Welcome to Helvetia, population 59. In a high mountain valley “an hour from anywhere,” the little town sustains the traditions of the Swiss immigrants who settled there in 1869. West Virginia state folklorist Emily Hilliard spent 2016 documenting Helvetia’s seasonal celebrations to understand how this isolated community draws strength from its land, its history, and its people.
“People come here and they think it’s Disney World,” says Dave Whipp, as we sit at a circular table inside the Hütte Restaurant, in Helvetia, West Virginia.
A deer head hangs on the wood-planked wall, adjacent to faded black-and-white photos of farmers. A vintage globe sits on a table nearby, and a pot-bellied stove in the next room adds wood smoke to the smell of the soups, chicken, and rösti cooking in the kitchen. Helvetia lacks the contrived eternal cheer of the happiest place on Earth, but I know what Dave means.
Helvetia, West Virginia, population 59, can seem, on first visit, not quite real.
Not because it is inauthentic or fake — in fact, it’s quite the opposite — but because you can’t imagine how a place like this could exist in today’s world. The mountain village, “an hour from anywhere,” as a local told me, was founded in 1869 by Swiss immigrants, many of them craftsmen, who had first immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, during the Civil War. Today, Helvetia’s Swiss-German heritage is visible in the hand-painted signs of coats of arms, Swiss phrases, and historical markers. Public buildings like the Community Hall, Cheese Haus, and the Kulture Haus (which also serves as the village post office, general store, and mask museum) are decorated with alpine gingerbread and floral patterns.
The Hütte Restaurant on the main road is the town’s welcome beacon, a two-story building painted a cheery gold and resembling more a beloved family home than restaurant. The Buckhannon River runs through town, curving around the Hütte property and under a small bridge that in the summertime is adorned with flower boxes that shed petals into the rapids below.
Across the bridge, the Star Band Hall, a burgundy building with a steeply peaked roof, sits on the right. What must be one of the last remaining pay phones in the country stands in front, and it’s there for good reason: There’s no cell-phone service in Helvetia. Beyond is the historic square, where a library, museum, and archive — all log cabins — sit in a horseshoe shape, with a gazebo in the center. Bells from the white, one-room, Presbyterian church ring on the hour.
On my first trip to Helvetia in the winter of 2011, I fell in love, as many people do. I didn’t have much context of the place in advance: I’d seen a few videos about Fasnacht, a type of Swiss Mardi Gras festival, for which I was headed, and that’s about it. That evening, friends and I drove the steep, winding roads up the mountain. I arrived disoriented, but was instantly charmed. Visitors wandered the town, rosy-cheeked and bundled in wool sweaters, stocking caps, and boots. Old-time music emanated out from the Star Band Hall as onlookers chugged beer and ate sausage and kraut. As we entered the Hütte, which smelled distinctly of fried apples and wood smoke, I felt I had been transported to some Nordic oasis, a poster child of hygge, or what the Swiss might call Gemütlichkeit.
Since that first trip, my relationship with Helvetia has evolved. Then, I was a tourist, driving up from North Carolina on my grad-school spring break. Later, after I’d relocated to Washington, D.C., I came as a journalist, making the weekend trip through the I-66 sprawl.
But in 2016, I arrived from the opposite direction, as a freshly minted West Virginia resident and the new state folklorist. Some of the locals I encountered on that first visit have now become friends. Others welcome me into their homes for oral-history interviews. Hütte waitresses know me by name. And most notably, my view of Helvetia has become more complex and deeper than the idyllic mountain village that first captured my imagination.
Over the course of 2016, I made four trips to Helvetia: Fasnacht in February, the Ramp Supper in April, the Community Fair in September, and a November trip for additional interviews. I was documenting the community’s seasonal celebrations through the lens of their food and agricultural traditions. While you can visit Helvetia any day of the year, it’s the intangible aspects of Helvetia’s heritage, embodied in these social gatherings, that hold much of the meaning of the place. These events serve as a homecoming for locals and visitors; they entangle people with place across generations, while also revealing the sometimes complicated dynamics of tourism, economics, and sustainability in a small, remote community.
This is the magic — much more interesting than anything Disney World has to offer — that keeps me coming back.
FASNACHT: Mountain Mardi Gras
I drove to Helvetia from the state capital of Charleston on the day before Fasnacht, winding the back roads in a rental minivan, snow flurries swirling around the windshield. I had vague directions to Eleanor Betler’s house in Pickens, just up the hill from Helvetia. After pulling into two wrong driveways, I finally found hers, lined on one side with a small apple orchard.
Short in stature with close-cropped grey hair, Eleanor, 76, greets me at the door, a broad smile accentuating her rosy cheeks. She’s lived on this farm for 54 years. Eleanor’s fellow Farm Women’s Club members Sharon Rollins and Linda “Bunch” Smith, and Eleanor’s terrier Jazzy, move about her open kitchen, which smells of hot grease and sugar. The trio is there to make rosettes and hozablatz — different varieties of fried dough to be served to locals and guests at the Fasnacht square dance tomorrow.
Rosettes, Eleanor shows me, are delicate flower-shaped fried doughnuts, made with a special iron and fried until light and crispy (her grandmother advised adding a nip of bourbon for extra crispness).
“Every family has a big rosette iron they brought from Switzerland, so it must have been very important,” she says.
Hozablatz, or "knee patches," are similarly crunchy, but thin and rectangular.
"Ladies would have a big white apron and they would roll this dough out and press them over their knee to make them real thin," Betler says. “It should be thin enough to be able to read a newspaper through it." Once fried, they are covered with sugar and served.
This pre-Lenten indulgence of fatty food dates back to a time when Helvetians would fast and refrain from even their monthly square dances during Lent; Fasnacht was the last hurrah for 40 days. Today, Fasnacht doesn’t feel so much like a last hurrah, but a bright spot in the dead of winter. That was the intention when town matriarch and Hütte co-founder Eleanor Mailloux reinvigorated the tradition in 1968. Prior to that, Fasnacht was a quiet event marked in the private homes of Helvetia. It took a backseat, like many Helvetia Swiss traditions during World Wars I and II, amid society’s anti-German sentiments.
Mailloux restored the holiday not merely as a public celebration and affirmation of cultural identity for locals, but as a lure to attract wintertime tourists to the secluded town, providing a much-needed economic boon. Her vision: an event that combined the traditional Swiss festivities of Fasnacht with the Swiss rite of spring holiday, Secheläuten — all carried out with a homemade Helvetia flair. While locals work behind the scenes to make Fasnacht happen, many older residents don’t attend the actual festivities, viewing it mainly as a celebration for tourists from away. Even Betty Biggs, who creates the Old Man Winter effigy that burns during each year’s Fasnacht, rarely sticks around for the revelry. But the younger generation of Helvetians, who grew up with the event, view the occasion as an opportunity to share their hometown with friends from away.
On Saturday afternoon, visitors begin to arrive, wandering between gatherings at local homes, the Kultur Haus, and the Hütte Restaurant. Fiddle in hand, I head to the Star Band Hall, one of the town’s two dance halls, which serves as a spot for jam sessions and gatherings before the scheduled activities. Locals sell bratwurst and sauerkraut from behind a counter in the back, and a group of about 15 people with fiddles, guitars, mandolins, and upright basses are circled in chairs, taking turns picking songs.
I seat myself next to a local fiddler, Vernon Burky, who, at age 91, is a staple in the Helvetia Star Band, the village’s house band for generations, and the namesake of the hall where we sit. Vernon’s repertoire is a mixture of Swiss schottisches and waltzes he grew up playing in the Star Band, Appalachian old-time tunes, and songs he’s picked up from recordings and musicians who come to play at jams or Helvetia square dances and parties.
After a Swiss sampler plate at the Hütte — a “greatest hits” of their offerings, served by the regular waitresses and local volunteers — my friends and I gather back in the Star Band Hall for the masked lampion parade, a procession intended to scare Old Man Winter away. We didn’t make masks this year, but those who did start to file in. Mike Roh, a high school teacher in Morgantown, brings a contingent of students who have constructed elaborate papier-mâché masks. Homemade masks are preferred to store-bought, and my personal favorites this year are a pair of monster masks constructed completely from egg cartons. Most of those who don masks are younger Helvetians, and those “from away” who have been here before or know the drill. Other locals carry lanterns, work the dance, or have already contributed their work — whether through cleaning, decorating, volunteering at the Hütte, or preparing food.
We march through the dark streets to the Community Hall, where a line has formed outside, waiting to get into the square dance. Inside, Betty Biggs’ foreboding effigy of Old Man Winter hangs over the dance hall. He sports a flannel shirt, galoshes, and is covered in pine boughs and white streamers. On the stage, the Helvetia Star Band warms up under handmade miniature felt Swiss flags, and the hozablatz and rosettes sit on a table alongside other homemade doughnuts and snacks. They disappear quickly.
The crowd square dances and waltzes under the effigy as prizes are awarded for the best masks. At midnight, the music stops, and a young Helvetian climbs up on her brother’s shoulders to cut Old Man Winter from the rafters. Her brother and his friends haul the dummy outside to the bonfire (after removing his plastic mask and galoshes), where a crowd awaits, cheering. Like other Carnival and Mardi Gras festivals around the world, the masquerade and revelry of Fasnacht suggests rebellion (cultural critic Mikhail Bakhtin dubs this form of approved debauchery the “Carnivalesque”). Masks hide distinctions of age and gender, local and tourist. The town is turned out-of-doors, defying inclement weather, and everyone convenes around the bonfire to usher in the end of winter (even if the season’s end is merely aspirational).
As the revelers sing the familiar refrain of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (“Almost heaven, West Virginia”) — the last rags of the effigy are engulfed in flames, and our eyes follow the embers up to the sky, past the swaying pines, merging with the fiery stars.
RAMP SUPPER: “Eat It to Save It”
It’s late April and I’m back on the road to Helvetia for my first springtime visit. Burning Old Man Winter must have worked, because spring ephemerals now replace snow along the roadsides. As I near the community hall, the distinctively pungent smell of ramps wafts out from the back kitchen.
Ramp suppers are common springtime fundraisers in communities across West Virginia. Here in Helvetia, the annual event benefits the Community Hall Association and the Farm Women’s Club. Defying the fleeting trendiness and urban chefs' “flash in the pan” fascination with the wild leeks, ramp suppers in the Mountain State are homespun community efforts, officially dating back at least 75 years.
I’ve eaten my fair share of ramps, but having lived in West Virginia for only six months, I’d never been to a ramp supper, nor witnessed its preparations. My host, Dave Whipp, had prepped me in an email prior to my arrival:
On Friday morning, the menfolk will gather outside the Community Hall to cook about 400 pounds of potatoes in iron kettles over a wood fire, drink beer and homemade wine, and maybe listen to music. The womenfolk will gather in the kitchen and complain about what worthless pieces of excrement the men are. It’s a longstanding tradition!
Parking outside the hall, I opt, at least initially, to follow Dave’s prescribed gender division, and walk into the kitchen. I find a group of women and a few men washing dishes, making lunch, laying out bags of frozen ramps to defrost, and slicing ham. I grab a knife, find a place at the counter, and join in. I don’t hear much talk about the “menfolk,” but chatter instead about the work at hand, the three toddlers who are there helping their mothers and grandmother, and the merits of a “just-sweet” cornbread.
“People don’t put a lot of sugar [in it], but it always has a little,” says Eleanor Betler. The women tell me that the touch of sweetness offers a counterbalance to the savory, salty ramp supper fare. I trade in my knife for my camera and start taking photos. A local woman arrives and rolls up her sleeves, complaining about those who aren’t helping. I have the urge to let her know I had just been prepping food, but I refrain. I’m uncomfortable, not necessarily because of her comments, but because I realize I’m struggling with my own role here in Helvetia, navigating between friend and folklorist, participant and journalist, volunteer and documentarian.
Outside, I find Dave’s description of the scene more accurate. About half a dozen men sip wine and Bud Light around an open campfire, talking through the steps to properly cook potatoes while they stir them in two giant cast iron kettles. Many of them don the “Helvetia, West Virginia” T-shirts the Kultur Haus sells. They’re locals, not tourists, but they’re proud. Dave hands me a plastic cup of his Cabernet Sauvignon out of a bottle labeled “Youthful Indiscretions,” the brand of his homemade wine. It’s 10:30 a.m., and I’m technically on the clock, but acutely aware that I’ve crossed lines into “menfolk” territory, and, wanting to honor tradition, I accept.
When the first batch has boiled, two men drain the water and dump the golden, tender potatoes on a large blue tarp lying on the ground. Dave picks up one of the smaller ones, holding it in his hands and biting it like an apple, and I follow suit. One man remarks, “She’s eating a potato — a good country girl!” Perhaps intuiting that I, the niece of an Indiana potato farmer, am more familiar with taters than ramps, he pulls a two-pronged fork from the back of an ATV serving as a makeshift bar. “Looks like you know your potatoes — I now appoint you official potato tester,” he says, handing me the prong.
Helvetia held its first ramp supper sometime between 1946 and 1948 (Helvetia native Ernest Hofer, who has been working at the supper for at least 40 years, isn’t sure of the exact date). The event requires a significant time and labor commitment from a core group of workers, which can be taxing on a small population stretched thin across multiple volunteer roles. For weeks leading up to the supper, locals, including 4-H kids, come to help clean and process ramps. Morgan Rice, 18, remembers, “You’d come down after school every day for weeks to clean ramps. Every day for weeks. And you’d go to school and be like, ‘I’m really sorry that I smell like ramps but it is in my fingers. It is in my fingerprints.’”
Then, there are the 400 pounds of potatoes to boil, peel, and fry, 300 pounds of ham to cut, Navy beans to sort, soak, and cook, and a variety of cookies, cakes, and pies to be baked by the Farm Women’s Club. There’s also the sourcing of the food and advertising, as well as the day-of tasks — ticket sales, table setting, serving, dishwashing, and the after-dinner square dance to host, play, and call. Then, the clean-up.
After dwindling turnout and low profits in years prior, the 2015 ramp supper almost didn’t happen. That was until young Morgan Rice started a petition, “I sent an email to almost every person in Helvetia saying, ‘The younger population of Helvetia does not want to get rid of the ramp dinner because of its importance to us and because it’s such a staple to our community.’ The ramp dinner is a big part of my life and Helvetia’s life.” Morgan’s plea earned the support of two other members of the Farm Women’s Club, Cecelia Smith and Sharon Rollins, who decided to bolster their efforts with additional advertising and reorganization and continue the supper on a year-by-year basis. Despite unseasonably cold temperatures and rain, the 2015 event was successful, bringing in the number of attendees needed to make the fundraiser worthwhile.
But the value of the ramp supper for Helvetia is not just monetary. For Cecelia Smith, the event functions as a reaffirmation of community after a long winter and an engagement with local and familial history.
“The ramp supper is a part of our heritage, and we’ve lost too much of our heritage,” Cecilia says. “We need to hold on to as much as we can.”
Cecelia does that by baking her family’s cake recipes and sharing them on the dessert table at the ramp supper. “I brought two cakes today — one is a German Apple Cake, which I think was my grandma’s recipe, but I know has been in the family for umpteen years, and the other one is Molasses Crumb Cake, which my dad made when I was little.”
These recipes themselves, and the communal work involved with the ramp supper, are a means of preserving memory through the act of cooking and eating, a process which incites the phrase popularized by food preservationist Poppy Tooker — “eat it to save it.”
The spring ramp suppers also demonstrate Helvetians’ close connection to the land and its offerings. In folklorist Mary Hufford’s essay, “Ramp Suppers, Biodiversity, and the Integrity of ‘the Mountains’,” about the ramp supper in Drew’s Creek, West Virginia, she writes, “The traditional knowledge that sustains this annual round of harvesting is anchored in a people’s landscape inscribed all over the mountains, a literary work writ large.”
In the past, Ernest Hofer donated 10 bushels of his own ramps to the event. Now, the ramps are purchased from a digger and vendor in a neighboring county.
“It’s hard to find ramps because people aren’t gonna tell you where their ramp patch is!” Ernest says. “That’s a well-kept secret, and I’m not gonna tell you where mine’s at! And a lot of the property has been closed to ramp digging due to the lumber company’s leasing the property, which has hurt the ramp suppers a lot. So they just can’t dig ’em."
As Mary Hufford relays in her essay, changes in the landscape and land ownership present barriers to the practice and survival of traditional knowledge and cultural heritage in communities across the state. Relatedly, out-migration, particularly of young people, is a significant issue here. Cecelia Smith wondered if the low turnout at the ramp supper in recent years was due to a generational shift.
“It seems like it’s more the older people that are coming, we don’t have that many of the younger people coming to it,” she said. “There’s nothing to keep them here so they’re moving away and they lose that background.” Sharon Rollins concurred: “I don’t know if it’s so much of the competing events or whether young people don’t know ramps like some of the older people do, like my dad’s generation.”
Though rain threatened earlier, by 2 p.m. on Saturday a line has formed, snaking through the upstairs and down the community hall front steps into the lawn. As I wait my turn, I overhear a lot of ramp talk — discussion of other ramp suppers and sharing of family memories of the wild leeks.
“My one grandfather hated ramps, but my other grandfather loved them,” one attendee tells his friends. “He’d spend hours digging and cleaning them and even one time tried to wash them in an old washing machine.” As I look around the hall, I wonder if Cecelia is right — most of those in line are of an older set, though among them are a few families with young children.
After my plate is loaded with sautéed ramps, ham, fried potatoes, soup beans, and cornbread, I take a seat next to strangers at one of the long wooden tables. As we pass bowls of applesauce and coleslaw, we introduce ourselves. An older couple seated to my left, who live the next county over, says they attend multiple ramp suppers in the springtime. An older gentleman who grew up in West Virginia, but now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, made the three-plus-hour drive with his son-in-law. “He’s always talked about ramp suppers,” he tells me. “So, we finally decided to come back for one.”
They could have eaten ramps at any number of restaurants in Charlottesville — in morel and lemon risottos, ramp Bloody Marys, or in a remoulade sauce — but instead they drove 360 miles round-trip to eat them from a styrofoam plate in the basement of a community hall with a few hundred strangers. I think about the poetry of Morgan’s claim that ramps were in her fingerprints, and I consider what else is there, too — memory, land, ritual, and the fingerprints of Helvetia itself.
HELVETIA COMMUNITY FAIR:
The Free Life
It’s a warm September Saturday and the first of two days of the Helvetia Community Fair, one of the oldest agricultural fairs in the state. I pull off the interstate to get gas before hitting the back roads and see I have an email from my friend Jonathan Lacocque, asking if I’d consider being a judge for the Community Fair Parade.
I reply that I’d be honored. Jonathan is the Helvetia Community Fair director. He’s not from Helvetia originally, but his wife, Clara Lehmann, grew up there. Her grandmother was Eleanor Mailloux, who co-founded the Hütte Restaurant and reinvigorated many of the town’s Swiss traditions. Jonathan and Clara moved back to Helvetia a few years ago from Chicago. They operate a film and video post-production company out of their home studio, relying heavily on two forms of DSL internet and next-day delivery. They also have twin toddler daughters. In their early 30s, Jonathan and Clara are part of a handful of younger Helvetians and their families who have chosen to build a life there. But that choice comes with challenges, and those who stay or hope to move to Helvetia face a scarcity of local jobs.
“Things have changed in the fact that a lot of young people had to move away, because it used to be the coal mines and the sawmills here. You’d have a good job,” Eleanor Betler says. “And now, if you’re not working for the school or the state or a store, there just isn’t employment. You have to drive at least an hour one-way to work.”
After World War II, Helvetia underwent an economic transition as coal mines opened nearby. The flood of new jobs offered by the mines allowed young families to stay. As David Sutton writes in his 2010 book Helvetia: The History of a Swiss Village in the Mountains of West Virginia, “This was the most fundamental change because it removed the means of production from the community and placed it in the hands of outside interests. As more and more people began to work in industry or moved away to find jobs, Helvetians could no longer fall back on a safety net of carefully woven economic and social relationships as they had during the Depression.”
Today, as those mining and timber jobs disappear, Helvetians are returning to small, home-based economies and seeking ways to create and sustain their own work by freelancing remotely or opening local businesses based in services, agriculture, or creative industries. Along with Jonathan and Clara’s company, Clara’s cousin, Henry Rice, recently opened a gutter-installation business, and Sandy Burky runs a business consulting firm out of her office in Pickens. Local farmers and artisans have expanded their customer base via the internet, making it possible to sustain their work in a remote part of the state.
I arrive in town an hour before the parade is set to begin. Horses graze in the pasture near the Hütte, and cars line the main road and parade route. Exhibitors and vendors selling woodcrafts, jams, quilts, baskets, and art are set up in the Star Band Hall and historic square. A pair of accordionists, who are part of a delegation from the Swiss Club of Washington, D.C., serenade festival goers with peppy polkas while their peers toss and twirl Swiss flags, a tradition known as Fahnenschwingen.
I cross the lawn to the one-room museum, made to resemble the home of early Swiss settlers in Helvetia. Inside, I find Lawrence Metzner, 90, with his granddaughter Michalla. Lawrence is here to talk about history with visitors, and Michalla films him with a small handheld camera. Lawrence grew up here, but moved to Clarksburg for work shortly after he married. When he tells me about his boyhood on a Helvetia farm — communal work parties, box socials, and regular baths in the river — his eyes light up. After many of his anecdotes, he repeats the phrase “a free life.”
“It’s just a close-knit community,” he says. “They had dances, we played baseball together, we hunted together, went to school together — this little school here. Then, my wife didn’t want to live on the farm. We had to move to Clarksburg, and I’d come back up for fairs. But I tell ya, this place here is … the blood’s in me, buddy. The spirit.”
The church bells chime at 2 p.m., and we gather along the main road to await the parade. Flag bearers and small carts lead the procession. One wooden wagon pulled by a young boy represents the Community Fair and is adorned with produce, plants, small Swiss flags, and a Helvetian elf — a mascot depicted in various places in the village. A middle-aged couple pulls a wagon with a papier-mâché figure, labeled “baby winter,” a nod to Fasnacht. By February of next year, he’ll be an old man.
Jonathan pushes his twin daughters in a flower-covered cart. The girls wear traditional Swiss dresses and look like they’ve been transplanted from Switzerland’s National Day parade. Some families ride together on horseback or in four-wheelers covered with Swiss flags, while others sit on floats they’ve designed for the occasion. A young boy leads a goat behind him on a short leash — it doesn’t seem especially happy to be in the parade.
Nancy Gain, a local farmer, rides on her plant-adorned “Nancy’s Greenhouse Garden Party” float, while elegantly sipping homemade wine. The float stops briefly so Nancy can give her sister, Betty Biggs, a sip. Other floats represent local organizations. The Farm Women’s Club float is peppered with signs enumerating the work they do in the community, recognizing both their tangible and emotional labor: “needlework,” “give rides,” “clean,” “cook meals,” “check on others,” “Fasnacht.”
While the various tasks of the village are fairly evenly divided along gender lines, women make up the backbone of the community. Heidi Arnett, Clara’s mother and Hütte co-owner says, “There are several women in the community who just really, really work hard constantly toward things. The men are very, very helpful, so let’s not deny that — they are just more hidden.”
Where Fasnacht and the Ramp Supper are events mainly intended as fundraisers for tourists, the Community Fair is for locals, a celebration of the town’s unique character and the end of a successful harvest season.
“A lot of old Helvetia people come from different parts of the state or country,” Eleanor Betler says. “It’s ended up being a homecoming type thing.” This is especially true for people like Lawrence, who grew up here and still have connections to the area, but don’t live in town. But even for those who’ve never lived here, there is a sense of a familiarity.
“Some people have told me, ‘The first time I came to Helvetia, I felt like I was coming home,’” Dave Whipp says. “But they had never been here before, they just felt like it was someplace they were called to. I just think people find a calmness here they don’t find somewhere else.”
Even though I’ve been coming to Helvetia for work, my time here often feels like a retreat. This is amplified by the limited wi-fi and nonexistent cell service. Residents tell me to stop by their house, rather than give me their cell-phone number, and their directions include landmarks rather than house numbers. A visit to Helvetia forces presence and attention.
In the meadow, the floats complete their trip, circling like a wagon train. I convene with the other judges — Linda “Bunch” Smith and Joni Roh — to compare notes. We award the “Best Overall” Treichyln award to Nancy Gain for her Greenhouse Garden Party — her name will be engraved on the golden cowbell that serves as the rotating trophy. We deem the Betler family’s antique thrasher (known elsewhere as a thresher or threshing machine, but in Helvetia, it’s thrash) the “most traditional/historic” float. The machine, which now sits in the museum as a symbol of past agricultural labor, was once used communally by families in Helvetia to separate the seeds and stalks of their harvested grain. Lawrence Metzner and Vernon Burky, former schoolmates now in their 90s, speak fondly of the thrash parties once held in the village.
On the meadow stage, draped with large flags of different Swiss cantons, a program of Swiss song, dance, and alpine horn blowing begins. The Lacocque twins are the youngest dancers, charming the crowd with their skips and twirls. The chorus, made up of locals with help from the Swiss delegation, sings folk songs and yodels in Swiss, with a few English translations. The crowd watches attentively from wooden benches in the field. It’s a local production, and any mix-ups with sound or choreography or missing dancers just add to the charm. Children dance and play tag as adults sit on wooden benches set up in the field.
After the program, I walk to the Community Hall and pay a dollar to enter the exhibit hall. In the basement, hundreds of jars of canned goods sit on shelves the length of the hall. Homegrown produce fills tables in the back, and baked goods sit in glass cases next to bottles of homemade wine and beer. Woven coverlets, embroidery, and knitted garments hang on the wall, vases of cut flowers adorn the top shelf, and 4-H youth exhibits are displayed on the side.
This is the agricultural aspect of the Community Fair, and it’s an impressive output for such a small town. Every entry is identified by a number, and ribbons grace the winners. As I admire the exhibits, I overhear a woman bemoan that she was bested in cornbread yet again. These jars of sauerkraut, canned beef, and tomato sauce, these fresh peppers, gourds, and prize tomatoes, the handcrafts, animal pelts, and photographs showcase the talent and productivity of Helvetians. They also display the food traditions and cultural values of the community. While most residents still make regular trips to grocery stores in Buckhannon and Elkins, a high percentage of locals keep a garden or are involved in agriculture in some way. In most private Helvetia homes, you’ll find blankets made from the Helvetia Shepherd’s Guild’s yarn, cutting boards made by local woodworkers, and a well-stocked pantry and wine cellar of canned goods, local honey, and homemade wines.
The Helvetia Cheese Haus, which normally sits dormant, is open for the fair. The wood planked building is easily recognizable — “Cheese Haus” is spelled out in a hand-painted Swiss font, and the window panels, set on a butter-yellow background, are adorned in a Swiss floral motif. Cheesemaking constitutes a large part of Helvetia’s agricultural past.
“I don’t know anybody that didn’t make cheese, because it was so good,” Eleanor Betler says. Every family made approximately the same standard recipe for a hard, mild Swiss cheese, known simply as “Helvetia Cheese,” closely resembling what was made in the Simmental area of Switzerland, where many Helvetians originated. Cheesemaking was another communal pursuit, and families pooled their milk until they had enough to produce a large wheel of cheese. Eleanor told me that each family had a “brenta box” — a rectangular tin milk container that was worn as a backpack to transport milk between farms. When Heidi Arnett was in her early 20s, she was Helvetia’s cheesemaker, producing it out of the Cheese Haus with milk from the Betler family’s small dairy. At present, no regular cheesemaker works out of the Cheese Haus, and the cheesemaking tradition has continued only in private homes. Linda “Bunch” Smith has made her own Helvetia Cheese for the past few summers, but wasn’t able to source local milk this year. As of 2016, there was only one milk cow in Helvetia. Today, the cheese served at the Hütte and sold at the Cheese Haus for special events is brought in from Amish country in Ohio. The Guggisberg cheese is similar to Helvetia Cheese.
While the Cheese Haus can appear to be an historical structure, the building wasn’t always a Cheese Haus. Ernest Hofer told me that his father and his father’s coworker built it and operated a mechanic’s garage out of the building, long before it ever bore the hand-painted “Cheese Haus” sign.
“It wasn’t a cheese haus!,” Ernest said, laughing. “I hope they don’t disown me for telling that.”
Hofer’s story alludes to a former controversy in the community. In the past some older Helvetia residents who experienced anti-German sentiments of the world wars, viewed the revival of Swiss traditions as regressive. Historian David Sutton writes of a largely fabricated incident in 1917, when a local paper wrote of a battle between Americans and Germans over the flying of the German flag “over the village of Helvetia, a German settlement.” While this was an inaccurate exaggeration, it shamed the community, and prompted Helvetians to assert their American patriotism. These attitudes only grew stronger during WWII.
“In the 1950s, some felt ‘we should all be Americans now,’” Dave Whipp told me.
So, in the late 60s when Delores Baggerly, co-founder of the Hütte, began adding Swiss gingerbread and floral designs to Helvetia buildings, and worked with Eleanor Mailloux to resuscitate Swiss celebrations and foodways, it was met with some resistance. This feeling has faded though, and even the oldest Helvetia natives don’t necessarily feel that way. Lawrence Metzner told me, “After WWII, Eleanor Mailloux who used to run this restaurant down here, she and another lady, they started helping Helvetians learn their traditions. The old Swiss traditions … it lives with you. Eleanor said, ‘We cannot forget these people who have done this for us. Their talent, their hard work, the things they did for us.’”
At the end of the afternoon, I’m invited to Charlie Chandler’s house to watch the firing of a cannon on his property. Dave Whipp and I drive up Hilltop, above Helvetia, to Chandler’s farm, Wayward Winds. Chandler, 86, is a retired engineer and homemade winemaker. His property is littered with old industrial equipment and novelties, including a homemade cannon situated across a small pond from his house. His porch is a common gathering place after events in town, and when we arrive, local musicians and the Swiss accordionists jam on the porch. Kids run around the yard, and adults help themselves to different varieties of Charlie’s wines, each bottle labeled with masking tape. While gatherings in Helvetia vary in form, they all have one common trait (aside from the homemade wine) — they’re intergenerational.
“You go to a dance, and you may dance with your dad, or with your mother, with your grandma, with your brothers,” Eleanor Betler says. “Everybody goes and then gets entertained together. And if you have a wiener roast at home, well, your parents are there. It’s a togetherness that you just don’t have in many places.” I know there are some longstanding rifts in Helvetia (when just a handful of families live in a remote area for nearly 150 years, how could there not be?), but the values of the intergenerational community trump most disputes.
Dusk now, the musicians strike up a tune about Chandler wine, written by a local songwriter. I chat with Vernon Burky, Charlie Chandler, and friends from Morgantown. Across a small pond, a group lights the cannon. When it finally fires, it catches me off guard, literally taking my breath away. As the final event in my year-long documentation comes to a close with one booming fireball, it hits me in the middle of my chest. More than love, it feels like understanding.
NOVEMBER: A Postscript
It’s a brisk evening in mid-November, and I’m back at the Hütte to interview Vernon Burky, his daughter Sandy Burky, and their cousin Thrayron Morgan. Dave Whipp joins us for dinner. We sit around a large round table in a side room, laughing at Vernon’s stories and jokes. When our server comes to take our order, no one has to look at the menu but me, and I decide on the two dishes I haven’t yet tried — cheese soup and a rösti.
I ask the questions I’ve been pondering over my work here this past year: What makes Helvetia special? Why is the community so strong? What has kept the events and infrastructure going despite the remote location, scarce jobs, and few resources?
The Burkys mention the Swiss heritage and history that binds residents to a common narrative. Even for those locals who don’t share that a common past, it serves as a cultural touchstone. Dave brings up the unique geography of fertile land situated in a high mountain valley, along a river. And I remember something Eleanor Betler said about tradition: “A tradition is a by-mouth thing, and you do what you can do with who you’ve got, you do what you can do with the ingredients you have.”
Infused with everything in Helvetia, from hand-painted coats of arms to papier mache masks, from just-sweet cornbread to homemade wine, there is a strong work ethic, paired with a humble appreciation for what is already here — values that are both Swiss and Appalachian. For Helvetians, the people and history and land have always been reason enough to persist and preserve, to create and to celebrate. And they will continue.