During your trip to Helen, Georgia, be sure to stop by the Sautee Nacoochee Center to find out why history lovers and art aficionados are raving about this hidden gem.
It’s hard to miss the distinctive Indian burial mound on your way into Helen. Located at the corner of Helen Highway and the Unicoi Turnpike (Highway 17), the mound is topped with a red and white gazebo, a stark contrast to the green fields surrounding it. Perched on a grassy plateau with grazing cows meandering the pastures, the site is an iconic reminder that the roots of the area aren’t German, but of native peoples from centuries ago.
These indigenous people and other groups who transformed this area (such as the gold miners and potters) are exactly why the Sautee Nacoochee Community Association was formed. In the late 1970s, a group of concerned citizens joined together with the mission to protect and preserve the beauty and history of the Sautee and Nacoochee Valleys. Throughout the 1980s, the group worked to add both the Nacoochee and Sautee Valleys to the National Register of Historic places in Georgia.
The group later founded the non-profit Sautee Nacoochee Community Association, then purchased the Nacoochee School campus situated between the Nacoochee and Sautee Valleys and the result is what we see today, the Sautee Nacoochee Cultural Center. This community cultural Center is flourishing under the guidance of a mission that isn’t that different from the association’s mission more than 40 years ago: We value and nurture individual creativity, along with the cultural, historic and environmental resources of the Sautee and Nacoochee Valleys and the surrounding areas.
Created for the people, by the people, the 8.5-acre Sautee Nacoochee Center campus includes an 8,000-square-foot schoolhouse from 1928, housing a 98-seat theater, along with studio space and art and history galleries. The campus also features a community hall with an industrial kitchen and a historic gymnasium.
Something for Everyone
Whether you’re a visitor to Helen or a local to the area, the Sautee Nacoochee Center has something to offer everyone. The campus is open 7 days a week with a year-round schedule that includes concerts, performances, dances and art exhibitions that display local artists’ work.
“The Sautee Nacoochee Center is one of the attractions that composes the spokes in the wheel around Helen, which is our hub,” says Patrick Brennan, Executive Director of the Center. “We provide a unique experience that relates the untold history of the region though our garden tours, gallery shows, stage performances and interactive exhibits in the Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia and the Sautee Nacoochee History Museum.”
The Center holds nearly 200 events a year through thematic and informal tours, meetings, performances, workshops and festivals. Check out the Center’s calendar and Facebook page for events happening during your visit to Helen.
The campus includes a folk pottery museum, history museum, blacksmith forge, heritage cabin and garden, historic gym, community hall, playground, galleries and indoor and outdoor theaters. Visitors often spend up to three hours exploring all the property has to offer.
There’s Also an App for That
To expand its reach and make learning relevant in today’s technology-focused world, the Sautee Nacoochee Center launched a free smartphone app that is applicable for all ages. The Heart & Heritage of the Northeast Georgia Mountains app offers self-guided driving tours of the region, with 16 notable stopping points along the way and interesting historical information about each landmark and landscape. The app also includes a carousel of images featuring the region’s landscapes, culture and history, which is read to visitors by a third-generation settler, as well as a list of local attractions, potteries and an up-to-date calendar of events.
Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia
In 2006, the Swanson family founded the Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia, which is now a cornerstone of the Sautee Nacoochee Center campus. Dean and Kay Swanson funded the award-winning museum, which also houses their extensive personal collection of Georgia folk pottery. Even the architecture of the museum itself helps to bring folk pottery to life. The building’s glass walls, steeply sloping roof lines, shade porches and pine wood work to mimic the look and feel of an open pottery shed.
The Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia is one of a few in the world to focus exclusively on folk pottery. The exhibits trace 200 years of the region’s folk pottery history, showcasing the stories of potters who used clay and water to create once essential household items.
Visitors can learn how clay was dug, shaped on a treadle wheel and finished with a glaze. At the museum, catch a 9-minute video of the process of pottery making by the local Meaders family.
Learn about the laborious method of firing the pottery kiln. And be sure to check out the dioramas that show how pottery was used in everyday life from the mid-1800s through early-1900s, as stoneware during this time was essential for preserving and storing food and liquids until refrigeration was commonplace.
The Folk Pottery Museum illustrates how the folk pottery tradition has evolved and is now carried on by contemporary potters, and how pottery is now collected as fascinating folk art.
If you’re visiting Helen on a weekend, you’re in luck. You can catch a free Discovery Tour at the Sautee Nacoochee Center on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays at 1 p.m. The family-friendly tour begins in the Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia and guides you through a 45-minute tour of the museum. The informal style discussion is designed to unearth the unique talents of artists from the Appalachian Foothills of Georgia and even highlights the reproduction of a working potter’s shop.
After that, the tour becomes self-guided and moves to the Art Gallery Shops to view a variety of original, one-of-a-kind art by more than 200 local artists. Stroll through the hallways of the 1928 Nacoochee School Building to check out the current juried show displayed on the walls.
Sautee Nacoochee Center History Museum
From Cherokee heritage to gold strikes to the introduction of railroads to the infiltration of the timber industry, the Sautee Nacoochee History Museum showcases it all. The museum tells a complete story of the region from the earliest settlers to the present.
If you love artifacts, maps and old letters and photos, you’ll savor your visit to the Sautee Nacoochee History Museum. The museum is the only attraction in the area with artifacts from the legendary Indian mound. And be sure to check out the half-ton piece of mica schist used by Native Americans as a grinding stone. These authentic artifacts and more reveal what objects were actually used in everyday life in the Sautee and Nacoochee valleys. Visitors can also experience some of these objects hands-on, which helps to imagine the past in a way that brings history to life.
Additionally, the museum’s abundance of maps, informative articles and historic letters and photographs offer a glimpse into the diverse and colorful history of the Sautee and Nacoochee valleys through the years.
As you browse through the museum, learn about the significance of the crossroads of the Sautee and Nacoochee valleys and how that location influenced the cultural, economic, geographic and environmental history of the area.
Art Gallery Shops
When it comes to visual arts, the Sautee Nacoochee Center has much to offer for visiting art aficionados. The Center’s art galleries host seven themed art shows each year, refreshing with new art roughly every 6 weeks. The main exhibition rooms are reserved for the nearly 200 locally juried artists who live within a 50-mile radius of the Center. The Center also features out-of-area invitational artists in the hallway gallery exhibition area.
A wide variety of art is always on display at the Sautee Nacoochee Center galleries, including paintings, fine art photography, pottery, wood turned art and wood sculpture, fiber art, glass, metal work, mosaics and ceramics, basketry, gourds, one-of-a-kind jewelry creations and paper art.
African American Heritage Site
Surrounded by locally collected antebellum artifacts, this restored Nacoochee slave cabin (built around 1850) acts as an educational tool to highlight the story of African American life from 1822 to 1865. The extensive signage at the site tells stories of daily life, emancipation and local history. Nearby, a blacksmith’s shop built onsite in 2014 also tells the region’s history in many ways.
To give a deeper look into local African American heritage, the Center offers a Heritage Days event on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Stop by to learn about nineteenth and early twentieth century life through demonstration and conversation with historic interpreters. A docent welcomes visitors to the cabin while a demonstrating blacksmith shows how functional and decorative tools were created in the region.
Thanks to a large outdoor stage and a 95-seat indoor theater, the Sautee Nacoochee Center is able to offer an array of performing arts programs for both visitors to Helen and locals. The Center’s strong performing arts schedule offers a billboard of both established visiting talent as well as local and regional musicians that present the best in blues, jazz, local and faraway folk, pop and even classical performances.
Cast by local residents, other on-stage productions include drama, musical theater, traditional and modern ballet, stand up comedy and children’s theater—with an open welcome for visitors to Helen to attend.
Check the Center’s Facebook page for timely information on upcoming events such as the Bluegrass on the Green in June, Folk Pottery Show & Arts Festival in September and WinterFest Arts Tour in February.
Kid Activities at SNCA
Though the idea of a Center filled with museums may scare off some families, to the contrary, the Sautee Nacoochee Center welcomes visitors of all ages. In fact, staff even created a scavenger hunt for kids to make learning about history and art more interactive. Through their own active discovery, children learn about the stories of the Sautee and Nacoochee Valleys as told through the Sautee Nacoochee Center buildings and grounds.
With a hands-on (feet always moving) learning approach, kids are encouraged to ring the old Nacoochee school bell, check out the books from the FreeLittleLibrary, search for clues near the African American Heritage Site and locate the potter’s wheel within the pottery museum. After making the 10 scavenger hunt stops and answering the clues, kids earn a prize for completion.
Apart from the scavenger hunt, there is much to explore on the 8.5-acre campus, which is open from dawn until dusk. Kids will love to stretch their legs on the gentle walking trail that makes up a ½-mile loop.
But the first thing they will notice when you pull into the Center’s parking lot is the large playground. Nearby is a large lawn in front of the outdoor stage, which houses outdoor shows that kids will love. Pack a picnic to enjoy at one of the outside tables and check out the plants in the Native Peace Garden on the property.
Don’t be surprised if your kids are fascinated by some of the historical aspects highlighted at the Center. Let your kids get an up-close look at the outdoor artifacts at the African American Heritage Site, exploring the millstone, cooling vat and the small slave garden nearby.
And most kids are mesmerized by the faces jug exhibit on display in the pottery museum. Let this unique pottery work be a starting point for deeper conversation about the evolution of pottery.
Nearby Places to Visit
In the 5 minutes that it takes you to drive from downtown Helen to the Sautee Nacoochee Center, you’ll pass several points of interest that are worth stopping at after your visit.
While you’re in downtown Sautee, be sure to stop by the Old Sautee Store, well known for its delicious cheese and country store vibe, and The Lavender Cottage & Garden, both of which help to define this unique area.
If you need a bite to eat, try:
- Sweetwater Coffeehouse for organic, fair trade coffee and delicious pastries and quiches (The Willows Pottery is also sold here)
- The Old Sautee Market for a lunch of homemade soup and handcrafted deli sandwiches with fresh baked bread
- Bernie’s Restaurant at the Nacoochee Valley Guest House for a culinary dinner with local wines
If you need a place to stay, Lucille’s Mountain Top Inn and The Stovall House Inn and Events are just over a mile from the Center. The short and sweet but historic Stovall Mill Covered Bridge is also nearby and a great place to picnic.
Have you visited the Sautee Nacoochee Center?