Why the Fasnacht? A visit to Helvetia, W.Va.

Ever since a couple years ago when I heard of Fasnacht, a pre-Lenten celebration in the Swiss-heritage community of Helvetia, West Virginia, I’ve wanted to go. This year I got to go and shoot video.

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Helvetia is a tiny town of fewer than 100 people in the mountains of Randolph County. The residents are descendants of Swiss and German immigrants and the town has kept many of their traditions. Every year on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, they have a big celebration where they wear masks, play music, dance and drink. The party ends at midnight when they burn an effigy of Old Man Winter.

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Old Man Winter

Fasnacht is a happy time for residents, who in winter are typically in a sort of hibernation mode, one of the residents there told us. The winters there are typically so cold and snowy that people don’t leave their houses for days. Plus the festival brings hundreds of visitors to a town that typically has few. It’s not quite the coming of spring, but it means its closer.

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A jam session early in the night

Some of the masks that people have made through the years are really impressive. These are just a couple that are on display at the mask museum/general store.

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Masks on display at the mask museum/general store.

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Another impressive mask

The majority of the night was spent square dancing, which I don’t know how to do, so I watched. As a friend who was there Saturday told me, the people take their dancing pretty seriously.

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Helvetia’s Star Band Hall

There were a ton of people and they were all squished into a tiny space, so inside it got warm rather quickly. Though the weather was warm on Friday (80 degrees in Charleston, where I live) winter had returned to Helvetia on Saturday. Outside the town hall, the snow fell and temperatures dipped into the 20s. Relief from the heat and the dancing was as close as the bonfire that was building outside the town hall. A crowd gathered there to drink and wait for Old Man Winter.

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What I think is interesting about Fasnacht, is its mix of cultures. Helvetia has lots of Swiss traditions, but Fasnacht is very West Virginian, too. There was lots of old-time music. I think we sang “County Roads” at least three times and at one point around the fire, people were chanting a familiar chant that disparaged a WVU rival. It doesn’t get much more Mountain Mama than that.

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An original cabin that belonged to one of the town’s settlers

Coverage of Fasnacht is running in Wednesday’s Gazette-Mail, and there’s a photo essay in Saturday’s edition.

PS: If you’re going to Helvetia, the West Virginia State Wildlife Center, located about a half hour away from there, is definitely worth a stop. It was all sorts of wildlife that are native to the Mountain State. The animals are kept in spacious enclosures, but you can see wolves, mountain lions, elk, bald eagles and more in just a short walk around the center.

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A few of my favorite (West Virginia) things

A couple weeks ago a friend and I were having a drink at a Charleston bar. We were minding our own business, when an argument between a couple other bar-goers caught our attention. An angry drunk man was arguing about West Virginia with a couple other people. Angry Drunk Man had apparently grown up here, moved away, and was visiting from Florida.

He was essentially berating the other people because they still lived here rather than move away. It was your typical West Virginia complaints: “there’re no jobs here,” “there’s nothing to do,” and the relatively new but well-established, “they poisoned our water.” He talked as if Florida were the freaking Promised Land and we were still wandering in the desert. It was kind of amusing until he turned his attention to us, and picked the same argument.

“You’re obviously educated people,” he said, after hearing what we do for a living and noting our choice of drinks. “Why do you stay here? Get out of this place.”

Whether or not you run into Angry Drunk Man (and I hope you don’t), we West Virginians are used to hearing negative things about our home.

In honor of West Virginia Day coming up next week (She’s turning the big 1-5-1) and to spite Angry Drunk Man, I’m compiling a list of the best things about West Virginia. I’d like to hear from you. Whether you’re a lifelong resident,  you moved away years ago, or you’re new to the Mountain State, what do you love about West Virginia?

You can leave them in the comment section, on Facebook, or email them to lorithebrave@gmail.com. I’ll post the responses Friday, June 20th.

The new ride (and project)

This weekend was the annual community-wide yard sale in my neighborhood. I’ve lived here almost three years but for some reason I had never gone.  It’s a big to-do,  and more than anything it was a reminder of what I love about living in Charleston. There were more people milling around my neighborhood than I’ve ever seen. Yard sale shopping is fun but the best part was being out in the community and talking to my neighbors.

I was looking for bicycle stuff — a basket, headlights, etc. — but I ended up buying a bike.

A man was selling a bunch of these old, vintage bikes and I got the last one. The rest he sold to some collector.

Roadmaster Discoverer

Roadmaster Discoverer

It’s a Roadmaster Discoverer. The only thing I know about them is what I found on the Wikipedia page. It seems to be in OK shape. I’m looking forward to restoring it. The tires have dry rot and will need to be replaced. I’m also gonna try to take the rust off of it.

If you know anything about the bikes, or restoring old bikes, let me know. I’m open to suggestions (read: I don’t know what I’m doing).