For 150 years, this tiny town has brought the Swiss Alps to Appalachia.
High up in the snow-capped mountains lies a little village. Colorful buildings look as if they were plucked straight from a European fairytale. Painted coats of arms representing Swiss cantons, or states, peak beneath glittering icicles. Families fill up on good conversation along with their bratwurst and sauerkraut in The Hütte Restaurant.
This little village isn’t in the Alps of Switzerland. It’s Helvetia, West Virginia, a charming community that’s proudly lived its Swiss–German heritage for 150 years. “Anything we do here has purpose and intention. There’s something historically that backs it up and gives it weight,” says Helvetia native Clara Lehmann. Lehmann moved away during college, but she and husband Jonathan Lacocque returned in 2012 to this town where history runs deep.
During the mid-19th century, Swiss families traded peaceful Alpine pastures for America’s promising bustle. In Brooklyn, New York, rose a social group called the Grütliverein. Amongst the growing city’s clamor, these Swiss patriarchs agreed crowded streets lacked the comfort of their mountainous home.
So in October 1869 they trekked deep into Appalachia. Six families nestled together in a single cabin to see the first winter through in Helvetia, named for Switzerland’s Latin moniker. “I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been because, when they came here, the land wasn’t tamed,” Lehmann says. Many were artisans by trade. Some were farmers, she adds, but were accustomed to domesticated land—not the unruly wilds of a newly founded West Virginia.
But the Swiss were resilient. Helvetia’s population peaked at about 300 people. Lively chatter filled the valley, sometimes spoken in a dialect of German called Schweizerdeutsch. In fact, Lehmann says the local Presybetrian church held two services—one in English and one in Schweizerdeutsch. The community celebrated their homeland’s holidays, like Fasnacht, or “Fasting Night,” a Swiss equivalent of Mardi Gras. “They’d cook lots of fatty foods—donuts, rosettes, things like that—and drink wine and play music,” Lehmann says.
That is, until two world wars rocked the nation.
Anti-German sentiments quieted traditions. Not until the 1960s did Helvetia resurrect them, this time with renewed vigor. The first Saturday before Ash Wednesday—2020’s Fasnacht is February 22—locals and visitors alike don elaborate masks, dance, and burn an effigy of Old Man Winter. Afterward, some donate their masks to the Kultur Haus, or Culture House. Almost every month boasts a festivity: August’s Swiss National Holiday, September’s Helvetia Community Fair, November’s Thanksgiving potluck, December’s Feast of Sankt Nicholaus, and more. This past October, the town celebrated its sesquicentennial with a weekend full of living history demonstrations, a square dance, and a hike on the local Historic Trail.
Helvetia is now fewer than 60 people strong, but each lives their history wholeheartedly. Like the Swiss immigrants, they’re self-reliant, many running their own businesses in a place where cell service is spotty at best and the nearest grocery is dozens of miles away. Something about Helvetia resonates with people, beckons them to the place they call home. “You have to do a little more planning for groceries and dayto-day things, but you’re also able to live more richly,” says Lehmann, who now gets to watch her twin daughters grow up in her hometown. “There’s a nice balance to living here. It’s not for everyone, but we feel very lucky.”
written by Jess Walker
photographed by Nikki Bowman Mills