Finding Appalachian culture, fun in Georgiaís White County


The home of the 'wampus' at the Old Sautee Store in Sautee, Nacoochee, Ga.

The sign on the front porch of the Old Sautee Store is clear. "Donít feed the wampus," it reads on the side of a latched box maybe the size of a small pet carrier. Inside is supposed to be a mythical creature called a wampus. Some call it a wampus cat. In any case, itís a big, furry critter, and all I see is its long scraggly tail as I peer into the box.

"Want to see it?" asks store owner Galen Green, moving his hand to the latch before warning. "But you have to be really careful." Of course I want to see a wampus. Really. Who wouldnít? In the next instant Green somehow snaps open the latch and out leaps the wampus, matted fur flying, fast and lightning-quick. Naturally I scream like a girl, so shrilly that I give everyone around high-frequency hearing damage and send the creature scurrying back into the box.

Letís just say I had been had. I wonít say if the wampus is real ó you just have to discover that for yourself ó but itís all great fun.

The Old Sautee Store in the village of Sautee Nacoochee in the North Georgia Mountains is one of those old-time general stores that dot White County. Itís filled with baskets of colorful candy, jars of relish and jams, rounds of sumptuous cheese, and a wampus or two. White County and its most well-known town of Helen have always been beloved for Appalachian culture, mountain flowers in spring, and autumn leaves. If itís nostalgic or whimsical or just plain good eating or fun, then itís here in the cool mountains near the southern end of the Blue Ridge. My longtime gal-pal Ruth and I are in White County to visit Helen, Cleveland, and Sautee Nacoochee, towns that are separate but all share the deep, verdant valleys that sculpt the landscape with incredible mountain scenery.

Just about everyone loves an old country store, and with the Old Sautee Store, plenty of them are around. At Fredís Famous Peanuts, a roadside attraction thatís just outside of Helen and only a few miles from Sautee Nacoochee, the undisputed star is boiled peanuts and fried pork skins, but its shelves are crammed with treats such as peanut brittle and local honey and cider. Bettyís Country Store, located in Helen proper, is well-known for its bakery ó the homemade carrot cake is a favorite óand a live, working beehive right inside the store.

If White County is the heartbeat of Georgiaís Blue Ridge, then Helen holds that honor for White County. The story of Helen and how it transformed itself from a dying timber town to Bavarian village has been told and retold yet still resonates.

Long story short. In 1968 a trio of Helen businessmen plopped on their Bavarian-style felt thinking caps, hitched up their lederhosen, and discussed ways to beautify the town to lure in tourists. The consensus was to transform it into a village that looked as if it were plucked straight from the German countryside.. Within a yearís time the once-dreary town on the banks of the Chattahoochee River rose from the mountain mist into a storybook Bavarian village festooned with venerable Old World towers, clocks, chalets, gingerbread trim, cobblestone streets, and restaurants serving schnitzel, sauerkraut, and brats . Germany had indeed come to Georgia.

But Helen isnít all alphorns and oom-pa-pa.

To be fair thereís plenty of that, especially during the fall, which brings leaf-peepers and beer drinkers from all over the world, including Fussen, Helenís sister city in Germany, to celebrate Oktoberfest. From mid-September until the first of November, estimates are that up to a half-million revelers pass through White County during Oktoberfest, not bad considering its population of about 28,000.

As some would believe, Helen and White County donít close down the rest of the year. Spring brings out the hikers and birdwatchers, while in summer throngs of tourists come for the Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Festival or to escape city heat and tube, fish, or canoe sparkling rivers and streams. But what most donít know is that White County is a year-round arts-rich community that could easily compete with its southern cousins of Asheville, Charleston and Key West.

At the Helen Arts and Heritage Center, Nancy Ackerman walked Ruth and me through the galleries as she pointed out pottery, jewelry, ceramics and books.

"Most artists live within 20 to 25 miles of here," she says. "Everything is local and is handmade, handcrafted, and one of a kind. Nothing is mass produced. Weíre shoulder to shoulder with artists. If someone isnít an artist, then someone they know is."

She says that travelers come from all over the world to visit the Heritage Center, the nucleus of Appalachian diversity and folk art such as pottery, and then adds as we look over a strange yet beautiful face jug, "We have some of the best potters in this area. You canít go very far in this area without running into a potter."

Most face jugs are scary portraitures with features of big teeth and crazy eyes, but there is good reason for it, says Ackerman. In the days of yore, moonshine and whiskey were kept in pottery and etched with those frightening faces to keep the kids out of the liquor. Others claim face jugs are for warding off evil spirits, but then again for some Southern religions evil spirits equate to liquor. Plenty of face jugs and other priceless pottery that held liquids other than hooch are on display at the Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia, our next stop. The pottery museum shares the Sautee Nacoochee Center with a separate history museum and features the work of the Southís most well-known potter families including Meaders, Hewell, Dorsey and Ferguson. A stunning diorama shows how pottery was used in the home and showcases butter churns, bowls, and jugs that held syrup, honey and cider.

From the pottery museum, we drive to the Gourd Place, best described as a gourd museum, retail shop and garden all wrapped up into one package. Ruth and I had a gourd time being shown around by owners Priscilla Wilson and Janice Lymburner, known collectively as the Gourd Girls, and I especially thought the Gour-d-Made Kitchen with its gourd-made dinnerware and utensils was especially fun. After leaving the Gourd Girls and before heading to a dinner of shrimp and grits and fresh local trout at Mullyís, a lively, cheery place where the equally lively, cheery owner Mully Ash jokes that cholesterol levels and credit scores cross, I wanted to work up an appetite by hiking the trails of Anna Ruby Falls, one of four waterfalls in White County. As I out-of-shape huffed and Ruth in-shape sprinted uphill to the visitor center, clouds of diminutive powdery blue butterflies fluttered all around.

"Theyíre happy little things," says Doug Pinson, a ranger at the visitors center, after I asked about them. "They get in your face, on your nose, everywhere." The happy little things followed us to the falls and made for a spectacular color wheel of blue combined with greenest of mountain vegetation and the pink and white of wild azaleas, mountain laurel and rhododendron. White County has some of Georgiaís best-known wineries, and Ruth and I reserved our last full day for wine time with VIP Southern Tourís Georgia Wine Bus. For tipsy tourists, itís the best way to sample the tipple without worrying about driving. We had arranged for the bus to pick us up at Lucilleís Mountaintop Lodge, a gorgeous bed-and-breakfast we called home for the past few days.

The big blue bus pulls up, with none other than Santa Claus at the wheel.

"Just call me Santa Lou," laughs Lou Bertone, our driver and tour guide for the day and with his long white beard looking the doppelganger of Father Christmas. While no fewer than eight wineries dot White County, we would visit five. Santa Lou first takes us to Stonewall Creek Vineyards in Helen, where weíre met by Mike Fisher, an energetic young man who leads our small group of six ó Ruth and me and two couples from Atlanta ó through several tastings.

"When I drive the bus, like Santa Lou, everyone calls me Captain Malbec," Fisher explains as we hold up our ample samples, among others a 2013 Cabernet Franc and a 2014 Boriana Petit Manseng, to the natural sunlight streaming into the tasting room.  "The more colors in the wine, the more complex," Captain Malbec declares, taking a sip along with us. "But wine is delicious wherever it takes you."

Boarding the bus for the next winery, weíre more mellow as the scenery changes from mountains to valley to farm several times as Santa Lou putters from Stonewall Creek to Frogtown Cellars. After Frogtown and at The Cottage Vineyard in Cleveland, we munch on gourmet sandwiches after sampling the wine, marveling at the endless, dramatic peaks of the Blue Ridge as they shine in the summer sun like herds of green elephants. Before the day is done, we visit the Napa-like Yonah Mountain Vineyards in Sautee and Sautee Nacoochee Vineyards with its simple and quiet tasting room.

Several times along the way we crisscross roads and pass the Sautee Nacoochee Indian Mound rising from the middle of a cow pasture. Santa Lou tells us that local legend is that two star-crossed Indians from opposing tribes are buried there, a Chickasaw brave named Sautee and a Cherokee maiden named Nacoochee. Another long story short. Parents object. Both die in murder-suicide. Terrible tragedy. Itís Romeo and Juliet, Native American-style. And now a herd of black and white cows, bearing a strong resemblance to those in the Chick-fil-A ads, graze their graves.

On our last evening, we take glasses of wine out to the wraparound porch at Lucilleís and plop down in a rocking chair. The mountains are peaceful yet dazzling in the late afternoon sun, almost as if theyíre on fire with brilliant golden light. Just then, my imagination conjures up a low teasing growl from a faraway valley, a sound Iím sure is that of a wampus cat, getting in the last laugh of the day.


GETTING THERE: Atlantaís Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is about 100 miles south of Helen and offers service through all major carriers.

WHERE TO STAY: Lucilleís Mountain Top Inn 964 Rabun Road Sautee Nacoochee 706-878-5055 or toll-free 866-254-4777 Luxurious mountaintop bed-and-breakfast inn offering gourmet breakfast and spectacular views. Rates from$174.

Unicoi Lodge and Cabins 1788 Georgia Highway 356  Helen 706-878-2201 Picturesque retreat in a natural setting offering lodge, unusual "barrel" cabin, or cottage accommodations. Unicoi Dining Room offers American and Southern cuisine. Rates from $99.

WHERE TO EAT: Bernieís Restaurant and Nacoochee Valley Guest House 2220 Hwy. 17 Sautee Nacoochee 706-878-3830 Mountain atmosphere, fresh ingredients, and cozy wine bar make Bernieís a popular spot with locals and tourists. Entrees from $13.95 for lunch and $19.95 for dinner.

Nacoochee Village Tavern and Pizzeria 7275 S. Main St.

Helen 706-878-0199 A neighborhood tavern offering craft-style pizza with hand-made crust. Entrees from $8.

Hoferís of Helen 8758 N Main Street Helen 706-878-8200 German bakery and cafe open for hearty breakfast and lunch. Entrees from $6.95 for breakfast and $7.95 for lunch sandwiches and $19.95 from the grill.

INFORMATION AND WHAT TO DO: Alpine Helen-White County Convention and Visitors Bureau 706-878-2181 or toll-free 800-858-8027 VIP Southern Tours and Georgia Wine Bus, offering tours of White Countyís wineries with tastings and a gourmet boxed lunch. 706-348-8747

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