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Helvetia

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This small, isolated mountain village represents a singular chapter in the settlement of West Virginia's rugged hinterlands. Soon after the state was created, officials appointed Swiss native J. H. Diss Debar commissioner of immigration to attract European homesteaders. Among those he influenced was a group of Swiss colonists, many of whom had settled temporarily in Brooklyn, New York, waiting until the Civil War ended to find a permanent home. A 2,852-acre tract in western Randolph County was purchased and surveyed and 100 acres near the center were reserved for a village. The first settlers began arriving late in 1869. Others, likely influenced by Debar's 1870 West Virginia HandBook and Immigrant's Guide, soon followed. By 1874 more than 300 pioneers had put down roots in the community they named for their homeland: Helvetia.

Almost from the beginning, Helvetia appreciated its uniqueness. An annual September fair, first held in 1917, showcases community history and demonstrates Swiss arts and crafts. Like their Swiss forebears, West Virginia's Helvetians have emphasized independence and self-sufficiency and consequently weathered the Depression better than most of their neighbors. In 1933 the U.S. Department of the Interior singled Helvetia out for praise: “There are now 55 families …, none of which are receiving relief.”

Helvetia's historic architecture is almost entirely of wood of one sort or another and altogether vernacular in character. The community's buildings provide a rare glimpse into the typical architectural progression of a selfcontained nineteenth-century community, from early log houses to houses finished with rough-sawn lumber to later, more polished dwellings covered with mill-sawn boards. In addition, auxiliary buildings associated with early agricultural practices remain in rear yards and back lots. In recent years, pseudo-Swiss gables and balconies, even a few chalets, have sprung up around the sturdy, straightforward structures built when shelter, not a conscious evocation of the Swiss heritage, was paramount.

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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