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Swiss Family Balli: The Movie

By Alan Byer

The stunning Balli family farm, Balli Ridge, Webster County. Photo by Janet Cowger-Fliegel.

The Summer 2010 issue of GOLDENSEAL featured an article about the three Balli sisters of northern Webster County [See “Visiting the Balli Sisters of Helvetia” by Alan Byer]. A new documentary film highlights the story of these fascinating women and the Balli legacy. –ed.

John (Johann) Balli was born April 28, 1872, in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. His parents, Christian and Mary Balli, had emigrated from Switzerland two years earlier, in 1870, and would move to the booming mill town of Pickens, Randolph County, when he was three years old, in 1875. Just a few years before that, a group of Swiss and German families had settled in the town of Helvetia—about five miles from Pickens. We can only surmise that Christian and Mary wanted to be close, but not too close, to their fellow country men and women.

In the 1890s, their son John purchased 100 acres about six miles west of Pickens and built a house on what is known today as Balli Ridge. He then courted and married Hulda Heller, the Swiss-born daughter of neighbors. Today, the Heller farm is preserved as part of Holly River State Park.

Together, the couple raised seven girls and one boy on their remote mountain farm. All eight would go on to complete their high school educations, four took college courses, three received degrees, four married and moved away, and two became parents. When John, by then a widower, died in 1957, two of his children, twins Gertrude and Freda Balli, took over the farm. In 1965, older sister, Anna Balli, retired from her teaching job in Webster County to join them. In the years that followed, the three Balli sisters farmed and produced the family’s unique form of Swiss cheese. Eventually, they became celebrities, featured in a variety of publications, including National Geographic magazine and in a documentary film, Helvetia: The Swiss of West Virginia, produced by Gerald Milnes of the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins.

Nothing and no one last forever. John and Hulda’s children departed this life one by one. Of the three sisters still at the farm, Gertrude passed on first, and in 2000, Anna and Freda moved off the mountain to live with their eldest sister Martha and her husband Louie Jones. For the first time in more than a century, the house on Balli Ridge stood empty. Freda died in 2002, and Anna passed on in 2003. After Martha’s death in 2006, just a few days after her 101st birthday, niece Rose Ann Cowger, her husband Denzil, their daughter Janet Fliegel, Rose Ann’s sister Hilda Burroughs, and Hilda’s husband Jack joined together to buy the farm. They now rent it out by the week.

Enter Brad Rice. In 2008, Brad, an award-winning photojournalist for WCHS/WVAH Television in Charleston and Huntington, was in Webster County, filming a segment about the Cowgers’ business, Rose Ann’s Woven Goods, for his Traveling West Virginia series. Rose Ann recommended that Brad visit her family farm on Balli Ridge. He drove up to the ridge, and, in his words, was “instantly smitten.”

Brad did a Traveling West Virginia segment about the Balli Ridge farm in 2009. Rose Ann’s daughter Janet Cowger Fliegel drove over from Cincinnati to help. During the interview, Rose Ann introduced Brad to the many boxes of photos, journals, diaries, and records containing the Ballis’ history. He knew instinctively he had a potential documentary on his hands. Rose Ann didn’t think anyone would be interested; however, the seed had been planted. Brad and Janet kept in touch over the next two years. In early 2011, Rose Ann gave the go-ahead to start the project and agreed to direct the entire enterprise.

Early on, Janet and Rose Ann decided all eight Balli siblings should receive equal coverage to tell the rest of the story. They sat down with the archived records and telephone books to compile a list of potential interview subjects. Janet and Rose Ann came up with a script framework: an introduction; several chapters, each of which would feature one or more of the Balli siblings; and a conclusion. At first, they referred to the project as Words on the Wind, but, when Janet’s niece Chloe Henline suggested Swiss Family Balli, they knew they had a title.

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