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Johnny Vardeman: Former Times editors book describes life in Helen in its early days
0813

Northeast Georgia is so rich in history, a book could be written about most every community.

Helen is a good example, once a thriving sawmill town, then a tourist destination before becoming the popular busy White County resort with a Bavarian theme as it is today.

Alma Bowen, retired executive editor of The Times, has written a novel that weaves in the history of Helen as well as other facets of the surrounding mountains. It’s called “Celebrate” and is available for $15 at Riverside Pharmacy in Gainesville, Nix Hardware in Cleveland, Betty’s Country Store in Helen, as well as Amazon, Kindle and Barnes & Noble.

Her story begins on Tray Mountain, which overlooks Helen and where her fictional Bennie Sheldon lived her childhood. A single mother now at 19, Bennie comes down from the mountain to find work in the newly bustling town of Helen so she can send her daughter Katherine (Kat) to school.

She takes a job at the Mountain Ranch Hotel, earning 25 cents a day in the kitchen and dining room. Her new life is a discovery for her in “modern” conveniences she never knew living in the family cabin on the mountain, different experiences and interesting people and occurrences along the way. Bennie also is exposed to both prejudice and sympathy toward her and her daughter who was born out of wedlock.

The book traces the development of Kat into a young woman who, just as her mother had opened a new chapter in her life in Helen, moves to Atlanta during the Great Depression and a job at Rich’s. She also becomes politically aware and a fan of President Franklin Roosevelt.

Along the way, Alma’s book explains how the Helen sawmill worked, the railroad from Gainesville to Helen and the trams that hauled timber out of the mountains. Living conditions in Helen at the time, which is early in the 20th Century, are described in detail.

The lumber company just about ravished nearby mountains of timber, but “Celebrate” celebrates the revival of the forests through replanting by the Civilian Conservation Corps and work of foresters such as Arthur Woody. Much of the territory used by the lumber company later became the Chattahoochee National Forest, which is enjoyed today by millions of visitors.

“Celebrate” is Alma’s second novel. Her first was “The Cement Duck,” which also was rich in real events in Northeast Georgia history.

Alma, having grown up in Habersham County, already was well versed in this area’s history after writing about it for decades. “Celebrate” inspired her to research more deeply, and the result is a story with characters who, if not really real, certainly would resemble some who might have lived the experiences she so colorfully describes in her book.

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“Here are found clear lakes on whose bosoms stately swans can be seen, gurgling fountains and rare flowers. There are swings for the children, cool summer houses and cozy nooks for the grown-ups.” That was how a member of the Gainesville First Baptist Church Sunday School classes described Helen after a picnic excursion there in July 1914.

Six hundred thirty-five members rode the Gainesville and Northwestern Railroad to the picnic between Helen and “North Helen.” Hosts were R.M. McCombs, president of the railroad, Mr. and Mrs. John L. Mitchell, owners of Mitchell Mountain Ranch, and Mr. and Mrs. C.D. Matthews of Byrd-Matthews Investment Co., owner of the lumber mill. Picnickers were treated to a tour of the mill, as well as other attractions in the town.

During that time, Robertstown, just north of Helen, was referred to by the railroad as North Helen. However, residents retained the original Robertstown name, and “North Helen” eventually went away. Robertstown was named for the Englishman Charles Roberts, an early settler who owned a gold mine and other enterprises. Those First Baptist Sunday School members visited his gravesite on a hill overlooking the community.

The train from Gainesville to Helen would leave mornings at 9:45, arriving in Helen at 12:10 p.m. Another would leave for Helen at 4:55 p.m., arriving at 7:15 p.m. A train would leave Helen at 6:55 a.m., arriving Gainesville at 9:15 a.m.; another 2:25 p.m. from Helen to Gainesville, arriving at 4:45 p.m.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.

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