Deep within the mountains of central West Virginia, is a tiny village called Helvetia. It was originally founded by Swiss settlers in the mid-1800s, as they felt the steep mountains, thick forests, winding river, all resembled their homeland.
Today the town of about 50 people is a melting pot of Appalachian, Swiss culture. There is even a swiss restaurant called — the Hütte. It celebrated its 50th anniversary two years ago and is featured in an upcoming documentary.
The Hütte is located at the one intersection in Helvetia inside a golden Swiss-Alpine chalet house. Red and white Swiss flags adorn the outside.
A tinkling bell on the worn wooden front door, announces a new customer’s presence.
Inside it is a little darker and a little warmer. It feels like a cozy cottage. It is structured like a house — but each room is a unique eating area. Clara Lehman and husband Jonathan Lacocque live in Helvetia and have recently completed a documentary about the town.
“A lot of people say coming to the Hütte is like eating at grandma’s house,” Jonathan said. “And I think this is part of that reason, it’s very homey. You’ve got pictures on the wall of grandkids and staff.”
“It’s grandma’s house but different too,” Clara said.
It is different because there are 100-year-old Swiss artifacts on the walls and shelves — old family photos of the original Swiss immigrants, an old crank phone hangs on the wall, literally hundreds of books in both English and Swiss-German and a long wooden alpenhorn. It looks like a 10-foot long trumpet; historically the instrument was used by Swiss shepherds in the Alps.
There is a feeling that you are no longer in West Virginia, until a roaring logging truck drives by — a reminder it is still West Virginia.
The heart of the restaurant, and arguably the town, is the kitchen. A lot of the staff have been working there for decades.
Clara said each day they prep a slew of foods — a blend of Appalachian and Swiss dishes, and a few recipes that are unique to this restaurant. Things like sausage bratwurst, sauerbraten, curry chicken, potatoes and green beans.
On this day, Anita Stitt, one of the cooks, was prepping food and waiting for a meat delivery. The nearest grocery store is about an hour drive away.
“Well right now I’m going to have a little bite to eat. I’m going to have some sausage with salad dressing. Doesn’t that sound good? Then I’m waiting for the meat to come in,” she said.
The sausage sandwich is a Hütte special inspired by Helvetia’s original Swiss families. It is ground pork shoulder that is handmade weekly — seasoned with 12 spices and baked in tomato and red wine sauce.
Almost all the meals at the Hütte are served with warm homemade applesauce. It is spiced and sweetened perfectly, leaving a lasting impression. Clara said one of the secrets is very finely sliced lemon rind.
Many of the people working here were born in West Virginia, Clara said, but their ancestors, much like her own, were Swiss immigrants.
“I actually think that the restaurants even better because of the Appalachian aspect. It’s not kitschy European, it’s truthful to this region,” she said.
Iron Lady Of Helvetia
The reason the town of Helvetia and the Hütte are the way they are today is largely due to Eleanor Mailloux, Clara’s grandmother. Eleanor was born in Virginia but grew up in Helvetia. She had a love for both Appalachian and Swiss cultures. She is remembered as a quirky, hardworking woman who was also elegant and loved dresses and jewelry.
Eleanor channeled her passion through the Hutte, which she co-founded over 50 years ago.
She passed away in 2011 at 93. Jonathan and Clara are releasing a documentary this year that they produced on Eleanor’s impact on Helvetia.
“The Hütte is the heart of the town,” Eleanor said in the documentary. “We have people who come in, they don’t feel good, they want to tell us their sad story or they tell us their dreams. It’s much more than a place to eat.”
Eleanor pronounced the name, “Hut-ee,” which is a hold off from the Swiss-German language that was regularly spoken in Helvetia. These days, Clara said local accents have morphed the common pronunciation into “Hut-tay.”
To this day the Hütte’s wooden floor has a deep sheen from being waxed daily.
On the tables are freshly cut flowers arranged just right, a daily ritual Eleanor started.
The Hütte has continued on without Eleanor physically there, but she is certainly present in spirit. Clara reads an award hanging on the wall of the Hütte. It was presented to Eleanor in 2006.
“The Iron Lady of Helvetia. The lady through years of sacrifice and struggle never lost faith in her beloved Helvetia,” it states. “Those of us who have been a part of her dream are forever grateful for what she has built. May her dream continue to be enriched and nourished for all the years to come.”
The Hütte and all its material culture, as well as Eleanor Mailloux’s legacy, will be on display in the upcoming documentary ‘Born In A Ballroom.’ It is slated for screenings across West Virginia throughout the year.
This story was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting. It is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture