Helvetia, West Virginia is an isolated community settled by Swiss and German-speaking immigrants in 1869. Much of the historic community remains intact today.
After the end of the American Civil War, a group of Swiss and German-speaking immigrants calling themselves the Grütliverein (Grütli Society) was formed in Brooklyn, New York. 1 The members agreed that they would emigrate to a more rural area of the country together.
Isler, a member of the Society, surveyed large areas of the eastern West Virginia mountains for a Washington-based firm and reported back on the richness of the country. 1 A committee of six men was assembled and left Brooklyn for Clarksburg, West Virginia by rail on October 15, 1869. 1 2 From there, the men trekked 75 miles by wagon, horseback, and foot over the mountains and along the valleys of the forks of the Buckhannon River before reaching a plot of land that was for sale on October 20. 1 Although the group was disappointed in how wild and rugged the land was, it was reasonably priced; they also received offers of other assistance from the land agents in Clarksburg if they would encourage further settlement in the area. After returning, the Society all decided they would emigrate to some bottomland along Trout Run in northern Randolph County.
By 1871, there were just 32 people living in Helvetia. 1 In that year, a new arrival in the community, C. E. Lutz, became the local land agent. To promote the sale of the lots, he wrote advertisements in English and German languages for newspapers across the country extolling its virtues. The adverts worked, and settlers from across the nation, Canada, and Switzerland immigrated to the mountains of West Virginia. By 1874, Helvetia had grown to 308 residents. 1 2
Initial efforts at settlement went into the construction of a log cabin to house new arrivals, but most of the settlers were able to buy their own tracts of land because of its low cost. 1 An area of 100 acres was set aside at the center of the community and laid off into lots that were sold to skilled tradesmen as an incentive. The first buildings in Helvetia were constructed of rough-hewn logs.
- In 1874, the first grist mill was built in the community, followed by a steam sawmill by August Vogel in 1887. 1
- A local school was established in 1875 which remained in operation until 1959. 1
- The village’s first hotel was opened in 1879 but it soon closed because of a lack of business. Another, the Huber Inn, opened in 1887 and served as such until 1960 before becoming a private residence.
In 1978, Helvetia was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 2 It is known today for maintaining its Swiss traditions, festivals, food, and folk life.
The front half of the Cheese Haus was originally a storage building. 1 When demand for Helvetia cheese grew, the storage building was enlarged to become a cheese factory. The rear half of the structure was used for the curing.
General Store / Post Office
The General Store and Post Office was built in the 1920s. 1 The upper floor contained living quarters.
Inside the store is a collection of masks relating to Fasnacht, an event held the weekend after Fat Tuesday that celebrates the end of winter. People parade through the town in giant papier-mâché masks, dance, play old-time traditional Appalachian music, and dine on traditional Swiss and German foods such as bratwurst sausage, chili, sauerkraut, and hot dogs. After a candle-lit masked parade from the Band Hall to the Community Hall, revelers gather around an effigy of “Old Man Winter.” The event ends with a bonfire and the burning of the effigy.
Fasnacht has been celebrated in Helvetia for over 150 years, since the town’s founding. Because of the community’s relative isolation, its unique traditions have withstood the influences of time and cultural change.
- Helvetia: The official website of Helvetia, West Virginia