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Visiting the Balli Sisters of Helvetia

By Alan Byer

Balli sisters
Three Balli sisters posed for this photograph in 1998 in the kitchen of the Balli home.
From the left are Martha Balli Jones, Anna Balli, and Freda Balli.
Freda’s twin sister, Gertrude, passed away the previous year and is commemorated here by the empty chair. Photograph by Samanda Dorger.

One Saturday in October 2000, my wife, Ginny, and I drove through the high mountains of Randolph County to visit our old friends the Balli sisters. I had been stopping in and seeing these Helvetia natives for more than 30 years, buying their homemade Swiss cheese, quilts, and other goods, and helping them with farm chores when needed.

As we neared the house, we noticed a red pickup truck parked in the drive, its bed filled with boxes and furniture. It turns out we had stumbled upon a momentous event: Anna and Freda, the last two of three Balli sisters who had lived there nearly all of their lives, were moving. The next day, for the first time in over a century, the house John Balli built with his own hands would be empty.

John (Johann) Balli’s family had emigrated from Switzerland to Tuscarawas County, Ohio, in 1870 and then moved to Helvetia in 1875. Helvetia had been settled about a decade earlier by Swiss immigrants, lured by claims that the land and climate were almost identical to that of Switzerland. [See “Ella Betler Remembers Helvetia,” by David Sutton; April-June 1980.]

When he was in his early 20’s, John purchased some 200 mountaintop acres about six miles west of Pickens, a thriving sawmill town five miles south of Helvetia. He immediately started construction of a large, wood-framed house at the highest point on his acreage. When the house was completed, he traveled across the mountain to visit his neighbors, the Hellers, and volunteered to help them plant that year’s crops. Though we can’t be certain of his real motives, John was soon working the plow while the Hellers’ daughter, Hulda, drove the team. Before long, John and Hulda were man and wife. They set up housekeeping in the new house on what became known as Balli Ridge.

The couple created a prosperous farm in the Swiss tradition and eventually raised eight children: seven girls and a boy. Among other talents, they brought with them the knowledge and skills needed to make a unique and especially fine form of Swiss cheese. They frequently bartered or sold four-to-five pound rectangular loaves of this cheese for those things they couldn’t grow, raise, or make themselves. [See “Bärg Käss: Cheesemaking Among the West Virginia Swiss,” by Bruce Betler; Spring 1994.]

The Balli children completed their educations at schools in Webster Springs, Buckhannon, and Elkins; only the twins, Freda and Gertrude, returned to the farm. After John died in 1957, the twins stayed on to farm the 200 acres themselves. They continued to make and sell the highly prized Swiss cheese, along with fresh-churned butter, eggs, nut kernels, and other hard-to-find seasonal delicacies. Older sister Anna had been teaching in Diana, and, when she retired in the early 1960’s, she returned to Balli Ridge to help Freda and Gertrude on the farm.

I first met Freda, Gertrude, and Anna in 1965, when my family spent a weekend at Holly River State Park, which surrounds the Balli farm on three sides. The park superintendent recommended that we visit the sisters, so we drove up the winding road one beautiful fall Saturday morning. What a revelation!

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal