We had to chuckle at a not-so-old saying in the Helvetia welcome brochure, “We’re all in favor of progress if you don’t make any changes.” That phrase came to life on our first visit to the quaint, historic and welcoming community of Helvetia. Tucked away in the hills of West Virginia’s Randolph County, there’s no better place to find a living. thriving history of Mountain State settlers. Founded in 1869 by a handful of hearty Swiss immigrants, this village of 60 or so still clings fast to its Swiss traditions and heritage. And Helvetians love to welcome all. including us this past weekend, to the annual February celebration of Fasnacht, a ritual to chase away winter and welcome spring.
And what a celebration we found!
We made our way to the Hutte Restaurant, heated by wood stoves, smelling of home-made sausage and filled with Swiss antiques. No check-in here, a waitress just tossed us a key and pointed us to our lodgings at their tiny Beekeeper Inn, on the banks of the rushing Buckhannon River that flows through the middle of town. No phone or TV, but plenty of magazines, checkerboards and peace and quiet in this historic 1870’s B&B.
A steady rain did not dampen the spirits of the locals, or of the hundreds who traveled from near and far, from several states away to celebrate Fasnacht. The schedule of events said the nearby Red Mill Hall (really, everything was nearby) offered live music beginning at 3PM. We went in just after 3, where a few locals were still setting up the snack bar among no crowd. They said the musicians would be here soon enough, and would we like to see the Community Hall decorated up before the evening’s Grand Mask Parade. Walking over, Doug Davis, one of community leaders, said “We have three seasons in Helvetia, Snow, Mud and Dry.” When we returned to the Red Hall, we began to catch on that every season here blossomed with nice people who love progress but don’t make changes to heritage. In a few minutes, the hall was filled with revelers, vans full of students from Davis & Elkins College, millennials forging an annual Fasnacht reunion, couples and groups from Ohio and Pennsylvania. And yes, a dozen musicians with banjo’s and a big bass fiddle tuned up a lively gathering where everybody became friends.
But that was just the warm up. At 8:30, we joined in the most unique parade I’ve ever experienced.
Hundreds of people, many wearing giant paper-mache masks and carrying lanterns, meandered the quarter-mile or so from the Red Hall to Helvetia’s Community Hall. There, revelers young and old, and even Lira the dog, paraded in a circle with some of the downright scariest. grotesque, obscure masks and outfits you could ever imagine. After all, the traditional once-pagan rite and these of Fasnacht is to scare away old Man Winter. In the middle of the Hall, a giant effigy of old man winter hung from the rafters, waiting to be burned to a crisp at midnight, only after a few hours of Appalachian music and dance. The fearful masks were tempered by the laughter, revelry and new found camaraderie of many hear-to-for strangers now bonded into Fasnacht friends.
After a wonderful night’s rest at the Beekeeper Inn, and a delicious home-made breakfast next to the pot-bellied stove. We drove home recounting not just the events of the past 24 hours but the nice, friendly people of this tight-knit Swiss village. People who understand that preserving and promoting the history and heritage of your ancestors can be key to the progress of welcoming outsiders to join the ingrained fellowship found in Helvetia.