home of the 'wampus' at the Old Sautee Store in
Sautee, Nacoochee, Ga.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Helen isnít all alphorns and oom-pa-pa.
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
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.
the Helen Arts and Heritage Center, Nancy Ackerman walked
Ruth and me through the galleries as she pointed out
pottery, jewelry, ceramics and books.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
big blue bus pulls up, with none other than Santa Claus at
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
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."
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.
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.
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
THERE: Atlantaís Hartsfield-Jackson International
Airport is about 100 miles south of Helen and offers
service through all major carriers.
TO STAY: Lucilleís Mountain Top Inn 964 Rabun Road
Sautee Nacoochee 706-878-5055 or
toll-free 866-254-4777 www.lucillesmountaintopinn.com
Luxurious mountaintop bed-and-breakfast inn offering
gourmet breakfast and spectacular views. Rates from$174.
Lodge and Cabins 1788 Georgia Highway 356 Helen
706-878-2201 www.unicoilodge.com 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.
TO EAT: Bernieís Restaurant and Nacoochee Valley Guest
House 2220 Hwy. 17 Sautee Nacoochee 706-878-3830
www.letsgotobernies.com 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.
Village Tavern and Pizzeria 7275 S. Main St.
706-878-0199 www.villagetavernpizza.com A neighborhood
tavern offering craft-style pizza with hand-made crust.
Entrees from $8.
of Helen 8758 N Main Street Helen 706-878-8200
www.hofers.com 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.
AND WHAT TO DO: Alpine Helen-White County Convention and
Visitors Bureau 706-878-2181 or
toll-free 800-858-8027 www.helenga.org. VIP Southern
Tours and Georgia Wine Bus, offering tours of White Countyís
wineries with tastings and a gourmet boxed lunch.