It has been more than four decades since Pete Hodkinson III died, but his character was so colorful and unique, and his name so embedded in the history of his Alpine Village home of Helen, it’s almost as if he’s still among the living. Surely his spirit is.
Pete was one of the drivers behind the conversion of Helen from a small White County mountain community into a Bavarian-themed tourist attraction that still draws crowds year-around, but especially during this turning-of-the-leaves time.
Stories about him endure. It was his idea for Helen to be the home of a balloon race to the Atlantic Ocean that continues today. That race was also his downfall as he died when his own balloon, “The Spirit of Helen,” crashed into power lines, sending shock waves through Helen’s community and throughout North Georgia.
John Kollock, the late Habersham County artist who designed the alpine-themed village under the prodding of Hodkinson, wrote about him in his book, “Meandering Paths of an Artist.” Kollock wrote, “He was a daredevil in everything he did. He drove like a madman; he flew a small plane, which he kept in the air with his own version of repairs.”
Kollock told a story of Pete coming to his home early one morning while he and his wife were still in bed. Pete was going to make a pot of coffee to wake them up, but instead of grabbing a bottle of water, he mistakenly began boiling from a jug of Clorox instead. That aroma did waken the Kollocks in time to rescue Pete from drinking the Clorox concoction.
Ted Smith, a tourism entrepreneur and one-time owner of the Cornelia Motel, was also in on the early discussions of Helen’s transformation and has Pete stories to tell. In his memoirs, Smith tells of a time when Pete wanted to play a round of golf at Kingwood, a resort in Rabun County, where Smith was a principal at the time. Smith told Pete not to come in his airplane because heavy rains had left the course wet, and he wouldn’t be able to land there as he had in the past.
Knowing Pete would ignore his advice, Smith asked the sheriff to park his car with blue lights flashing at the Kingwood entrance to discourage him from landing on the course. It worked, and Pete flew instead to nearby Sky Valley, where he and Smith met to play that golf course.
After golf, Smith tried to talk Pete out of taking his plane off from a narrow dirt road he had used as a runway to land earlier. Pete declined, tried to take off, but his wing clipped a mailbox, and he was grounded.
When federal investigators looked into the accident, Pete denied he was the pilot, saying he didn’t even have a license, which probably was true. Kollock said in his book that Pete eventually got his plane into the air by repairing the wing with a piece of tar paper. As for the investigation into the accident, it was never resolved before Pete died in the balloon accident.
Author Emory Jones of White County writes about Hodkinson and Kollock in his new book, “Helen 101,” which tells with a helping of humor all you need to know about the tourist town and attractions around North Georgia. Kollock had told him that he had visited Helen often as a youngster, and when he moved back into the area he ran into Pete outside Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church in Clarkesville in 1969. Pete told him about conversations with Bob Fowler and Jimmy Wilkins, who wanted to spruce up Helen for tourists headed toward the new Unicoi State Park nearby.
Kollock took a closer look at Helen one foggy morning and envisioned that Bavarian-styled transformation instead of a simple paint job. He took his drawings to Wilkins, and “What I didn’t know was the kind of wild man I’d come in contact with,” Kollock told Emory Jones in referring to Hodkinson. “Pete Hodkinson took those (drawings) and lit into Jimmy Wilkins so strong that in a week or two, they’d not only taken to the idea, but were willing to pay their own way to make it happen.”
Pete died as he had lived, taking chances along the way, but leaving behind a White County tourism boom and a balloon load of stories that get better with each telling.
Watch for more local history in this column next Sunday.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville; 770-532-2326; firstname.lastname@example.org.