West Virginia
Historical Society

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January 1999

Helvetia: Little Switzerland

By Sara Akers

Helvetia, West Virginia is a small Swiss community in the central part of the state. It is about thirty miles from Buckhannon, halfway between State Route 20 and U.S. Route 219. The founders of this small community came from New York with the hope of finding freedom of religion, land and the freedom to practice their customs. Most of the people who settled in this area were from Switzerland with a sprinkling of settlers from Germany. Their language was Schwyzerdutsch, a dialect of German originating from the canton for which their country was named.

In 1869 they came to a wilderness area that was a seventy-five mile walk from the nearest railroad in Clarksburg. The first of these settlers to view the new home place were Jacob Hadler; Henry Asper, Sr., his wife and baby; Joseph Zielman; and Xavoir Holtzweg. They bought the land for three dollars an acre and sent for the rest of their people. That first winter, the group stayed in a bunk house that they all shared. The next spring they each helped one another in building homes and clearing lands for farming.

The first school for the children was built in 1873. The children in the first school were taught in English, German was a forbidden language. Most of the people of this new community were well educated, with several possessing college degrees from various European universities or trade schools. Every man and woman could speak High German and some could even speak more languages, but none were illiterate. Desiring to assimilate into their new country, the elders began to study English and soon all were adapted to American customs and had taken out citizenship papers.

Additional settlers arrived in Helvetia after hearing about this new Utopia in the newspapers of far away cities. An example was Christian Gimmel who decided to immigrate to West Virginia based on information he had received about Helvetia from newspaper accounts. According to Ann (Zumbach) Daetwyler, granddaughter of Christian Gimmel, her grandfather arrived in Helvetia with his family on December 13, 1873. Some of his descendants still live in the Helvetia community today. Christian Gimmel was what was called a whipsaw. He and an uncle sawed lumber that was to be cured and used in several buildings in Helvetia including the Helvetia Church.

Helvetians learned quickly that by working long hours, they could produce a surplus of grain, potatoes, beans, fruit, meat, milk, butter, and cheese, but unfortunately there was no outside market in which to sell their goods. On the farm, all the food for the family and the livestock was raised and preserved for winter use as food or feed could not be bought at any stores. At stores, only the most essential things such as salt, sugar, flour, rice and oatmeal, were stocked. Even getting these products was hard because travel in the winter months was almost impossible.

A man by the name of John Killenberger brought in a herd of Brown Swiss Cattle. Sometimes cows were trained for farm work, as were oxen. Horses were scarce in this early community, therefore oxen were used. Oxen were more sure-footed than horsesbut much slower.

Then, in 1913, Helvetia became a boom town. A rough board dance hall went up, a large hotel was built, Swiss dress was tucked away in trunks, and hand-me-down shirts and suits became the common dress. Virgin trees were felled, and the Alpine flowers were ground under. The change was due mainly to the development of the Buckhannon Chemical Company at Selbyville and the laying of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad line to Helvetia. Having new access to the outside and the opportunity for more diverse economic opportunities, the population of the lovely town quickly rose to about 1,000.

The boom was short lived and soon after came the decline. As in most West Virginia boom towns, the population quickly dropped to about 250 residents which is about what it is today.

In 1969, there was a big Centennial Celebration. Bill Thomas stated that:

"Helvetia is unique in that it has been able to resist the influence of the modern 20th century, to maintain an identity in keeping with its rich Swiss heritage. It is different and to show the world just how different, Helvetia this year is celebrating a centennial to which it has invited the public."
Helvetia continues to invite the public to visit and holds an annual fall festival which attracts several thousand visitors.

After 100 years, Helvetia retains its Swiss atmosphere. Many of its citizens still speak Schwytzerdeutsch and hold the old Swiss-German customs close. The town is a quaint little piece of the past sitting in the middle of the present. In keeping with its Swiss heritage, Helvetia is a rural retreat for those of us who need a bit of the past and a break from the hubbub of the cities and the hectic pace in which we live.

Sources Consulted

Bernadine Kelley, personal interview, October 24, 1997

William C. Blizzard, "Story of Helvetia - Its Cheese and the Fairy Thimble," West Virginia, 1969.

Anna Daetwyler, "A Family History," compiled March 1986.

Bill Thomas, "Swiss-like West Virginia Town Defies 20th Century," The Blade, Toledo, 28 Sept 1969.

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