Helper is becoming an artists’ spot, as newcomers and lifelong residents enjoy the small-town ‘slowness’
(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Helper First Fridays draws people to historic Main Street on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019, for the monthly gallery stroll where the small town has been discovered by a variety of artists and dreamers seeking to escape the hustle of the Wasatch Front, lured by cheap real estate prices. Helper today resembles Park City in the late 1960s. Some aging, empty buildings remain, but newcomers joining natives are slowly reinventing the little town of just over 2,000 residents as an artist colony and tourist destination.
By Tom Wharton | Special to The Tribune
| Aug. 11, 2019, 12:00 p.m.
| Updated: 10:56 p.m.
Helper • Drivers headed down U.S. 6 on the way to the red rocks of Moab, Arches and Canyonlands might zip past this Carbon County town, tucked behind trees along the Price River, and not notice it.
A few years ago, the town itself seemed destined for ghost-town status. Most of Main Street’s buildings were empty; some were in serious danger of falling down. The notoriously boom-and-bust economy of mining and railroads that fueled Helper in the 19th century was busted in a big way.
Now, much as Park City transformed from a mining town to a ski destination in the 1960s, Helper’s 2,000-plus residents are slowly reinventing the little town into an artist colony and tourist destination.
(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kids play on historic Main Street in Helper, Utah during a recent warm summer night known as Helper First Fridays. The gallery stroll night draws visitors the first Friday of every month that has seen a resurgence with artists joining natives, slowly reinventing the little town of just over 2,000 residents as an artist colony and tourist destination.
“It feels like the quintessential small town,” said Malarie Matsuda, an elementary school teacher, mother of two and city council member.
Matsuda is one of many volunteers spearheading Helper’s revival, through grant writing, volunteering and simple hard work.
“Everybody has their part to play,” Matsuda said. “This is a community that comes together and gets things done. We have an authentic-feeling small town you can’t replicate. Within that, we have world-class art, stunning views of Steamboat Mountain, clean air and a river.”
‘The slowness of being’
The rebuilding is being done by lifelong Helper residents and recent transplants, artists and dreamers who, seeking to escape the hustle of the Wasatch Front, are lured by ridiculously cheap real estate prices.
“We just fell in love with the beauty, the people and the opportunity to make a difference in a small community,” said Roy Jespersen, who moved to town with his architect wife, Anne, and launched The Helper Project, a nonprofit that supports the town’s revitalization, beautification and cultural connections.
The project holds a curated art exhibition as an annual fundraiser, with 30% of the proceeds helping the town and 70% going back to the artists. The project uses its share to build small but important amenities, such as decorative trash cans on Main Street and dog-waste stations on the Price River parkway.
The Jespersens did their part to rebuild. They bought an old building on Main Street and renovated it into a high-end art studio in front and a stunning home in the back.
Anne Jespersen was born and raised in Utah, and her parents worked in the oil, gas and coal business. “Dad took us to every nook and cranny in Utah,” Anne Jespersen said. “When I was really young, I wanted to paint. There is nothing more inspiring than a Utah landscape. I grew up in Bountiful and wanted to live in a rural town. I enjoy the slowness of being.”
Gary DeVincent, a collector of motorcycles and old trucks, moved from American Fork. He rebuilt the vintage Sinclair and Conoco gas stations that bookend Helper, turning one into a beautiful Airbnb.
DeVincent also restored the crumbling Lincoln Hotel — a building that, like many on Helper’s Main Street, was once a brothel.
Now the hotel’s main floor is filled with old metal signs, gas pumps and DeVincent’s motorcycle collection — some fully restored, others only partially rebuilt. Upstairs, four renovated apartments are available for Airbnb rental. He has plans to put a hot dog stand on the patio.
“I was coming through Utah while zigzagging across the country,” DeVincent recalled. “I wanted a drink, went to a bar and met a bunch of people that night. I became enamored with the West. It was what you would see on television. I came to Helper three years ago. It’s everything you should want wrapped up into once place.”
Artist Steve Adams, from Mapleton, discovered Helper when he was golfing at the Carbon Country Club, a scenic — and public — golf course south of town. Adams bought the J.C. Penney store, an exact replica of the original store James Cash Penney opened in Kemmerer, Wyo., in 1902. Adams built an art studio on the main floor, and a home on the mezzanine.
Cindy and Tom Lund moved from Sandy and built an RV park, with modern cabins and a huge barn, on the south end of town. They also restored a Main Street building into a copy center that doubles as a rentable office and conference space.
The changes aren’t just being done by transplants.
Longtime resident Cindi Curry, who owns Balance Rock Eatery & Pub — the town’s gathering place — donated and maintains flower boxes that line Main Street.
Dave Dornan, an artist and retired instructor at the University of Utah, opened an art school, and some of his students have bought studio space along Main Street.
“Living in a small community like Helper, at least for me, is that there are very few distractions here. It is very simple to get things done,” Dornan said in a 2016 promotional video for the town. “An artist, I think, in order to become significant, really kind of needs to get to know themselves, more than anything. And this is a good place for it.”
Artist Tom Williams has lived in Helper for 25 years, moving there from West Virginia, where he worked as a coal miner until he was injured on the job. Now, he and Dave Johnsen put artwork in empty buildings, to give the town a feel of being somewhat alive.
Fuzzy Nance, a longtime trail guru, recently opened Book Cliffs Adventures, a bicycle shop that offers rentals, sales, trail information, guided tours and river trips. Nance hopes to build a following taking people around to the scenic little towns, canyons and Native American rock writing that surround Helper.
Helper First Fridays
The monthly Helper First Fridays gallery stroll.
Where • Main Street, Helper
When • The first Friday of the month, from 6 to 9 p.m. The next one will be on Sept. 6.
Admission • Free
Helper then and now
Mike James, a Helper native who owns Val’s Vintage antique store on the north end of town, sells such Carbon County memorabilia as gas pumps and nearly-100-year-old bottles from local soda-bottling shops.
James remembers what the town used to have. Back in the day, the J.C. Penney store was thriving. So were the brothels. There also were two furniture stores, seven grocery stores, two barber shops, two movie theaters, six gas stations, three ice skating ponds and an appliance shop.
In the late 1800s, mining and the railroad — the town got its name from the helper engine that pushed trains up nearby Price Canyon — fueled Helper’s economy, and brought workers of 27 nationalities to live there. The ethnic diversity of the area is still a source of pride among locals.
Today, Helper boasts small, well-kept homes, a historic post office and a gigantic miner statue standing guard at the south end of town.
The local baseball park, a town landmark since the 1920s, brings in teams for summer tournaments, and has an adjoining public swimming pool. And the train still rumbles through town, lending some small-town authenticity.
The town’s brochure lists 58 businesses or attractions, some open and others being created. These include: the eclectic Western Mining & Railroad Museum, which celebrates Carbon County’s unique history; the Depression-era Civic Auditorium; an Amtrak station; the Giglotti Pond urban fishery; the city offices, housed in a former bank building and featuring a neon sign of a train; and the Price River Parkway with trails and a beach.
The town aims to draw tourists with special events, such as gallery strolls on the first Friday of the month and the Helper Arts, Music and Film Festival, set for Aug. 16-18. Other annual events include a Father’s Day weekend car show in June, the Lunatic Triathlon during the August full moon (this year, it was on Aug. 9), the Butch Cassidy Film Festival in February, and the official Utah Christmas Town celebration in November and December.
Near Helper, tourists can enjoy the USU Eastern Prehistoric Museum in Price, fishing and boating at Scofield, and interesting old mining towns like Spring Glen, Kenilworth, Wellington, East Carbon and Carbonville.
Helper has some work to do to become a full-scale tourist destination. Besides the Lunds’ RV park and some recently added Airbnb rentals, Helper is lacking in overnight accommodations. The town has three restaurants: Bird’s Balance Rock Eatery, a sandwich shop that closes at 6 p.m., and a small diner in a bowling alley. Stores can have sporadic hours, because of lack of business.
“One thing we don’t have is stuff to keep people here awhile,” James said. “You go to Moab and Park City and there are plenty of things to do at 9 p.m. People have to stay open for people to want to come here. But we are getting there slowly.”
Helper Arts, Music and Film Festival
The 25th annual Helper Arts, Music and Film Festival, featuring fine arts and crafts, a children’s art yard, custom car show, the Grassroots Shakespeare Company, a food court, the “Helper Idol” competition, and a full lineup of musical acts.