A slow, tree-lined mountain road is the only way in or out of Helvetia,West Virginia. Where in the 1860’s a strong and talented group of Swiss and German settlers founded a new community within the isolated mountains of Randolph, County. To visit Helvetia today is to step back in time, to a place where culture and traditions remain very much the same as they were in the 1800’s. It is a place to sample the food, music and dancing that has been lost in the world of the internet and interstates. My love of this community and the ones that surround it started when Tom and I were first married and we would take day fishing trips to these mountains for some rest and relaxation. It was so refreshing to eat home cooked food and buy fresh honey in the country store that I just could not stop myself from wanting to spend time with the people here.
Helvetia is home to about 100 full-time residents and has one historic restaurant, a country store with a post office, a dance hall, community building, library and a church. Surrounded by farms, mountains and other tiny communities it is the center of all the events that residents and visitors enjoy. The annual “Helvetia Community Fair” is just one of several festive events that are held in this village year round. Most of people at these events are the descendants of the settlers and their families who work hard to keep these European traditions alive.
The Helvetia Community Fair includes a small parade, crafters, live music, Alpine Horn Blowers, Swiss Dancers, Swiss Flag Throwers (Fahnenschwingen), a 10 k mountain run with a 2 mile walk, Archery Shoot and great food. The( Kultur Huas) a Post office/small store/ mask museum is open, the library has a book sale and the Honey Haus and Cheese Haus are open to visitors. The Hutte Haus Swiss Restaurant is open and serving the most wonderful Swiss/German food in the State. This is a festival for the whole family who want to know more about the Alpine life of the settlers and eat some of their wonderful food.
While visiting the fair we made sure the Christopher was able to see the parade as it traveled down main street.
After the 4 floats and a fire truck pass us we eat our afternoon meal at the Hutte Haus Swiss Restaurant on main street. It is a one of a kind restaurant voted one of the top 10 best restaurants in West Virginia. The house is over 150 years old and maintains both the interior and exterior in historic style. The house has passed through a few hands but one ever wanted to lose the history or feel of the house even with it being a restaurant.
The house has many small rooms with tables and other furniture that are from many of the families in the community. Some are gifts as people updated, some sold to the current owners as families moved away and other pieces belonged to the first owners of the house.
The food is traditional Swiss German fair, with things like brats, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese soup on the menu every day. Then during the festivals they serve the sample platter to everyone. This is includes hand-made sausage, white bratwurst, brazed chicken, potatoes, home-made sauerkraut and swiss cheese with home-made peach cobbler and fresh whipped cream for desert. It is a feast for the eyes and the stomach.I can can not say I have had a better meal any where that I have traveled or lived.
As our meal ended the rain started and we walked the main street to the only intersection in town and turned to see the community hall enveloped with people. The entertainment was thoughtfully moved in doors for the rest of the day and we found our benches and seats inside the wooden hall. In the hall we watched villagers perform the Alpine Horns, singers in costume sing traditional folk songs and young children perform Swiss/German dances that Tom and I remember from when we lived in Germany . The best, saved for last, was watching two young men swing the Switzerland flags to the Alpine Horns.
This is a short clip of what the Alpine horns sound like and what Flag Swinging is. I found them hypothetical when preformed together.
When the performances are over and the crowds slowly file back to the parked cars, Tom and I stop at the Kultur Haus / museum/ Post office. It is the place to get your souvenir tee shirts and post cards, honey candy and a cold pop, but I visit for a different reason. I come for the museum portion of the store. The museum is a loose collection of hand-made masks that local village members hand make for the Fasnacht Celebration every spring. Some get donated to the shop and placed on display and show off the talent and strange and wonderful paper mache skills of the creators. Fasnacht is held around the first week of February and is the traditional celebration of the end of winter. It is much like a combination of Halloween and Mardi Gras and a Druid Ceremony rolled into one. The village people who attend, dress in home-made costumes, have a community dance with buffet dinner and live music. Then at around midnight the leaders of the community cut an effigy of old man winter down ( a straw stuffed scare crow with pine bows and a rubber mask face) from the rafters of the dance hall carry him out in the nearby field and set him a blaze. The bonfire roars for an hour or two where the spirit of winter is free from the land. The night ends around 1 am with the start of spring. Some of the wonderful masks from these costumes are on display year round for everyone to enjoy it the Kultur Haus on Main Street.
Some of the other wonderful places we visited on the trip are the Honey Haus and Cheese Haus. They are not in operation any more but the structures are wonderful to look at and during this festivals are usually open for visitors. This year the Honey Haus had many hand-made honey products for sale and the Cheese Haus had samples of cheeses made and used in the area.
So with the rain trying to pour down again we headed to car with a 1/4 of a wheel of Swiss cheese, full hearts and tummies. The day seemed short although we had spent 6 hours at the fair. I was glad to get in the warm and dry of my car, but I didn’t want to leave.I loved my time here and could have just stayed and worked in the warmth of the kitchen at the Hutte Haus or collected the mail in the Museum…I guess I will just have to come back as often as I can so that I will understand even more about why after 155 years people never really leave this place but always come back.