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History of Helen, Georgia

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Prior to 1800, this area was the center of Cherokee Indian culture, with villages scattered throughout Nacoochee and what is now known as Helen valleys. A townhouse was located on top of at least one of the four ceremonial mounds in Nacoochee Valley. In 1813 the Cherokees approved construction of the Unicoi Turnpike, a wagon road through their Nation from the Savannah River headwaters to northeast Tennessee. This trail, now Highways 17 and 75, ran through the valleys toward Hiawassee. The Cherokees left the area on this “Trail of Tears”, and were replaced by white settlers. 

Gold was discovered on Dukes Creek in Nacoochee Valley in 1828. The Great Georgia Gold Rush belt was bound by Dahlonega on the west and Nacoochee-Helen Valley on the east. Thousands of miners came into the Valley and mined in the foothills for over a century, generating thousands of pounds of gold. The historic England Gold Mine, site of Helen's current gold mine, and Hamby Mountain were mined extensively. Mining operations ceased by the end of the century, and settlers moved on. 

Timber officials came into the Valley, saw huge virgin timber, and built a great sawmill, Matthews Lumber Company. Simultaneously, the Gainesville and Northwestern Railroad came up the Chattahoochee River to Helen. In 1913 the Valley was named "Helen”, after the daughter of the railroad surveyor. The lumber company, located in the center of Helen on the Chattahoochee River, continued sawmill operations until 1931, shipping to Europe and the U.S. until all timber was cut. Settlers again left for opportunities in other places. By the 1960's, there was nothing left except a dreary row of concrete block structures. 

In 1968, local businessmen met to discuss what could be done to improve their town. They approached a nearby artist friend, who had been stationed in Germany. He sketched the buildings, added gingerbread trim, details and colors to the buildings, giving an Alpine look to the entire town. In January 1969, business owners and local carpenters began turning ideas into reality. Now all downtown stores have been renovated and many buildings and cobblestone alleyways added. Faces of buildings were painted with scenes of Bavaria and North Georgia, mirroring the migration of early settlers. 

Helen has accomplished much; it has created a new town and industry, providing jobs for more people and boosting the economy of the entire area. Helen also commemorates its historic past when the early settlers came to this remote area. A village with mountain heritage and a touch of Bavaria, Helen has created a unique experience for its visitor. 

So…this is the story of Helen, the miracle of a small, remote mountain community who revitalized itself in various ways throughout several centuries, and who today hosts millions of visitors each year.


Today Helen is the third most popular tourist destination in Georgia. Only Atlanta and Savannah attract more people than this alpine village. The history of Helen is far more rough and tumble than the casual tourist could imagine during a visit to the Bavarian style town.

Prior to the creation of Rabun County in 1819 the north end of the Nachoochee Valley (sometimes called the Helen Valley) was home to both Moundbuilders and Cherokee. The mound south of the city is a remnant of this civilization. Captain James Nichols, who owned the mound in the late 1800's and farmed the land reported finding soapstone carvings, shell pins and pearls which indicate the wide-range of the Moundbuilders. He also reported intricately carved effigy pottery indicative of the advanced nature of the civilization. None of these materials is considered native to the area.

Between 1450-1500 the Cherokee Indians moved into the valley, which had been left vacant by the demise of the Moundbuilders in the area. For the next 300 years they would call this place the Land of 1,000 Waterfalls. During the American Revolution Andrew Pickens entered the valley and burned the Cherokee village near the mound south of present-day Helen. James Wyly and others built the Unicoi Turnpike (1812-15), which connected Maryville, Tennessee to the navigable end of the Tugaloo River. The road crosses the Chattahoochee River on a bridge in the same place the Main Street bridge crosses the river today. Completed about 1813, this toll road features banked turns, grades and a standard width of 12 feet. The road runs through Cherokee country until 1819, when settlers force the Indians to cede the area around the road to the state of Georgia. Wyly, who owned Traveller's Rest (near the end of the Unicoi Turnpike), would move west after selling his property and become an early settler in the Nachoochee Valley.

Gold was discovered near Loudsville, Georgia, late in 1828. By March, 1829 a Georgia newspaper reported a gold producing mine owned by Richard Lumsden near that city. Within a year, thousands of people would move into the area, marking the first of America's great gold rushes. Many were poor squatters who moved into shanty towns that sprang up in the region. One of these towns was within the borders of present-day Helen. The gold rush boom was short-lived; the "twenty-niners" left as quickly as they had come, following the gold belt south to Dahlonega. One of the few businesses in the area was a gold stamp operated on the Chattahoochee. By 1850 the valley is roughly the same population it was in 1828.

Mining operations continued on a much smaller scale until the introduction of hydraulic mining in 1857. The destructive nature of this form of mining, which destroyed a good deal of land near Helen, was eventually outlawed by the state.

Unscarred by the fighting of the Civil War, northeast Georgia was left in a state of anarchy because of a lack of civil authority. Reconstruction sees the valley begin to grow once again, partly because of the railroad to Gainesville completed in 1874. Among the settlers during this era is John H. Nichols. After the Civil War he begins to purchase land in the area, including what is now the 1600 acre Anna Ruby Falls Scenic Area, a few miles north of the town. In 1876 Nora Mill opened, just below the old gold stamp. The area about to become Helen begins losing people in 1890, a downward trend that continues for more than a decade.

Although the area is losing year-round population it is becoming more popular as a tourist destination. A number of homes take seasonal guests who come to visit the north Georgia mountains. A covered bridge is added over the Chattahoochee at "West End" and further east over the Soque to allow tourists easier access. Mail service (Rural Free Delivery) begins about this time and Lamartine Griffin Hardman, doctor and future governor of the state begins to buy land including the old Nichols estate and Nora Mill.

Around 1910 commercial interest began to grow when the Gainesville and Northwestern Railroad built a rail line to transport the wood that the Byrd-Mathews Lumber Company intended to strip from the Blue Ridge Mountains north of the tiny village. Helen was officially created, named for Helen McComb, the daughter of a Byrd-Mathews manager and niece of John E. Mitchell, who would be the major real estate developer in the area. Almost immediately there was tremendous growth in the city. A general store, a bank, a dry goods store, a newspaper (1914-1916), and a hospital with both a doctor and nurse.

Helen, however, was a mill town above all else. Along with Robertson, it's next door neighbor, Helen was home to large camps of "wood hicks", the common term used in the area to describe men who cut trees or work in the lumber mill. Each morning a blast from the mill's whistle would signal workers it was time to get ready for work. A similar blast at night signaled the end of the workday. Three quick whistles was a danger signal, and there were some of those. Parts of the mill burned on at least three occasions.

A narrow-gauge train traveling south from the Blue Ridge Mountains brings flatcars of trees to be offloaded at the sawmill. Trees are cut and treated, then they continue south, normally to Atlanta where the poplar and pine boards are redirected to markets in the Northeast and Mid-west.

In 1915 the plant is sold to the Morse Brothers from New York. In 1917 production reaches its maximum as an average of nearly 70,000 board feet a day of lumber comes through Helen. At this time in our country's history lumber companies were not active participants in the conservation movement and the land, stripped bare for lumber, is left as worthless. When all the trees are taken the rail line is abandoned and the camps of wood hicks leave. On May 5, 1931, in the midst of The Great Depression, the sawmill closes.

The federal government, under the encouragement of Arthur Woody, steps in and begins to purchase this bare land and organize the Georgia (later Chattahoochee) National Forest.

Almost immediately Helen begins to see the benefits of the national forest being close at hand. Area improvement include replacing on of the last original portions of the Unicoi Turnpike still in use north of Helen with a new gravel road. In the 1950's, Unicoi State Park becomes an attraction, and the state paves State Road 75. Jimmy Wilkins opens Orbit Manufacturing and Wilco. Still, the small town is struggling to attract the crowds that now regularly fill Unicoi Park and nearby campgrounds.

Local resident Charlie Maloof tried to improve the tourism traffic in the town. By the late 1960's though, the buildings looked rundown and in need of paint.

Enter Pete Hodkinson, whom locals who knew the man describe as "fun-loving, a free spirit". Pete, Jimmy Wilkins and another businessman met one afternoon at Westmoreland Steak House on the river in downtown in 1968, trying to figure out how to stop the cars passing by their establishments and getting the occupants to spend some of their money. Hodkinson knew the success another small Georgia town, Hamilton, had by repainting storefronts. He recommended contacting a local artist, John Kollack of Clarkesville, to come up with a color scheme, and the others agreed. Kollack had spent a number of years in the military in southern Germany and proposed a substantial remodeling of the town to resemble a Bavarian village. By 1972 his work begins to attract the tourists passing by and Pete Hodkinson develops "events" including the now famous Oktoberfest.

The town enters a boom phase. By 1976 thousands of visitors per year are coming to the town. The federal government studies the revitalization of Helen. That May Pete Hodkinson, who had organized the Helen-to-the-Atlantic balloon race was killed in Toccoa in a hot-air balloon accident.

Frequently asked questions:

Who was the third man in the meeting that created present-day Helen?

In the Spring of 1968 three men, Peter "Pete" Hodkinson, James "Jimmy" Wilkens and Bob Fowler regularly met at Westmoreland's Steak House on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in downtown Helen. They discussed the problem (tourists not stopping) and over a six month period came up with a solution.

Early Inhabitants

Indian Mound at Nacoochee
Intersection of GA 17 and 75, this mound marks the site of a Moundbuilder site and is near a later Cherokee village.
Sometime around 2,500 B.C., during the Middle Archaic period, Indians move into the general area of Nacoochee. Nearby areas in Rabun and Union Counties also show evidence of early visits, however significant Indian population probably did not develop until the late Woodlands era (800-1000AD).

Four distinct Indian Mounds from a culture known as Moundbuilders cover this valley and others exist even further to the north and east in the state. Known to archaeologists as Mississippean, this culture spread quickly throughout the eastern United States, eventually covering most of Georgia including all of the Chattahoochee River.

Cherokee Dreams

Along the high eastern ridge of the Appalachian Mountains a wide V marks the place the Cherokee call Unicoy. It is the lowest entry point to the mountains for miles in either direction. The Chota River originates in the "Land of a Thousand Waterfalls," the English translation for the Cherokee word describing the high eastern crest of the southern Appalachians. Heading west from Tugaloo Old Town these American Indians settle in the Nacoochee-Sautee Valley, alongside the Chota River, which lends its name to their town.

According to James Mooney in Myths and Legends of the Cherokee, the valley takes its name from the tale of ill-fated love between a Chickasaw warrior (Sautee) and a Cherokee maiden (Nacoochee) that he meets on his way through the valley. Since their love is forbidden by tribal edict, Sautee and Nacoochee escape to nearby Mount Yonah, where Cherokee warriors discover the couple and toss Sautee from the heights of the mountain. Nacoochee follows her murdered lover voluntarily.

Spanish Influence

Significant evidence exists that Spanish miners inhabited the area in the vicinity of Duke's Creek from 1560 until sometime between 1670 and 1733. For example, Thomas Green Clemson, founder of Clemson University and son-in-law of John C. Calhoun, finds a pair of silver cigar tongs "...precisely similar to those ... used by the Spaniards" on Mount Yonah, at the southern end of the Nacoochee Valley.

In 1733 the state of Georgia is founded as a British colony, effectively cutting off Spanish access to the gold fields. There does not appear to be any significant outsider activity in the area until the American Revolution.

Having successfully fought with the British during the French and Indian War the Cherokee form a pact with them during the Revolution. At one time the British, with the help of the Cherokee in the northwest, control the entire state. Americans regain a foothold in Georgia from a base in South Carolina in 1781. Men under the command of Colonel Andrew Pickens destroy Tugaloo Old Town and follow the trading path to Chota which they also destroy.

The White Man cometh

After the American Revolution settlers begin to push into north Georgia. The Cherokee land cessions of 1782-3 and of Wofford's Tract in 1804 had brought the White man to near the eastern end of the Sautee-Nacoochee Valley. By 1810 settlers encroach once more on the Cherokee's "Enchanted Land."

Within two years investors hire James Wyly to build the Unicoi Turnpike from Tellico Blockhouse in Tennessee to the Tugaloo River. Entering the Unicoi Mountains at Tennessee's Unicoi Gap, the trail winds east to present-day Murphy, North Carolina. Here it joins the Hiawassee River, which it parallels through the southern end of the Smoky Mountains to the Cherokee villages of Quo-Neashee, Hiawassee, and Choestoe.

From Cloestoe the Unicoi Turnpike climbs the rugged eastern ridge of the Appalachians to Unicoi Gap and quickly joins the Chota River which it fords a number of times in a series of switchbacks. The lower portion of River Road and Escowee Street in present-day Helen closely follow the bed of the original Unicoi Turnpike.

Unicoi Turnpike

James Wyly's Inn at Nacoochee along the Unicoi Turnpike
The Inn at Nacoochee
James Wyly built many structures on the Unicoi Turnpike, including this inn.
This frontier highway crosses the Chota River at almost exactly the same place a bridge crosses it does now, continuing south along Georgia Highway 75. At the Indian Mound south of the city the road turns east and continues to the Tugaloo River. At this point the river becomes a highway and passengers travel by boat to Augusta or Savannah.

Portions of the Unicoi Turnpike are used as boundary lines in the Cherokee land cession of 1817 and by 1819 the entire turnpike had been ceded. James Wyly moves west with the boundary, selling his land near the Tugaloo River. He would own various boarding houses and inns along the road he built, the most famous being Travelers Rest, now a North Georgia State Park.


Gold minerToday most historians agree that the first gold in the state was found on Duke's Creek north of Loudsville, Georgia, at the extreme southern end of the Nacoochee Valley. From northeast of Helen to Dahlonega, and further southwest into Cherokee County runs a belt of gold that remains the purest ever found in the world. Within months thousands of "twenty-niners" pour into the state. Some head for the western Nacoochee Valley in search of gold. In a very short time land prices double, then double again.

First, surface gold is panned from larger rivers. Miners then move in and remove ore from veins, using water-powered stamping machines to grind rock. Finally, hydraulic mining is used to search the soil for alluvial gold (gold found at or near the surface of the land). Gold is a very profitable venture for both miners and local farmers. For example, according to F. M. Green in Georgia's Forgotten Industry, Thomas Lumsden drew thirty thousand dollars in gold from a mine on his property north of the confluence of Dukes Creek and the Chattahoochee during a single summer.

After the Gold Rush

Most of the surface gold is depleted by 1838. About this time a gradual decrease of the population in the valley begins. In 1849 almost all the miners head west when word of another strike, in the gold fields of California, reaches Georgia. The population in the western end of the Sautee-Nacoochee Valley returns to what it had been in the days before the gold rush.

Hydraulic mining begins in 1858, thanks to J. R. Dean. This form of placer mining is environmentally devastating to the land. To the trained eye, evidence of this activity is still visible in the area, most notably in the "Dean Cut."

Gold is mined in the north end of the Sautee-Nacoochee Valley well into the 20th century by various methods, although, by that time, hydraulic mining had been outlawed in Georgia.

Captain Nichols era

After the Civil War, Captain J. H. Nichols begins to buy land throughout the Nacoochee Valley. Included in these purchases are Anna Ruby Falls and the Indian Mound at the corner of Route 17 and 75. Today known as the Hardman-Nichols Estate, the house built by the Captain still stands, across the road from the mound.

According to folklore, after the deaths of his wife and child, Nichols discovers a set of falls while horseback riding and names them for his remaining daughter, Anna Ruby. In reality, the falls were known as early as 1819, 50 years before Nichols begins to buy land.

In 1890 Nichols builds the gazebo atop the Indian Mound. This structure is one of the most photographed scenes in North Georgia today, with Mount Yonah the perfect backdrop. There are three additional mounds in the area.

Perhaps Nichols' greatest contribution to the history of Helen comes after his death. His land is sold in parcels and a group of men from South Carolina purchases most of it, including Anna Ruby Falls, as an investment. Henry Bagley, a Cincinnati developer, has been securing lumber rights on land in the area.


At the start of the 20th century the western end of the Nacoochee Valley seems very similar to the valley during the 1820's. The Unicoi Turnpike is still the major road through the area and only occasional farms dot the landscape. Even the population, which has grown and shrunk over the years, is at almost the same level as pre-Gold Rush days.

In 1911 three men buy property along the Gainesville and Northwestern rail line at the western end of the Nacoochee Valley. They intend to build a sawmill, one of the largest in the country. By 1913 the Byrd-Mathews plant opens and begins harvesting the lumber from the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River. The town that quickly springs to life around the mill is named for Helen McCombs, after the teenage daughter of a prominent citizen who owned part of the Gainesville and Northwestern Railroad and later, the Byrd-Mathews sawmill.

In 1912 work begins on the Mountain Ranch Hotel, one of a group of world-renown hotels nestled in the north Georgia mountains. Over the next 33 years, and under a variety of names, the hotel expands and is truly a showplace of Helen and the north Georgia mountains.

End of the Wood Era

Populated by "wood hicks," the men who work in the mill and harvesting the wood further north, Helen is best described as "rough." A lone policeman and the county sheriff struggle to maintain control in the small town. In 1917 the owners of Byrd-Mathews sell to the Morse Brothers, who run a much more efficient operation. They extend the small-gauge short-line feeder rails west to Blood Mountain and north to Tate City, harvesting much of the remaining virgin forest in north Georgia.

The land owned or leased by the Morse Brothers is finally stripped of trees in 1928. This includes all the land in the Chattahoochee River watershed and the Tallulah River watershed up to (and slightly past) the Georgia-North Carolina border.

For three years the mill continues cutting wood on a greatly scaled-down basis. Only a small crew of men remain when the mill closes on May 5, 1931. On that day the whistle blows for half-an-hour, venting steam from sawdust-fired boilers for the last time.

North Georgia had been immersed in hard times for three years when the plant scaled back production. The single-crop agrarian economy of the area had been destroyed by the boll weevil. Helen joined them in 1928. In 1930 the entire United States would begin The Great Depression.

Charlie and Arthur

At this time in our country's history, lumber companies are not active participants in the environmental movement. The "cut and leave" policies destroy vast amounts of north Georgia, including almost all of the land around Helen. Coupled with the remaining devastation from gold mining, much of the area is little more than a wasteland.

Just when times are bleak for Helen, events begin to turn in her favor. The Civilian Conservation Corps builds a camp in a valley north of the city on Smith Creek. The CCC has a significant positive impact on the town's economy and the valley as a whole.

Charlie Maloof, who would play an important role in Helen and all of White County, buys what remains of the old saw mill and makes a living cutting lumber on a much smaller scale. For 20 years Forest Ranger Arthur Woody works to restore the land stripped by lumber companies. The different goals of these two men would dramatically shape Helen into the 21st century.

A New Road

By 1935, most of the original path of the Unicoi Turnpike (from Tellico Blockhouse, Tennessee, to the Tugaloo River in Georgia) has been rerouted or paved. The longest remaining stretch of original roadbed still in use runs from east of Helen, Georgia to Murphy, North Carolina. Charlie Maloof urges the state to step in, building a modern highway to replace the aging road. As part of a much larger project, State Highway 75 is completed in 1938, but remains unpaved until 1953.

The new highway gives additional access to the rapidly expanding Georgia National Forest. The United States Forest Service, based on input from Arthur Woody, R. C. Nicholson and others, has been buying the lumber-stripped land, including the area near the new State Highway. In 1937 this forest, including much of the acreage around Helen, is renamed to the Chattahoochee National Forest. In addition to overseeing the reforestation by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Woody begins the re-population of deer (extinct in the mountains of North Georgia since 1895) and the introduction of non-native species favored by hunters and fishermen.

A Park named Unicoi

Shortly after World War II Arthur Woody dies, but Charlie Maloof continues to build the town of Helen. Fire destroys the Mountain Ranch during 1945, and Charlie proposes a new lodge on land just north of the city.

Maloof has an eye for the future. He understands that if Helen is to survive the revenue base must be increased and he views tourism dollars as a solution. Already cars are coming in increasing numbers to the North Georgia hamlet. He talks about his proposed lodge to anyone who will listen, including an extensive list of political friends in Atlanta.

He is successful. By the time the paving is complete on Highway 75 north of Helen a significant amount of work has been done on the modern conference center and hotel north of Helen near Smith Creek. The Lodge at the new Unicoi State Park is completed in 1954.

Helen (1954-1969)

Governor Herman Talmadge personally credits Maloof for the creation of Unicoi State Park and the lodge that is its centerpiece at dedication ceremonies in 1954. Smith Creek is dammed, forming Unicoi Lake and destroying the Civilian Conservation Corps camp that had been built on its banks.
Jimmy Wilkens in his factory
Jimmy Wilkens at one of his manufacturing facilities in Helen

Industry brings jobs for the area workers, including Jimmy Wilkins's Orbit Manufacturing (among others). Pete Hodkinson hires on to manage the Unicoi Lodge Gift Shop, and John Kollock, a young artist, works there.

Cars, loaded with tourists and tourism dollars, are speeding past Helen and into the mountains nearby. Tourists only occasionally stopping at Helen's older shops. Maloof and others try some ideas to attract tourists to stop, but none of them produce tangible results.

Helen Reborn

Plans of the villageHelen's rebirth is actually pretty amazing. Most of the remnants of the destruction caused by hydraulic mining and the lumber companies are covered with second-growth forest, thanks to the federal government's creation of the Chattahoochee National Forest.

That is what prompts a meeting of four of Helen's businessmen. So many cars pass by Helen without stopping that they simply ask, "How can we change that?" One of the men knows of the success another small Georgia town had by repainting the buildings with a theme, and Helen itself had once tried a western theme approach.

Pete Hodkinson calls John Kollack, now a Clarkesville artist, and asks him for ideas. Stationed in the Bavarian Alps after World War II, Kollack proposes creating an alpine village and prepares plans for the redesign.

A Dream takes off

Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race, Helen, GeorgiaUsing existing buildings, the Kollack plans call for extensive work on both the facades and roofs. Business leaders, including Charlie Maloof, enthusiastically support the idea. To enhance the image of the small town the leaders turn to fun-loving Pete Hodkinson. Expanding on traditional Bavarian holidays like Oktoberfest, and adding new events like the annual Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race, Pete creates a party atmosphere in the town all year long.

By 1975 the town's is considered so successful that the federal government visits to study the town. Among those who meet with the officials - Pete Hodkinson himself. He takes the visitors up to view the city from his balloon. In 1976, while practicing for the Helen to the Atlantic Race, Pete's great balloon is tangled in electric wires near Toccoa, Georgia. Fun-loving Pete Hodkinson dies after safely lowering his passenger to the ground.

Modern Helen

Modern Helen, Georgia's BavariaGeorgia's Alpine city has experienced tremendous growth. The tiny city had been planned as a small business center, but the success of Helen's business model began to draw larger corporations interested in locating in the booming tourism center. Thirty years ago large chains were discouraged from locating in the town. Today it is hard to walk very far without seeing a well-known franchise, from the Wendy's downtown to the Hampton Inn on quiet River Road.

The growth has begun to impact the Chattahoochee River that winds through the center of the town. Helen is the first major population center on the struggling river and the increasing population is decreasing the quality of the water as the river heads south towards Lake Lanier. Pollution is not the only problem. Homes are constantly encroaching on the land that once formed the watershed. Chemical run-off adds to the problems.

Helen's popularity with tourists has alienated some long-time residents, who charge the city government with being too commerce-oriented and complain bitterly about noise and traffic. County and state officials also face additional challenges as Helen's growth remains unabated. While population within Helen was stable from 1970 to 1990, outside the city limits it has grown rapidly.

One great addition is Smithgall Woods. Built on land recovering from indifferent owners, Smithgall Woods encourages conservation of our natural resources while adding outdoor activity to the area. Trophy size trout now come from Duke's Creek, where the earliest gold was found in the area. City officials are working with local landowners to achieve a balance between the promotion of Helen as a tourism center and a place to live. And plans are being hammered out to preserve as much of the Chattahoochee River as possible.

Things to do in Helen, Georgia

Helen was born as a town involved with the outdoors, and today the largest attraction is still the outdoors. Two Georgia State Parks are within a few miles of this north Georgia tourist capital. Unicoi Lodge is a state-run hotel and conference center that is within walking distance of the city. In fact, a trail (the Unicoi to Helen trail) runs from the gazebo in downtown right past the lodge and on to Unicoi Lake. The facility offers camping and day use areas as well.

Just north of the park are beautiful Anna Ruby Falls. This rare double falls is a fun hike for the entire family. The path is paved, so its okay to bring a stroller. Anna Ruby Falls are formed in the Tray Mountain Wilderness, a 9,700 acre playground for outdoorsmen. The area offers fishing, hiking, and scenic beauty that is beyond description. Unfortunately, access to the area is limited to those people with a four-wheel drive vehicle or a jeep because of the rough terrain and steep roads.

Richard B. Russell Scenic HighwayNorthwest of the city is Smithgall Woods, Georgia's newest state park. Helen's second major conference center is here. State Road 348, known by a number of names but most commonly called the Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway offers a drive through the mountains that is unrivaled for its beauty and accessibility. Russell, a senator who ran for President in 1952, was personally involved in the design and construction of the highway. Along this road are two excellent hiking trails, Duke's Creek Falls and Raven's Cliff Falls. This highway ends near Brasstown Bald, highest point in the state.

Tubes waiting for passengersThe Chattahoochee River runs through downtown Helen and offers many recreational opportunities including fishing, kayaking, tubing, and canoeing (south of the city only). In downtown Helen some of the local restaurants have decks over the rivers. The Hofbrauhaus includes a river garden and windows that afford a view of the surrounding mountains. The widely varied menu offers German and American dishes, plus a sampling of standards from throughout Europe.

Cool River TubingOne form of recreation that is great fun is a float down the Chattahoochee in a tube. Companies that offer tubing adventures in the Helen area are:

* Cool River Tubing (706) 878-2665
* Alpine Tubing (706) 878-8823
* Flea Market Tubing 706) 878-1082

Two developed attractions in the city are available. The Gold Mines of Helen feature a tour of the mine, gold panning, and a nature walk (call 706.878.3052 for additional information). The Museum of the Hills offers a look at Helen's original inhabitants and recreates fairy tales and nursery rhymes for the kids (706.878.3140).

The true attraction to Helen is the festivals, and the premium festival is Oktoberfest, a six-week party that runs from mid-September to early November. Leaf change never had it so good!. Other major events are the Helen-to-Atlantic Balloon Race and Alpen Lights, a Christmas festival.

History of White County

Created in 1857, from Habersham County. Named in honor of David T. White.

Mound at Sautee-NacoocheeThe earliest settlements in the area known today as White County, Georgia were of the Mississipian Culture known as "Moundbuilders". The prominent mound at Sautee-Nacoochee is just one of many that exist in the state. Spanish miners visited the area from the late 1500's until the 1730's. During this time control of the land passed from Creek Indians to the Cherokee.

The travels of William Bartram brought him to the area during the Revolutionary War and he was impressed by the work of these earliest inhabitants. By this time the Cherokee were so abundant in the area that he would frequently refer to the southern Appalachians as the Cherokee Mountains. The road that became the Unicoi Turnpike was used by the British during the Revolution to move men between Augusta and Fort Loudon, near Knoxville, Tennessee. Heading south from Hiawassee(Towns County) across Unicoi Gap in the eastern face of the Appalachian Mountains it passed in the vicinity of Helen, Georgia and turned almost due east through the Sautee-Nachoochee Valley ending near Traveler's Rest in Stephens County.

As whites expanded their control of the coast pressure was put on the Cherokee to move. Prior to 1820 there were many violent encounters with these Native Americans as settlers encroached on their land. With the Treaty of 1819, which ceded the area to the state, Native Americans moved further west, mostly to Arkansas. Many of the earliest settlers of Habersham County west of the Chattahoochee were from North Carolina. They purchased the land from Georgia residents who had won it in the fourth Land Lottery.

The county developed rapidly in the early 1830's thanks to the North Georgia Gold Rush. In one of those quirks of history, Lumpkin County in general, and Benjamin Parks in particular, is given credit for the first "discovery" of gold. Although gold had been mined in the area around Duke's Creek in White County as early as 1560, the modern discovery of gold should be credited to Maj. Frank Logan, whose black slave found a nugget near Loudsville. In George White's 1849 book Statistics of the State of Georgia, he states "The first discovery of gold in this state was made at Duke's Creek, Habersham (now White) County," and the first contemporary documentary reference of gold in North Georgia appears in the Georgia Journal, a Milledgeville newspaper in 1829.

A gentleman in ... Habersham (now White) County writes us..."2 gold mines in this area"

Old Sautee Store

Along the Unicoi Road, the Old Sautee Store has been a friend to travelers for more than 150 years. At the junction of State Roads 17 and 255 Old Sautee Store still attracts visitors from nearby Helen, Georgia. Today the country store atmosphere is dotted with beautiful pieces from the owner's home country, Norway.

By the 1840's numerous communities and churches, predominately Baptist, dotted the landscape. Demands on the county government grew, creating a problem. Some local residents had to travel more than two days to get to the Habersham County seat. In the mid 1850's the reduction of travel time to Clarkesville became a campaign issue. William Shelton, a representative from Mount Yonah(Cleveland) proposed the creation of Wofford County. The bill was defeated in the General Assembly. David T. White(some sources list George or John) rose and addressed the assembly. After a brief but eloquent plea from the senator, the assembly reconsidered the vote and passed the resolution. So grateful were the citizens of the new county they named it White in honor of their benefactor.

The area was relatively untouched by the Civil War. During early reconstruction the area suffered as did most of Georgia, but in the early 1870's a railroad boom had a positive effect on the county, especially in the south. Poet Sidney Lanier was staying in the county when he penned "The Song of the Chattahoochee." In 1899 Cleveland got its first telephone line. The Gainesville Telephone Company ran a single line to the city, and all who wanted service participated in what must have been a rather large party line. In a short time Cleveland had it's own switchboard.

Population that had been expanding since the war did an abrupt about face at the turn of the century when nearby employment attracted many locals. About the same time Henry C. Bagley, a railroad magnate from Cincinnati, discovered the forests of White County. The virgin trees were ripe for harvest. Bagley built a railroad to transport the trees to markets and created camps for the "wood hicks" at Helen and Robertson. Here the trees were turned into board lumber and shipped to the northeast and mid-west. The land was clearcut and abandoned as worthless.

With the advent of the automobile the state began a series of road projects. Included in these projects were roads from Cleveland to Clayton and to Blairsville begun in 1922 and completed in 1926. During this time the Federal Government began to purchase large amounts of land in the area devastated by the lumber and mining industries and consolidated it into the Georgia(later Chattahoochee) National Forest. Arthur Woody was it's first Forest Ranger.

No history of White County would be complete without mention of Xavier Roberts, one of North Georgia's favorites. He turned an idea, Cabbage Patch Dolls, into a national craze. Babyland General, the place where the dolls were "born," became an overnight tourist attraction and for a while, one of the most popular stops in the mountains. While other fads had swept the nation, this is generally considered to be the first in a series of toy crazes that feature adults lining up in front of stores and going to battle over a child's toy.

Today tourism is a major industry in the county. The Bavarian town of Helen has replaced Tallulah Falls as the most popular destination in the northeast Georgia mountains. The Appalachian Trail runs along much of the northern border of the county. And the great outdoors calls people from across the nation to White County.

History from the White County Chamber of Commerce

* No history of White County could be written without making mention of the Cherokee Indians. They lived here contented and happy before Oglethorpe ever came to Georgia. These Indians were a fine race physically and of good mental ability. Their number was small and they had no idea of the value of their land. This cheap land was the attraction for the first white settlers who came to this section of the state. This area, part of the fourth lottery, was originally opened to white settlement as part of Habersham County. The treaty with the Cherokee officially established the settlement. The treaty was signed by John C. Calhoun who years later became interested in our gold mines.

* Two parties of sixty-one families came to Nacoochee Valley in the early part of 1822. These two parties came from Burke County, North Carolina, and rapidly spread over the entire county. Among them were carpenters, blacksmiths, masons and farmers. There were also three Methodist ministers in the group. One of these ministers built the first known schoolhouse in the White County area. These two parties were led by Daniel Brown, Edward Williams, Reverend Jesse Richardson, Abraham Littlejohn and Adam Pitner. Other settlers, even earlier than these, were the Oxfords and Owensbys, who settled in the Town Creek section of the county. This section was named Tesnatee by the Indians.

* Habersham County, of which White and the present county of Stephens were a part, became the fifty-eighth county to be organized in Georgia. This was done in the year 1818. White County remained part of Habersham for thirty-nine years until it was officially organized in 1857.

* It was during the year of 1857, while White County was still a part of Habersham, that Mr. William B. Shelton, a resident of Mt. Yonah, as Cleveland was then called, was elected to the legislature on the issue that he would introduce a bill creating a new county. He was elected and introduced his bill in the General Assembly, then in session at Milledgeville, the Capital of the state at the time. On the last night of the session, December 22, 1857, his bill having failed to pass, Mr. Shelton felt so keenly disappointed at having failed to carry out his promise, he sat down and wept in the representative hall. Col. White, a member of the General Assembly, arose and moved that the bill passed. Mr. Shelton then proposed to have the new county named "White" in honor of Col. White, and its county seat named "Cleveland" in honor of "Wofford" for the county and "Woffordville" for the county seat had been named in the original bill.

* Later on in 1863, a small part of the western side of White County was added from Lumpkin County. This was done When Dr. A. F. Underwood was a member of the Legislature.

* Isaac Brown was the first sheriff of the new county, and Micajah McCrary was the first postmaster.

* December 11, 1858, a tri-weekly, two horse hack line between Clarkesville and Dahlonega was established. This road passed through Cleveland along the road now known as Underwood Street. The Post Office was kept in part of a building which stood on the present county lot.

* The county was established and laid out in 1858 and the contract for the building the courthouse and jail was awarded to Mr. Edwin P. Williams of Nacoochee. The buildings were completed in the latter part of 1859 or the early part of 1860. Mr. Williams was paid $10,000 in Confederate money for his work.

* White County either outgrew or wore out their jail, because the old one was torn down and a new one built about 1900. The only Baptist church in the town stood where the Baptist Church is now and was named Mt. Yonah Baptist. In it school was taught and Court was held while the courthouse was being built.

* In 1860 the first Census was taken of White County. The population was 3,315. 263 of these slaves and eleven of these were freed colored. The population of White County today is estimated at 13,120. In 1820 when White County was still a part of Habersham, the population more than tripled. In the census of 1830, the records list 10,671 residents of Habersham County.

* Small deposits of several minerals were found in White County near Dukes Creek in the 1828 or 1829. For over a century gold was mined in White County, and one-third of Georgia's gold came from this county. This news reached the mother country of England, and some of the people came to America for the definite purpose of coming to these sections to mine gold. Some who came were well educated; others had very little education. Some were very rich and with many slaves, while still others hoped to make themselves rich. Preachers and educators came also for they realized that the field was ripe for their type of work.

* The gold mines began to be worked out and the gold rush for the county subsided. There was still more excitement to come, but now it was in the form of a war instead of a gold rush.

* The war had its effects on the newly formed county, and many of the men lost their lives. Mr. Riley Kenimer was one of the ninety men and boys who met and organized a company of soldiers at Denton Spring in August, 1861. They marched from Mossy Creek campground on the third Monday in August. It was during this period that the small amount of iron was mined in White County for the purpose of making Joe Brown bayonets. These were also made in the county.

* While the war was going on the county must survive. Some gold mining was still being carried on. Stores had gold scales and weighed gold dust. The people of the county made there living by farming, cattle raising, spinning, weaving, corn mills, leather tanneries, and other similar occupations. About this time there were eight distilleries three jug factories, thirty grist mills, one flour mill, twenty sawmills and three gold mines. Women wove jeans, blankets and saddle cloths. These met with ready sales. Most of the people were willing to work and toiled many hours at these trades. When the Pacolet Mills came to New Holland, White County in 1890 was 6,151 and in 1910 it was 5,110. In a span of twenty years the county lost over 1,000 people.

* By the end of the century, summer boarders were coming into the county staying at Cleveland, Nacoochee, and in various homes throughout the county. This meant that our livery stables were especially busy during the vacation months. These visitors also created a more active social life for the county's younger set. Many years later White County again thrived on summer visitors. The Mitchell Mountain Ranch Hotel in Helen was for years one of Georgia's best known resorts.

* The county took on new life when lumber mill were erected in the northern part of the county and lumbering began in earnest. Banks and other new businesses were established. The Byrd-Matthews lumber mills were responsible for bringing the railroad to White County. Helen and Robertstown grew into good sized towns almost overnight. For a few years the county enjoyed a season of prosperity.

* World War I started in Europe in 1914. We didn't enter until 1917, yet the demands for food and goods brought an increase in business. The formal entrance of the United States into the war brought bleak years to White County. She furnished her full quota of solder in this and all other wars. The first Georgia boy to be killed in action in World War I was a White County boy, Roy Head. The bridge located one mile north of Cleveland on Highway 129 is named in his honor.

* White County enjoyed the prosperity of the roaring twenties and survived the depression of the thirties. Most of us who read this history are of an age to remember the haunting days of World War II and the Korean War. We also remember the good days when the surviving lads came marching home to join the oldster in helping bring White County into the front as it is today.

* To conclude this brief history, let us note some interesting facts concerning White County's past and present:

* The late Andrew Cain, Historian for Lumpkin County, says that the Indian Sequoyah, who devised the Cherokee alphabet, was born in White County.

* Daniel Brown, one of the first white men to enter this section of Georgia, is credited with having bought 2000 acres of land from the Indians in the Nacoochee Valley area. He paid $200.00 for the entire acreage. He was buried in Nacoochee in 1852.

* The largest single gold nugget ever found in the United states east of the Mississippi River, was found in the Hamby mines in White County. It was found by Mr. John Thurmond, who lived to be over ninety years of age and who was married three times. The gold nugget weighed 504 pennyweights and four grams. This would be about 25 1/2 ounces and at $35.00 per ounce it would be worth approximately $882.00.

* Sidney Lanier was in White County when he wrote "The song of the Chattahoochee".

* Lundy Harris , whose wife Cora wrote "The Circuit Rider's Wife ", was visiting the preacher for Loudsville campmeeting about sixty years ago. This book was the theme for the motion picture, "I'd climb the Highest Mountain" which was filmed in this county.

* A baby boy, son of Mr. and Mrs. William B. Bell, was born in the Courthouse.

* George Truett spent the night in Cleveland with Judge J.J. Kinsey and accompanied him to Marietta to a Convention. It was at this meeting where attracted the attention of Baptist leaders.

* In 1830 there were only 75 itinerant preachers in all of Georgia and Florida. Nine-tenths of the were in Georgia. One of the these seventy-five preachers was James Quillian, who is buried at Mossy Creek. He was the father of William F. Quillian, one time president of Wesleyan College.

* One June 16, 1838, some of the Cherokee Indians of this section camped at Camp Hazel near Cleveland just prior to their removal to the west.

* The first Sheriff was Isaac Bowen - 2 years 1857 - 9.

* Mr. Bill Allison was Sheriff in the early part of 1955 when an addition was added to the back of the Jail. This addition was used as a kitchen , bedroom and the first indoor bathroom.

* At this time the prisoners were fed from tin pie pans. These pans were filled from the family breakfast. A typical breakfast when Mollie Anderson was in charge was "Country ham, grits, gravy, eggs, and three biscuits".


White County, covering White County at a Glance242 square miles, is located on the eastern flank of the Appalachian Mountain chain approximately eighty miles northeast of Atlanta. It encompasses most of the headwater streams of the Chattahoochee River and is thus a major source of Atlanta's water supply. Georgia's 123rd county, carved out of Habersham County by an act of the state legislature in 1857, was named for David White, a legislator from Newton County. He helped pass the bill that created White County.

Helen Mine
who came to the area, which once belonged to the Cherokee Indians, emigrated from nearby Georgia counties and from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Most settlers engaged in subsistence farming, as the mountainous terrain made it unsuitable for large-scale agricultural enterprises. In 1828 gold was discovered in the area of Duke's Creek (now the Nacoochee River), launching a gold rush. Nine gold mines operated in the county, and gold mining continued for more than 100 years.

Cleveland was chosen for the county seat and named in honor of General Benjamin Cleveland, an early settler and a veteran of the War of 1812. A new courthouse of brick molded on the premises was constructed by slaves in 1859-60. Today the structure houses the White County Historical Society, a small museum, and a gift shop. The current courthouse was constructed in 1964. Truett-McConnell College, a four-year liberal arts institution affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention, was established in Cleveland in 1946. Cleveland is also home to Babyland General Hospital, the whimsical birthplace of the dolls known as Cabbage Patch Kids.

White County's second town, grew up around a lumber mill established on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in 1911. The only railroad ever to serve White County, the Gainesville and Northwestern Railroad, was built to transport mill products. The railroad went out of business in the early 1930s. Following a long decline, Helen experienced a renewal in 1969 when a group of local entrepreneurs transformed it into a look-alike Bavarian village. Since that time Helen has become one of the largest tourist attractions in the state. Helen is also the site of one of the nation's largest Oktoberfest celebrations.

Other tourist sites in White County include the Chattahoochee National Forest, through which the Appalachian Trail runs; Unicoi State Park; Smithgall Woods Conservation Area, which offers educational
Courtesy of Georgia Department of Economic Development
Mount Yonah
programs and which houses the remnants of Georgia's earliest gold mines; and the Sautee Nacoochee Community Association in Nacoochee Valley, which features an art school, an art gallery, a theater program, an environmental concerns group, and a history museum. It also sponsors the annual Echota Performing Arts Festival.

According to the 2010 U.S. census, the population of the county was 27,144, an increase from the 2000 population of 19,994. The population increased by 53 percent between 1990 and 2000, with retirees making up a large part of the increase.

Suggested Reading

George G. Heye, F. W. Hodge, and George H. Pepper, The Nacoochee Mound in Georgia (New York: Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, 1918).

A History of White County, 1857-1980 ([Cleveland, Ga.]: White County History Book Committee, 1981).

Vernon J. Hurst and William L. Otwell, Exploration for Mineral Deposits in White County, Georgia (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964).

Thomas N. Lumsden, Nacoochee Valley: Its Times and Its Places (Clarkesville, Ga.: n.p., 1989).

White County Timeline

May 15, 1540 DeSoto arrives at Xualla, probably the Nachoochee Valley in White County
White County, Georgia
Hernando deSoto
December 22, 1857 White County created
Creation of Georgia Counties
White County, Georgia
February 17, 1951 I'd Climb the Highest Mountain, a movie based on a book of the same title by famed Georgia writer Cora Harris, starring Susan Hayward, William Lundigan and Rory Calhoun, is released. It was filmed in Georgia, including extensive work in White County (Helen, Cleveland and Nora Mill)
White County, Georgia
Movies filmed in Georgia
April 12, 1951 [circa] Mary Ball Tinius becomes the first woman to be seated on a jury in Georgia, in White County, Georgia. Legislation had not yet passed allowing women jurors
White County, Georgia
Women allowed on jury duty
March 20, 1998 Tornadoes destroy homes in North Georgia, claiming 14 lives in Hall and White Counties
Hall County, Georgia
White County, Georgia
Georgia Tornadoes
August 29, 2005 Tornadoes from hurricane Katrina destroy homes and chicken houses in Carroll County and a motel and businesses in the Helen area of White County. Others injured people in Spaulding County and Peach County
Carroll County, Georgia
White County, Georgia
Hurricane Katrina
Spalding County, Georgia
Peach County, Georgia