Even before visitors enter the small Alpine village of Helen, Georgia, history and mountain beauty abound! Along this path just below Yonah Mountain, an old Indian mound stands at the junction of Highways 17 and 75, just south of Helen near the Chattahoochee River. It is a familiar landmark to many travelers, but a mystery to newcomers. According to the legend, Indian lovers from opposing tribes are buried in this sacred place known as the Nacoochee Mound. The story relates that Sautee, a brave of the Chickasaw Tribe, and Nacoochee, daughter of a Cherokee Chief, fell immediately and hopelessly in love when a Chickasaw band stopped in Cherokee territory at a designated resting place. The two lovers met in the night and ran away to nearby Yonah Mountain to spend a few days together. When they later confronted Nacoochee’s father with the idea of creating peace between the two nations, Chief Wahoo ordered Sautee thrown from the high cliffs of Yonah Mountain while Nacoochee was forced to watch. Immediately, Nacoochee broke away from her father’s restraining hands and leaped from the cliff to join her lover. At the foot of the cliff the lovers drew their broken bodies together and locked in a final embrace. The Chief, overcome with remorse, realized the greatness of love and buried the lovers, still locked together in death, near the banks of the Chattahoochee River in a burial mound.
Though it is a very poignant narrative, the Nacoochee Mound is actually an old burial site that was probably placed there long before the Cherokee Tribe inhabited the area. An excavation that began in 1915 unearthed 75 burials in the mound. These graves were discovered at varying levels, showing that the burials took place over a number of years. Differences in artifacts found indicate a slight change in the culture, due possibly to the influence of civilization. Within the mound, none of the remains were preserved well enough to enable exact measurements of the bodies. Since the Cherokee Tribe later used the mound as a site for their townhouse and ceremonial rites, they were obviously ignorant of the original purpose of the artificial hill. They also erected an estimated 300 dwellings in a village on the surrounding flatland near the river. Of the 75 skeletons unearthed, 56 were of adults, 7 of adolescents, 4 of children and 8 were unidentifiable as to age. The dead were interred with the head directed in varying compass directions. One was buried in a sitting position, two were buried in a face down position, but the direction of burial bears no special significance as to age. Of the determinable burials, 47 were flexed in varying degrees. Six were flexed backward, and four were buried extended full length. Artifacts were found with only 27 of the burials, the others had no accompaniments of any description.
The Nacoochee Mound is located in White County, two miles south of Helen on property that once belonged to the L.G. Hardman Estate. Dr. Hardman was a former Governor of the State of Georgia. Today, the mound, the Chattahoochee River, part of the Nacoochee Valley and the Hardman Estate are all part of Smithgall Woods, which is owned by the State of Georgia. During the summer of 1980 Nacoochee Valley, in which the Mound is located, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district. It is a beautiful place to see from the road during any season of the year, but is especially beautiful during the spring!
Not more than 300 yards from the Indian mound is Nora Mill Granary established in 1876 as an operational gristmill alongside the Chattahoochee River. Nora Mill still utilizes the original 1,500 pound French Burr Stones to grind and produce all kinds of corn and wheat based products such as grits, corn meal, pancake and waffle mixes, flours, biscuit and bread mixes, pioneer’s porridge and more. They have an old-fashioned country store and gift shop that’s called “Nora Mill Next Door.” The country store is stocked with thousands of new items and even has a large kitchen built just for cooking and serving samples of the mill. An outside deck and walkway is also free to see the dam and the Chattahoochee River…but you must pay for food to feed the huge trout in the water below.
Though my first memories of Helen were of fishing the Chattahoochee River in an almost abandoned village with one run-down motel, its miraculous rebirth into a scene from “The Sound of Music” has been astounding! Helen’s transformation began without much fanfare or any Federal or State handouts. Quite simply, the Alpine Village idea began when several local businessmen gathered at a riverside restaurant, looked out a window, and saw their bleak hometown with its dull, dreary row of block structures. During that fateful luncheon, it was decided that something should be done to attract the tourists on their way to the lakes and national forest recreation areas in the Northeast Georgia Mountains. Clarkesville artist, John Kollock, already had an idea from his days in the Army in Bavaria. He had made many sketches of Alpine villages and was fascinated with the similarity of the landscape to the North Georgia Mountains. Mr. Kollock photographed the whole business section of Helen and within a week presented a series of water color sketches of what the face of Helen would look like in Alpine style. The businessmen eagerly accepted the sketches and a week later the townsmen and local carpenters began turning ideas into reality.
Helen became a new town with a new industry for the community. The businesses of Helen employ more people than most mills in a tiny Alpine village with a public park, flowers everywhere, fountains, quaint street lights and freshly painted store fronts. It’s also a rarity to find a village where one can easily park a car in the business section and go trout fishing or simply float on a tube in a gorgeous river meandering through a picturesque village that appears to have been transplanted from another time and place.