What's With the Odd European Replica Towns All Across the United States?

The climate in Southern California may be nothing like that of Denmark, but the town of Solvang doesn't seem bothered. George Rose/Getty Images The climate in Southern California may be nothing like that of Denmark, but the town of Solvang doesn't seem bothered. George Rose/Getty Images
The climate in Southern California may be nothing like that of Denmark, but the town of Solvang doesn't seem bothered. George Rose/Getty Images

It's safe to say that Atlanta is a fairly American place. It's the home of Coca-Cola, the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached, and the house where Margaret Mitchell wrote "Gone with the Wind." The city is both the gateway to the south and itself a big of hunk of Americana pie. Just a 90-minute drive north, in the Chattahoochee National Forest section of the Appalachians, sits another Georgia town teeming with a certain distinct national aesthetic. Helen, Georgia is more of a nod to the German Alps than a testament to red, white and blue, but it sprouted up as a result of a very American instinct: capitalism.

"We have basically no cultural authenticity," says Matt Gedney, the author of "The Story of Helen Georgia," a book chronicling the town's history. "When the thing was started, it was purely a marketing scheme."

OK, so a little Alpine town complete with pretzel shops, beer halls and blacksmiths didn't exactly rise from the Appalachians on the backs of Northern European immigrants who wanted to celebrate their old world heritage and culture. Instead it was a couple of local entrepreneurs and a creative sketch artist who dreamed up the village as a way to create some buzz and draw in some tourist dollars. Still, the faux-Bavarian village certainly looks like the real thing, thanks to a smartly appointed mountain aesthetic that was decades in the making. Annual German-inspired events like Oktoberfest and a European car show also help. Perhaps that's why hordes of visitors wander their way into White County each year for a little slice of Bavaria.

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The Washington town of Leavenworth takes architectural inspiration from Bavaria.
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And weirdly, Helen's not the only town in the United States that aims to recreate the Old Country. There are at least a handful of European replica towns spanning the United States, from Leavenworth, Washington's Bavarian vibe to Little Switzerland, North Carolina, well, Swiss Alpine aesthetic. Each has its own unique story, but all of them have been attracting tourists for decades.

They do all go for a nostalgic take on Northern European nations, perhaps because they're also located in mountainous areas, and also because of the timing of immigrant waves intersecting with a newfound love of travel in the 1950s thanks to America's car culture. (Who knows, decades in the future the U.S. may have replica rice paddies or desert settlements as other immigrant communities aim to make their mark on the tourism industry.)

Take Solvang, California, which draws inspiration from the North Sea nations. The Danish-inspired village and its assortment of windmills popped up near Southern California coast after three Danish teachers struck out to establish a community for their countrymen in 1911. They also created a folk school to teach area kids about reading, writing and arithmetic as well as the basics of Danish culture. Solvang remained fairly insulated until the 1940s, when the media began to take notice. In 1947, The Saturday Evening Post ran a feature boasting about the town's annual Danish Days celebration.

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The town of Solvang relies on its Danish theme to draw tourists.
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The Hamlet Inn, a hotel in Solvang, California, goes strong with the Danish theme.
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"People started coming, looking for that Danish culture," says Esther Jacobsen Bates, the executive director of Solvang's Elverhøj Museum in Solvang. "So the local businessmen decided to come together collectively and create this plan that the downtown area would have new buildings built in a Danish style and existing buildings would transition from Western to Danish fronts."

Like Helen, Solvang's provincial look may have been developed in response to business interests. But Bates says the town is still rooted in Danish culture. "The cultural links to Denmark remain very strong today," she says. That includes regular visits from Danish royalty and ambassadors, as well as a student exchange program and an annual Danish Days celebration. Wine lovers and cinephiles alike may recognize Solvang and the surrounding area as the setting for the 2004 Academy Award-winning film "Sideways."

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A 1995 cultural celebration in Frankenmuth, Michigan.
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Solvang's is a similar story to the one behind Frankenmuth, Michigan. Also known by locals as "Little Bavaria," a small batch of Lutheran missionaries from Germany established the town in 1844. The settlement served as a fairly insular community for German immigrants until after World War II, when interstate highways and the infrastructure boom made it easier to reach "The Muth" from Saginaw and Detroit. Today, the town welcomes about three million tourists per year to its German-style village. Frankenmuth's annual Bavarian Fest may be the biggest event on the local calendar, but like any self-respecting Alpine town, it also celebrates Oktoberfest each year. Expect lots and lots of pretzels, if not that many German accents.