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Swiss bliss: Helvetia celebrating 150th anniversary with reenactments, special skills demos, square dances and more

HELVETIA – This weekend, a small local town will celebrate a huge milestone.

Located in Randolph County near the Upshur County line, Helvetia – founded in 1869 by a group of hardy, self-reliant Swiss immigrants – will mark the sesquicentennial, or 150th, anniversary of its establishment.

According to volunteers coordinating the celebration, Helvetia still stands small but proud, and although the town has changed a little over the years, members of the community still hold onto many of the old traditions unique to Swiss settlements in West Virginia and in the U.S.

Clara Lehmann, a member of the Helvetia Restoration and Development Organization, is one of the volunteers organizing this weekend’s celebration of 150 years. She said the event kicks off at noon on Saturday with an ox roast and living history demonstrations every 30 minutes. The ox roast is $12 for a two-sandwich meal or $8 for a one-sandwich meal.

“The big thing that I think people are asking is, ‘what will happen during those living history presentations?’” Lehmann said. “It is pretty neat. Local people who have talents that may be rare are literally volunteering their time.”

She said every half-hour between noon and 4:30 p.m., folks will be demonstrating such things as beekeeping, stone cutting, apple-butter making, shingle repair, tanning and trapping, handloom weaving and log replacement.

“There is an historic building we will be celebrating in, and it’s collapsing on each side,” Lehmann said. “The logs are rotting because the building is nearly 150 years old. In celebration of that, some of the families have cut down a poplar tree, and they have hand-hewn parts of it and will replace the fills. I think people will enjoy watching, and it will last a little longer, taking place during most of the afternoon.”

During Saturday, folks visiting Helvetia can visit the community museum, Kultur Haus Helvetia, formerly the general store, where they can peruse archives; there will be tours and an opportunity to ask questions about the history of Helvetia.

“Folks will learn what it took for the Swiss to come here and how they survived,” Lehmann said. “Anna Chandler, one of our historians, will answer questions.”

That evening, there will be a square dance from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Community Hall which is free for kids and $5 for adults.

“The dance will be a traditional Helvetia Square Dance with circle dances, waltzes and things like that,” Lehmann said. “The demonstrations during the day are free. However, we are asking if you loved the demonstrations, to consider making a donation to the city. This event is totally put on by volunteers from different organizations.”

Lehmann said the fun continues into Sunday when folks can gather to hike the Historic Trail. This short trek begins at 2 p.m. at the Star Band Hall.

“It’s a 2.73-mile hike,” she said. “Those who are a little bit older or those who would rather or who cannot hike up the mountain can begin the hike which goes to the Helvetia Cemetery. It is beautiful and is only about a quarter of a mile.”

“The rest of us will continue the rest of the way where we think, and originally said, the original settlers hiked and came down the first time they ever arrived at the village,” Lehmann added.

Lehmann said the weather is predicted to be rainy on Sunday.

“Be sure to dress for the weather and bring hiking boots for the hike,” she said.

Following the hike, there will be free coffee, hot chocolate and refreshments.

“We are just going to sit around in the Star Band Hall and talk about the hike and other things and relax,” Lehmann said.

She said the original settlers of Helvetia did not have cars or even horses but hiked to the area.

Currently, there are about 59 residents in Helvetia, but Lehmann said there are two villages nearby: Czar and Pickens.

“The three communities really work together, so there is kind of a cross-pollination. We volunteer for their events and they volunteer for ours, and I think that is really helpful because we help each other.

During the year, Helvetia sponsors many events including the Helvetia Fair, Fasnacht, the Feast of Sankt Nicholaus and the Ramp Supper.

“The other event in Helvetia is the Follow Your Bliss Festival,” Lehmann said. “This is a music festival in June that has been going on for eight years. That one is very nice and is the weekend following Father’s Day.”

Lehmann said living in Helvetia is remote.

“It takes an hour to drive to the grocery store,” she said. “But that hour-long drive is lovely, especially in the fall. There is something just about traveling to Helvetia that makes you respect that somebody had to hike over these mountains to settle a small village.”

“We choose to live in Helvetia, and it is a purposeful choice,” Lehmann added. “You have to make an effort to live here. But there is a calmness that overtakes you. There is not a whole lot of traffic and it is quiet and independent here. There is a quality that people yearn for, and I think that has helped us hold on to our culture.”

Also, on Saturday, visitors may purchase raffle tickets for a chance to win an antique quilt.

“Anna Chandler discovered the fabric patterns of the quilt are from the mid-1800s,” Lehmann said. “The tickets are $5 each or five for $20. Someone will win the quilt during the square dance. It is beautiful with blue and red and the patterns are from when we were founded.”

Also on Saturday, those attending the Helvetia 150th Celebration can purchase a copy of the Helvetia Historic Trail illustrated by West Virginia’s own Rosalie Haizlett.

“We hope people will come out and enjoy the weekend and celebrate with us,” Lehmann said.

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