Lent will be here next Wednesday, and that means that many residents of Helvetia, WV will be foregoing hosenblatt meat pastries deep-fried in lard for awhile. Tomorrow folks there will have ample opportunity to consume that delicacy, along with donuts and rosettes, at the annual Fasnacht celebration. The Swiss settlers of Helvetia combined the Catholic celebration of Lent with the Protestant Winterfest of Zurich, when Old Man Winter is burned in effigy to hasten the advent of spring, to produce this annual February revel.
Fasnacht is the most famous city and canton in Switzerland’s Basel Stadt. And Helvetia is the Latin name for Switzerland. In West Virginia’s Helvetia, homes are decorated with scary figures to frighten Old Man Winter away. These after all are the Rauhnächte (rough nights), the nights between winter and spring, when evil ghosts are supposed to go around.
This photo of musicians in Helvetia is undated; prior to the construction of the Star Band Hall in 1910 Fasnacht celebrations took place in homes, with the musicians off to one side of the parlor as in this photo.
Helvetians decorate the community hall in colorful ribbons and Swiss lampions (paper lanterns with candles), and hang a gruesome Old Man Winter by the neck in the middle of the dance floor. And they create elaborate masks.
At dark on the Saturday night before Ash Wednesday, the villagers and guests don their masks and congregate at Star Band Hall. This plain rectangular frame structure, built in 1910, was for many years home of a quite famous brass concert and marching band.
“The Helvetia Star Band will rank favorably with the best in the State,” declare the authors of ‘The Story of Helvetia Community,’ an undated article most likely from the early 1920s. “This band is frequently asked to play for occasions at various distant points over the State.
“There is band practice twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays, and in this way the players are always able to measure up to the expectations of those asking them to perform. Several of the members of the band served their country as buglers or musicians in the bands of the respective branches to which they belonged while in the army.” The Star Band was active for 65 years.
The assembled parade marchers light the lampions, then proceed up the road Mardi Gras style to the Community Hall where they parade around the dance floor as their masks are judged. They dance schotisches, waltzes, polkas, and squares until midnight, when the fiddler announces the hour to burn Old Man Winter. The prettiest maiden then mounts the shoulders of the tallest man and cuts down the ghoul. He is dragged out into the snow, roughed up and cursed, then thrown onto the bonfire amid shrieks and applause.
A group of Swiss immigrants from Brooklyn, NY calling themselves ‘the Gruetli Verein’ settled the tiny community of Helvetia in 1869. The members had agreed that they would all emigrate to another section of the country together when the time was right.
A member of the society named Isler surveyed large swaths of the eastern West Virginia mountains for a Washington-based firm, and reported back to the society on the richness of the country. A committee of six men was assembled, and left Brooklyn by rail on October 15, 1869. They arrived at Clarksburg and began the difficult work of traveling by foot over the mountains.
At one time there were three Swiss colonies in Randolph County: Helvetia, Adolph, and Alpina. In the early 1900s Dr. Hanz Gruber was Helvetia’s village doctor for about ten years. He was a nephew of Franz Gruber who wrote for his Austrian church choir the much loved carol “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Dr. Gruber’s house still stands.
Sources: ‘The Story of Helvetia Community,’ by Eugene Daetwyler, Annie Teuscher, and E. Metzner at www.wvculture.org/history/agrext/helvetia.html
Helvetia, West Virginia : a study of pioneer development and community survival in the Appalachia, by Atje Partadiredja, Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1978
One’s own hearth is like gold : a history of Helvetia, West Virginia, by David H Sutton, New York: Peter Lang, 1990
Many thanks to Elvira Niles of Lithia, FL for her input on this article.