Fasnacht–Helvetia, WV

The highest incorporated town in West Virginia is a little gem of a place nestled in the Caanan Valley called Davis.  When you cross the bridge over the Blackwater River, you don’t have to drive for more than minute before you’ve passed through town.  If you didn’t stop at Siriani’s Cafe, Hellbender Burritos, or the Bright Morning Inn, you’ll have missed some fine eating.  But you will also have missed an opportunity to taste some delicious hand crafted brew on tap from the Mountain State Brewery (The Link is Here).  Just two miles down the road in Thomas, WV, our buddy Willie Lehman makes the finest beer in the state.

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Ross likes the amber ale best of all, but the Coal Miner’s Daughter Stout is pretty hard to beat on those wintry nights.  AFP found a welcoming home in Thomas and the most gracious host in Willie.  With no shortage of Waylon Jennings on the record player, we tried to catch up on our editing and blogging and prepared for the next festival, Fasnacht.

The German translation of Fasnacht is literally “first night.”  And in the town of Helvetia, WV, population 65, Swiss-German was spoken until about 1940.  Swiss immigrants settled this mountain hamlet around 1860 and their influence is still felt today.  The Hutte restaurant, run by Willie’s 91 year-old grandmother Eleanor Mailloux (and who is the matriarch of the town) serves only swiss-german food on the menu.  There are only two community buildings and one of them is named for the original community band from the 1920s, the Star Band.  There is a town museum which is little more than a preserved wooden 2 room house replete with historic tools and instruments.  Most everyone works an hour away, sometimes closer if they work for the coal mines.  In short, there’s very little to see or do in Helvetia.  And as a result, the town numbers are slowly declining.  One might think this is a place destined for extinction.  But if you knew Willie and you knew Fasnacht, you would see the bright future that’s in store for Helvetia.

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Before we travel to a new festival, it’s hard to predict what we will experience.  For the small and traditional festivals, it’s even harder.  There’s no PR team to call, no website to see photos.  But the mission of AFP is to find those pockets of America that are off the well-worn path and to discover fascinating unique rituals and celebrations.  Fasnacht and Helvetia were exactly what we hoped to find.  We also found that some of our best friends from Charlottesville (Mandy, Sarah, Jonny, and Tom) had trekked over a few mountains passes to see us and dance away the winter blues.

There’s no real official start time to Fasnacht.  And it’s never very clear how many people are going to show up.  The town’s population can increase by about 1000% on the night of the holiday (of course you’re starting at 65 people).  We met 2 couples who had come all the way from Ohio but for the most part it’s locals and West Virginia folks.  As people streamed in during the day, everyone gathered in the Star Band Hall for delicious german bratwursts with sauerkraut and a bluegrass jam session.  This was our plan for dinner originally.  Beer and Brats.  Then we heard about the belly dancers and the infamous fare over at the Hutte Restaurant.  So we begged for a table and it was a food experience we will never forget.  Homemade spiced sausage, cilantro potatoes, onion pie, chicken that melted off the bone, country green beans with ham, fresh apple butter, spiced beets, peach cobbler with nutmeg…it was endless.  And it was all so wonderful. We can’t really explain the belly dancers other than that Ms. Mailloux is a colorful soul and loves the extra excitement a bare midriff brings to a meal.  Imagine eating homemade applesauce in a dining room with deer heads on the walls and looking over to see dancers out of Lawrence of Arabia.

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Fully sated, it was just about time for the parade to begin.  But let us reiterate, this town is tiny.  A parade through town is no more than 200 yards long.  We began at the Star Band Hall and w alked with lampions in hand to the newer community hall where Old Man Winter was hanging from the ceiling, ready to be burned in effigy at midnight.  Most paraders wore masks and costumes intended to scare, intimidate, and run Mr. Winter out of town.  Once inside the hall, everyone joined hands to circle around the room and then the square dance began in full order for the next three hours.  Orange slices, cookies, peanut butter on celery sticks, lemonade, and some live string music kept us going through it all.


Fasnacht from Ross McDermott on Vimeo.

When the clock struck midnight, Old Man Winter was cut from his high perch and dragged outside with a raging crowd following.  He was met by a roaring bonfire and a drunken crowd that wanted nothing more than to see him turn to ash.  It was the official mark of the end of winter.  But it certinaly didn’t mark the end the night.  The festivities shifted down the street, where musicians and belly dancers entertained the late-night revelers.  That night in Helvetia, Old ManWinter still had some life in him as thick flurries fell from the sky and rumors spread that 7 inches were expected by morning.  The Charlottesville crew and some new found friends from WVA (“the Brown Sisters”) rallied and moved the party into the Dodge Lodge.

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Come morning, it was clear winter was still around and almost all evidence of the celebration just hours before was disguised under a thick blanket of snow.   The only person stirring of course was Eleanor Mailloux, the queen of Helvetia, opening the doors of the Hutte Restaurant and offering another day of warmth and tradition to this magical West Virginia town.

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Posted by andrew, posted on 02/28/2009 at 3:07am. Bookmark this post.

19 Comments

  1. Posted 02/28/2009 at 7:07pm
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    seany bawny:

    Rosso and Andrew.

    My gosh, what a post! We couldn’t believe how spry Eleanor was and we thought the belly dancers were fake (and pretty). Next year, I will bring a host down from Hillsdale.

    sean

  2. Posted 02/28/2009 at 7:37pm
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    jaysteinke@aol.com:

    I can’t make up my mind where we want to live now…..New York or Helvetia!!!!

  3. Posted 02/28/2009 at 8:06pm
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    nitsyrk:

    The masks were absolutely amazing… They could have their own art museum to showcase their handmade masks over the years… and also to bring in more tourists year round! We want to go next year!!

  4. Posted 02/28/2009 at 9:16pm
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    Jenna:

    You’ve done an amazing job portraying this town as something we can’t stand to lose. Willie’s grandma is so beautiful! I’ll be seeing you in shorts and sandals real soon…
    jp

  5. Posted 03/02/2009 at 12:30pm
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    Hanna:

    Beautiful! You done my home state proud. Makes me miss it there. Happy travels.

  6. Posted 06/18/2009 at 12:34pm
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    charles walker:

    Masterful storytelling! I am from WV but have never heard of this place but will head there this year for sure. FYI there is a Ramp festivalin Alderson WV that might be worth checking into.Also I heard about a Roadkill festival heldin WV as wellthat looked intriguing.

  7. Posted 10/09/2009 at 5:24pm
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    Chrissy:

    Wow! I am one of the few in the world to have ever called Helvetia home, even if it was only for a limited time in my child hood. Eleanor Mailloux is still one of my mother’s best friends. It’s wonderful to see the town getting attention. I think it’s a place that is a blessing to anyone ever privileged enough to visit.

  8. Posted 10/11/2009 at 1:15pm
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    valerie:

    love your site i just seen this town on bizzare foods with andrew zimmern

  9. Posted 11/02/2009 at 7:48pm
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    clv:

    What a great video! Makes me wish to go back. Do I ever miss it!

  10. Posted 01/06/2010 at 8:58pm
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    elena:

    nice! i just saw andrew zimmern bizzare foods and discovered your town. nice video. nothing like a town with an international flavor. please also check helen, georgia, also swiss culture.

  11. Posted 01/18/2010 at 6:24pm
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    aeschlima:

    Great story, looks like a great place. One little correction: “Fasnacht” is the Swiss word for “Fastnacht” or “fasting night”, not first night!

  12. Posted 01/29/2010 at 10:17pm
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    Eleanor Betler:

    Great! As an active citizen of Helvetia, I am proud of the good job you did telling about our festivities and the pictures did it justice! I work on the archives, which is pure pleasure.

  13. Posted 02/01/2010 at 8:36pm
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    Aaron Smith:

    Hey! Great job! I’ll probably see you at Fasnacht.

  14. Posted 02/08/2010 at 10:32am
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    Dustin:

    Few years ago, my wife & I stumbled upon Helvetia while staying at Holly River State Park. We loved it. She’s pregnant now and due in April. We’re heading to Fasnacht this weekend as a last hoorah of sorts before the little guy arrives. Can’t wait!

  15. Posted 02/19/2011 at 10:15pm
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    Benjamin:

    HI All,
    I really like your photo essay of Helvetia. I was there for Fasnacht in 2000. I lived in Morgantown for a while. I am sorry to say, I just that Rogers MacAvoy Died today. He was a well known elderly MC of the fest. At least from what i remember.
    RIP Rogers

  16. Posted 01/11/2013 at 6:43am
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    John Bones:

    in the dead of the night, in the still and the quiet I slip away like a bird in flight,
    back to those hills, the place that I call home.

  17. Posted 01/27/2013 at 7:12pm
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    Della Cline Williamson:

    I want to come to the next one. Please inform me when the next on is gonna be. Thanks.

  18. Posted 01/27/2013 at 7:14pm
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    Della Cline Williamson:

    I wanna come to the next one.

  19. Posted 01/29/2014 at 12:28am
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One Trackback

  1. [...] here for information about the Fasnacht festivities, and driving directions. The video is from American Festivals Project. You’ll find a photo gallery there as well. Listen to an NPR for a description of  what [...]

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