. For nearly 17 years, he made Swiss furniture in Helvetia, and now he paints landscapes. He and his wife, a former schoolteacher and postmaster, raised their children there and never dreamed of living anywhere else.
With family roots going back five generations, Kevin also plans to stay put. He met his wife in the area and they raised their daughter there, too. Kevin spent much of his childhood in bigger cities as his father was in the military, but when his family moved back to Helvetia in 1975, Kevin was in ninth grade and happy to be in rural West Virginia. “I decided right then that this was where I wanted to stay and live. I’ve always made it a point to stay here.”
Helvetia is located off of Route 46 in rural Randolph County, about an hour southwest of Elkins.
The Hutte. Browse the hearty menu, including many homemade Swiss specialties, and take in the many Swiss and American antiques that surround you in this charming, old house. Some say the Sunday brunch, a country buffet called “Bernerplatte,” is one of the state’s most unique dining experiences. Call for reservations. 304.924.6435
Feast of Sankt Nicholaus at the Helvetia Community Hall takes place the first Saturday in December 2012. 304.924.6149
Every year, Fasnacht and its colorful masks take over Helvetia the Saturday before Ash Wednesday in February. Hundreds of people from all over gather for the lively party that ends around a bonfire where participants burn “Old Man Winter.”
Maple Syrup Festival in nearby Pickens takes place March 16 and 17, 2013.
Mountain Dance Trail
Mark your calendars for the next Mountain Dance Trail’s dance in Helvetia. mountaindancetrail.org
The Historic Square. The beautiful, historic square includes the library, schoolhouse, museum, and gazebo. Visitors are always welcome to stroll around the village and take in the old log buildings.
Kultur Haus Helvetia. Kultur Haus (Culture House) houses the general store as well as the post office, mask museum, and Alpen Lodge. Look for one-of-a-kind souvenirs in this historic building, open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.,
and Sunday, 1 to 4:30 p.m.
Beekeeper Inn: The historic Beekeeper Inn (circa 1870) has three bedrooms with private baths, a large living room, kitchen, and an upstairs deck. The old house is filled with antiques and books, and was originally built by a beekeeper thought to be named Wurzer, from Switzerland. Breakfast is served at The Hutte. 304.924.6435
Alpen Lodge: The Alpen Lodge is located in Kultur Haus Helvetia. One downstairs room and three upstairs rooms are available, and visitors may stay for a donation. All guests share the kitchen, dining room, and living room. The first floor sleeping room has a private bathroom. The upstairs rooms have corner locations and share one bathroom and the front porch. The upper floor was built as a boarding house. Guests have access to wireless Internet and research materials. 304.924.9100
Before you go: It’s unlikely you’ll have cell phone service, and if you go in winter, be prepared for some seriously rough, though beautiful, roads!
WRITTEN BY LAURA WILCOX ROTE
PHOTOGRAPHED BY NIKKI BOWMAN