The sign on the front porch of the Old Sautee Store is clear. “Don’t feed the wampus,” it reads on the side of a latched box about 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, it’s 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 wouldn’t? 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 me high-frequency hearing damage and send the creature scurrying back into the box.
Let’s just say I had been had. I won’t say if the wampus is real – you just have to discover that for yourself – but it’s 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. It’s 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 it’s nostalgic or whimsical or just plain good eating or fun, then it’s here in the cool mountains near the southern end of the Blue Ridge. We 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 in addition to the Old Sautee Store, there are plenty around. At Fred’s Famous Peanuts, a roadside attraction just outside of Helen and only a few miles from Sautee Nacoochee, the undisputed stars are boiled peanuts and fried pork skins, but its shelves are crammed with treats such as peanut brittle and local honey and cider. Betty’s Country Store, in Helen proper, is well-known for its bakery — the homemade carrot cake is a favorite — and a live, working beehive right inside the store.
If White County is the heartbeat of Georgia’s 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 year, 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 isn’t all alphorns and oom-pa-pa.
To be fair there’s plenty of that, especially during the fall, which brings leaf-peepers and beer drinkers from all over the world, including Fussen, Helen’s 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.
But White County is a year-round arts-rich community that could easily compete with its southern cousins of Asheville, Charleston and Key West, Fla.
At the Helen Arts and Heritage Center, Nancy Ackerman walked us through the galleries as she pointed out pottery, jewelry, ceramics and books. “Most artists live within 20 to 25 miles of here,” she said.
She says 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 can’t go very far in this area without running into a potter.”
Most face jugs are scary portraits 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. 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 South’s most well-known potter families.
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. White County has some of Georgia’s best-known wineries, and we reserved our last full day for wine time with VIP Southern Tour’s Georgia Wine Bus.
The big blue bus pulls up, with none other than Santa Claus at the wheel. Lou Bertone, our driver and guide for the day, with his long white beard looking like the doppelganger of Father Christmas. While eight wineries dot White County, we would visit five. Santa Lou first takes us to Stonewall Creek Vineyards in Helen, where our group of six was led through several tastings.
Boarding the bus for the next winery, we’re more mellow as the scenery changes from mountains to valley to farm several times 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.
On our last evening, we take glasses of wine out to the wraparound porch at Lucille’s Mountaintop Lodge – the gorgeous B&B where we were staying – and plopped down in rocking chairs. The mountains are peaceful yet dazzling in the late afternoon sun, almost as if they’re on fire with brilliant golden light. Just then, my imagination conjures up a low teasing growl from a faraway valley. I’m sure it’s a wampus cat, getting in the last laugh of the day.
Info on visiting northeast Georgia: www.helenga.org.
VIP Southern Tours and Georgia Wine Bus: www.gawinetours.com.
Helen’s 45th annual Oktoberfest is held daily Sept. 17-Nov. 1. Admission: $8 weekdays, $10 Saturdays, free on Sundays. Details: www.helenchamber.com/Helen/Oktoberfest.html.