Booking your next trip to Munich for Oktoberfest? Drop your credit card and refill that liter “Das Boot,” because there’s a much closer option for enjoying German brews and bratwurst while immersed in Bavarian charm, and it doesn’t even require a passport.
Founded in 1913, the small town of Helen in northeastern Georgia wasn’t originally intended to be a destination “Alpine” village. Best known at first for the Byrd-Matthews lumber mill, and later the clothing companies Wilco Hosiery Mill and Orbit Manufacturing, the town faced serious economic trouble in the late 1960s.
So it did what any enterprising town would do — it created a reason for people to visit. Only this town gave itself an unexpected facelift.
To drive tourists to Helen, located about 90 miles from Atlanta by car, three local businessmen enlisted the help of John Kollock, an artist and set designer, to give the struggling town an upgrade. Inspired by the town’s idyllic mountain setting that reminded Kollock of Bavarian villages he had visited in Germany while he was a solider, Kollock set forth to transform Helen into a scene right out of a German fairytale.
Over the next nine months, Kollock and his team transformed the town, first by adding Alpine-inspired details to its original building facades. It worked: The renovations became a spectacle, drawing curious visitors interested in the small town’s facelift.
Additional efforts ensued, with cobblestone alleys, murals, and landscaping touches turning Helen into a full-fledged German village. Restaurants serving German specialties were also added to the mix. And in 1970, Helen kicked off its first Oktoberfest, the longest-running festival of its kind in the U.S., according to Explore Georgia.
Helen’s annual Oktoberfest is held in its Festhalle, a walled pavilion that hosts events closely resembling those in Munich. Locals and tourists don traditional Bavarian attire, dance to live polka music, and feast on pretzels, schnitzel, and sauerkraut there and around town.
During a 2013 interview with The Gainesville Times, Helen’s commissioner, Jeff Ash, extolled the virtues of the town’s transformation: “It’s just a phenomenal success story, because everybody started fixing their buildings up. … Everybody sought [Kollock’s] advice on colors, trim work, particularly the Alpine motif.”
Ash added that the Alpine motif is still used today, even in city government. “A lot of our ordinances are designed to keep aligned with the Bavarian theme and colors,” he says.
Come winter, following its annual lighting of the village, Helen also offers its take on a traditional Christkindlmarkt, a perfect replica of a European Christmas market with vendors selling holiday gifts, decorations, and treats.
Despite being home to a little over 500 residents, Helen can boast that it is Georgia’s third most-visited city (after Atlanta and Savannah).
It turns out that a little gemütlichkeit — a German concept that translates to a sense of coziness, warmth, and good cheer — was all this little mountain town needed to put itself on the map.