Fasnacht — Helvetia

March 3, 2014 |

This past weekend the little town of Helvetia tried its best to frighten away Old Man Winter at its Fasnacht festival. Hundreds of people thronged the streets of the remote Swiss community, many of them squeezing into the community hall for the square dance.

People this year had large, papier-mâché masks that resembled long nosed-monsters, Chinese dragons, and druid-like trees. But before the party, cooks and volunteers were busy helping to prepare the Swiss feast in the Hütte restaurant, preparing the Swiss feast of sausage, spiced sauerkraut, bratwurst, green beans, parsley potatoes, homemade applesauce, and peach cobbler. Three years after one of the most important matriarchs of Helvetia, Eleanor Mailloux, co-founder of the Hütte, passed away, the question many people are asking is: how will the traditions change without her?

Menu at the Hütte Restaurant.

Menu at the Hütte Restaurant.

On Saturday morning I woke to the smell of curry and countless other spices wafting up to my room above the Hütte, where I was staying. As I sat down for coffee beside the crackling wood stove, the smells grew more intense, and I could hear something frying in the kitchen. One of the cooks was frying the Morgan Henalie chicken in olive oil. So I went to have a closer look.

“I can’t give the spices away. I can say this much-it’s a curry chicken. It’s marinated and then Henry fries it, and we bake it, and that keeps it nice and moist,” says Debbie, the cook. She’s worked at the Hütte since 1977, and like many here her roots go back to Switzerland.

“Mostly, Debbie makes her homemade bread, and she’s made it for years and then Wilma makes our whole wheat bread. And the sausage is what a lot of people love, and we get that from Campbell’s market. Shoulder sausage, very lean. And then we have nine different spices that go into it. Grated onion and a whole bunch of other things that I won’t tell you about. It’s wonderful, and people love it,” says Heidi Arnett. Her full name is Heidi Fahrner Mailloux Arnett, and her mom was Eleanor Mailloux. In 1967, Eleanor Mailloux founded the Hütte restaurant along with her friend Delores Baggerly. hutte menu

Since her mother Eleanor Mailloux passed away three years ago, Heidi and four others in her family have been keeping the restaurant going, just as before.

“And we’re we don’t care, we don’t want to make a dime. We just want to continue this. And the staff is amazing. They’ve been with us for years,” says Heidi.

“Eleanor, she worked with the recipes over the years to get them where she wanted them. Quite a lady, wasn’t she Melissa? Yeah, we miss her. But we’re doin what she taught us to do. And she worked hard to get us where we’re at today,” Debbie says over a boiling pot of potatoes.

Preserving the old ways of cooking Swiss foods wasn’t the only tradition that Eleanor Mailloux helped to inspire here. Bringing back Fasnacht was also a part of her creative vision for reviving Helvetia. “Fasnacht is something that happened many years ago that they always celebrated. What they used to do, I think, is go from farm to farm. And they used to have a glass of wine and a Rosette or a Hosenblatt. And go to the next house. And it was like a party time. And so many of the local families were musicians, and so they would play songs and hang out,” says Heidi.

“But that was one of the things also that my mom kind of wanted to get going back again because it was something that they used to celebrate. So we had people sleeping on the dining room table, under the dining room table, next to the hallway going to the bathroom. And my mom was all for it. She loved kids.”

After dinner hundreds of people slip on their costumes and over-sized papier-mâché masks and parade through the small town towards the dance hall. The costumed figures dance for hours here, beneath a scarecrow-esque effigy of Old Man Winter, they dance for hours.

Men and Women of Helvetia, W. Va. ca. 1915. Courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Collection, West Virginia University Libraries

Men and Women of Helvetia, W. Va.
ca. 1915. Courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Collection, West Virginia University Libraries

Eleanor Betler helps organize the regular square dances here. She remembers the first masked Fasnacht celebrations here, in 1969, just in time for Helvetia’s centennial. “I remember Mrs. Baggerly came with a real cat on her shoulder. And she was dressed like a witch, and she was an artist, so she looked like a read witch. And here was this cat switching its tail over her shoulders, and she had a Candelabra, that looked like blood was dripping down from it, and my little kids were so scared that they held my hand and hid behind me. So that was our introduction to what this has turned into.”

“It’s always a hard winter here because we’re in the mountains. Burning of old man winter is such a fun thing to do because we are usually sick of winter by then. So burning him is usually therapeutic.” Today, Eleanor Betler is still helping to preserve the folk dancing here in Helvetia. She helps organize the Fasnacht dance, which raises money for the town’s Restoration and Development Organization. This year’s proceeds will help the community do repairs on historic buildings and will help the local genealogy project continue to preserve and identify photos and stories from Helvetia.

At midnight, someone cuts down Old Man Winter from the dance hall. Hallie Martin of Elkins Middle school is given the honor this year of hauling Old Man Winter onto the bonfire amid cheers and howls from the crowd. In a way, this is West Virginia’s Marti Gras, it’s 40 degrees and Old Man Winter has been temporarily put to shame.

Some of the local people begin to sing John Denver’s “Country Roads”, and someone tosses a dead wild boar they found on the side of the road onto the fire, and the flames grow higher.

Maybe the burning of a wild boar and the singing of “Country Roads” will become new traditions, blending with all the others of Helvetia. It’s for the next generation to decide what comes next, anyway.

“You know what I like about Helvetia is you can be who you are,” says Heidi. “I love Helvetia people, and Pickens people, and Czar people. We’re definitely way out here, and there’s no pretense because there’s no need for it. And I think that’s what I love about it. It’s the purity of just being who you are. It’s a freedom. You know, you’re very free out here to be who you are.”

Just before she passed away, Eleanor Mallouix wrote a letter to some filmmakers that had featured her in a short film that said:

I’m fevered with dreams for the Mask Museum. I wonder why.

I had a dear old Chinese friend on Guam. His name was Charlie Corn. One day I asked Charlie: “Charlie, why do you keep building on to your pavilion?” His answer was: “When I’m building, I’m growing and when I’m growing I’m alive.”

Today, the mask museum is alive and free to visit, located in the town’s Post Office and General Store. For more information about Helvetia, visit the town’s website. Local businesses include the Hütte restaurant (304-924-6435), the Beekeeper Inn (304-924-6435), and the Kultur Hous Lodge and General Store (304-924-9100).

Upcoming events include the Pickens Maple Syrup Festival on March 15-16

The first Saturday square dance on April 5

The Helvetia Ramp Supper on April 26.







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Category: Blog, Elkins to Marlinton, Food & Farming

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