Helvetia is a small community in the rugged southwestern corner of Randolph County, settled in 1869 by German-speaking Swiss immigrants. It was named for their native Switzerland, officially known as the Confederation of Helvetic Republics. The village and its surroundings slowly grew into a center of Swiss-German culture and mountain agriculture unique to the area. By 1900, its population reached about 500 people but had declined to just 59 people in 2010.
Helvetia, elevation 2,239 feet, was founded on land owned in part by prominent lawyers and politicians, Jonathan M. Bennett, Gideon D. Camden, and John S. Hoffman. Their land agent, Carl E. Lutz, was a Swiss who promoted the settlement and later became commissioner of immigration for the state of West Virginia.
The Swiss settlers created a central village of skilled craftsmen with a constellation of farms in the surrounding mountains. They lived and worked in virtual isolation for more than 30 years, setting up familiar institutions and speaking their native Swiss-German dialects. About 1915, local timbering brought a narrow-gauge railroad and the beginning of social and economic change. From this time through the 1950s, Helvetians combined traditional farming and cheese making with timber and mill work to create a sustainable local economy. Their self-sufficient farms weathered the world wars and even the Depression without great hardship.
The Swiss-German language fell out of use as the 20th century progressed. After World War II, out-migration increased, and the timber and coal industries became more important than agriculture. By the 1970s, tourism began to add diversity to the local economy. During this time the village was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today residents find jobs with local businesses such as restaurants and inns, or with the postal service, school, library, health center, and general store. Due to its strong community and ethnic traditions, Helvetia has maintained or revived numerous Swiss-American celebrations that are open to the public.
Read the National Register nomination.
e-WV presents West Virginia Public Broadcasting on Helvetia
This Article was written by David Sutton
Last Revised on October 14, 2013
Sutton, David H. One's Own Hearth Is Like Gold: A History of Helvetia. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.
Cometti, Elizabeth. Swiss Immigration to West Virginia. Mississippi Valley Historical Review, (June 1960).
Cite This Article
Sutton, David "Helvetia." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 14 October 2013. Web. 27 November 2014.