If it weren’t for the preference of Southern cooks for white flour in the early 1900s, there might not be a Helen, Ga., as it is today.
A stretch? Maybe, but that’s the hypothesis of Matt Gedney, a Helen historian and author, who has researched the beginnings of what is now the Bavarian-themed alpine village astride the Chattahoochee River in White County.
Here’s how he explains: Kentuckian Jimmy Alsop invented a process to bleach flour from its often yellowish color. Principals in what would become Byrd-Matthews Investment Co. from southeast Missouri operated a large flour milling company and bought Alsop’s invention. They teamed with St. Louis manufacturer John E. Mitchell, an inventive genius, to perfect the process, which generated profits they used to not only build a sawmill, but a railroad to haul lumber from the Northeast Georgia mountains to a main rail line in Gainesville, which in turn led to the founding of Helen.
Before the sawmill, only a few families lived in the valley where Helen is today. The lumber operation increased population and birthed businesses.
The new village was named Helen by the Missourians, and “who was Helen?” was a mystery Gedney also unraveled. Various stories about the name’s origin circulated for years, most surmising Helen was the wife, daughter, mother or some other relative of the village’s founders.
Gedney painstakingly searched family trees of the Byrds, Matthews and Mitchells, finding no Helens on their branches. But a nephew of A.R. Byrd, R.M. McCombs, was president of the company and had a daughter named Helen, whom he doted over. Helen McCombs was 14 years old when the town was named about 1911.
A Jackson, Mo., newspaper agreed to Gedney’s request to run a story headlined “Desperately Seeking Helen,” hoping somebody in her hometown would remember Helen McCombs. Some relatives and friends responded, one saying they knew a town in Georgia was named for her.
The McCombs were prominent Jackson, Mo., residents who lived in a hilltop mansion named “Eastover.” As a child, Helen, typically wearing a white dress, rode around town in a horse-drawn carriage. In a world of “the haves and have-nots,” Gedney wrote “ ... the McCombs were ‘haves’ whose social world was populated with relatives and the ‘best sorts’ of people.”
An only child, she attended high school at the prestigious Mary Institute in St. Louis, her parents probably wanting to expose her to a potential life partner in St. Louis society, Gedney concluded.
In 1917, Helen married Ed Bright, a neighbor five years her senior, though not a social equal. The McCombs invited 500 people to the reception at their estate. The marriage ended in 1934, Helen’s husband taking off on horseback to live off the land.
Helen didn’t miss a beat, however, in southeast Missouri’s social life, her name appearing regularly in local newspapers, going to parties or throwing them at Eastover. During that phase of her life, she was described as independent, full of life, daring, a bit unorthodox and loving a good time.
She worked as a flour tester at the milling company and ran the nursery at New McKendree Methodist Church.
Her father’s company failed in the 1950s, and the McCombs moved from their mansion on the hill.
While she had dated other men since her divorce, it wasn’t until 1964 at age 67 that she married again. Three years later, she died in a car accident with her husband at the wheel. He survived. They had been returning from a social engagement, she dressed in white, as usual.
While some of the Missourians visited or stayed in Helen at times, especially John E. Mitchell, who actually founded the town, there is no evidence Helen herself ever visited her namesake village.
The forests stripped, the lumber business died in 1931, and the Gainesville & Northwestern Railroad huffed to a stop four years later. Helen continued as a sleepy mountain village that tourists mostly passed through on their way to loftier destinations until 1969 when some local entrepreneurs turned the place into an alpine-themed village that morphed into one of the state’s leading tourist attractions.
Gedney’s book, “The Story of Helen, Georgia,” is available at the Northeast Georgia History Center in Gainesville, the Old White County Courthouse and several shops in Helen.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501 His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.