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Hamlet in W. Va. re-creates founders' traditions

HELVETIA, W.Va. — Wizards, goblins and talking animals will soon take over the streets of this tiny Appalachian town of 25 as it launches its own version of Mardi Gras called Fasnacht — a tradition begun by Swiss founders almost 150 years ago.

The local population will increase about six times March 1, as visitors from as far away as Washington, D.C., join the candlelit costume parade and dance well into the night to the music of the fiddle, banjo and mandolin.

"That's the most fun I've ever had as an adult," said David Marks, 44, of Clarksburg. He attended his first Fasnacht last year with a group of about 10 people organized by Claudene Cross from the regulars at her pub, The Ordinary, in Clarksburg.

"Even though it's supposed to be a Swiss tradition, I think you see the hill life at its best," said Cross, 67. "They welcomed us."

This year Cross's group will fill one of the two inns in town — both of which are usually booked at least a year in advance for Fasnacht weekend.

But Helvetians say out-of-towners need not worry about where to lay their head. Residents will find a spot for the stranded traveler in the community hall or their own homes, said Helvetia native Sandy Burky, 44.

The holiday, which in Switzerland dates back at least to the 1300s, is traditionally the last big party before the deprivations of Lent. It also heralds the coming of spring.

And in a mountain town that hasn't seen the ground since the beginning of January, resident Eleanor Mailloux voices the sentiments of many toward winter: "Let's get rid of it."

But a journey to Helvetia, loved both for its charm and remoteness, is not for the faint of heart.

For the last 11 miles, the black ribbon of snow-lined Tarmac dives and twists past forests of ice-covered trees and rhododendron. When the wilderness gives way to a view of the town, it seems as if the Emerald City itself has appeared.

At the center of the town is Mailloux's Swiss restaurant, The Hutte, the anchor and unofficial meeting place of the community.

As Mailloux and residents Burky and Bruce Betler talked about the town and its traditions, the ghoulish, empty-eyed faces of Mailloux's old Fasnacht masks watched from the adjoining room.

Helvetia, was settled in 1869 by a group of German-speaking Roman Catholic and Protestant Swiss from Brooklyn, N.Y.

With too few of each denomination to hold separate festivals, said Mailloux, the settlers combined pre-Lenten Catholic celebrations and the Protestant tradition of Winterfest to form the distinct local incarnation of Fasnacht.

Literally translating to Fast Night, Fasnacht falls each year in Helvetia on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday.

It begins with cooking of traditional pastries, such as Hozablatz and rosettes, and doughnuts deep-fried in the lard forbidden during the 40 days of Lent.

After filling up on sweets, everyone gathers in their handmade costumes and parades with paper lanterns to the local hall where revelers dance and drink beer under a 7-foot effigy of Old Man Winter dangling from the ceiling. Store-bought costumes that can take weeks to create aren't an option.

During the evening the costumes are judged and awards given out based on categories created on the spot, said Betler, 41. The prize is a little Swiss flag.

Burky said Fasnacht did not become popular with outsiders until PBS aired a documentary about Helvetia a decade ago. She said the new visitors have nicely upped the ante on costume creativity and also brought positive attention to the remote village.