I was raised in a town the size of a postage stamp. It wasn’t even a town but a township. Webster defines township “an organized subdivision of a county” Brownhelm Township is anything but unorganized. This small farming community, located 30 miles west of Cleveland and a skipping stone’s throw from the shore of Lake Erie, is one of the most organized communities in America even though you won’t find it in the Rand McNally Road Atlas.
During the Great Depression the leaders of this agricultural hamlet decided to get together and provide for everyone in the village who were suffering due to the major financial downturn that affected the entire world like an economic El Niño. Hopelessness swept through America with the force of a tsunami drowning people in a sea of despair. Unemployment soared and bread lines were the norm from one horse towns to every bustling metropolis. The economic catastrophe seeped into every nook and cranny from the Atlantic to the Pacific and all points in between with no relief in sight. With growing insecurity and suicide rates steadily increasing prospects for financial recovery were utterly bleak, as black as death itself.
In 1931, Reverend Albrecht of the Brownhelm Congregational Church was moved after being told candidly by a little girl that some families in Brownhelm would have no Christmas at all. No matter how bad things were, he reasoned, tomorrow will bring hope and promise for renewal. He organized the town folk, gathering them together to repair donated second-hand toys for children. They produced fresh baked goods and included winter fruits and preserves in gift baskets. On Christmas Eve, the men of Brownhelm donned the traditional St. Nick attire, and by car, truck, tractor and horse and buggy they were transported to all of the 30 homes in the 11.7-mile township. In the still twilight of the Midwestern chill, Santa Claus arrived. Not with reindeer but on a John Deere. He gleefully went door to door spreading cheer, hope, substance and sustenance and, in the true sense of Christmas, the art of giving, lovingly and unconditionally.
The actions of these empathetic souls have spawned a neighborhood tradition that created a special community. These spirited salt of the earth citizens who took the initiative during the Great Depression started a holiday institution now entering its 87th year. The heartwarming story was featured on the CBS evening news with Dan Rather in 1981 on the golden anniversary of this extraordinary small-town event. Our resiliency to prevail against all odds, the inner strength to overcome adversity, to adapt and overcome, our desire to conquer all obstacles in our path and triumphantly hurdle those challenges with the grace and power of Jackie Joyner Kersee. That is something that exists not only in the citizens of Brownhelm but in each and every one of us. It is intestinal fortitude, moxie, mental toughness, and the pioneering spirit that built America! That indescribable specialness, that inexplicable intangible, is what makes America great, and, the envy of every other nation in the global village.
This year Santa will visit 900 homes in Brownhelm. There are 18 routes, hence 18 Santa’s, 18 drivers with 18 route chairmen and scores of dedicated everyday heroes ensuring a Merry Christmas to all. Santa continues to send Christmas cards every year to all the local men and women in uniform serving their country guaranteeing our freedom to continue this righteous endeavor. As a country bumpkin growing up in Brownhelm I believed in Santa Claus. After all he delivered the goods to my house every Christmas Eve. Since leaving my idyllic hometown 40 years ago having traveled the world experiencing cuisines and cultures offered by our nurturing Mother Earth, I still believe in Santa. Now more than ever. For I know on December 24th in Brownhelm at 2025 Sunnyside Rd. in the white colonial dream house my father built, Santa Claus will arrive to spread holiday cheer. Santa Claus is real, indubitably very real. All you have to do is believe. Keep the faith.
And finally, dare
Be not afraid only believe
I’m uncertain how this German classic cookie was introduced into my mom’s heavily loaded Italian repertoire. It was a holiday favorite and one Santa always received when visiting the Borsich family. When I was a kid I referred to it as a snowball cookie. It’s a lot easier to say than Pfeffernüsse. I love the snap of the warm spices, the heat of the peppercorn and the powdery sugar that lingers on your lips. For a little cookie, it packs a punch. This tasty treat transports me back to Brownhelm and the true meaning of Christmas.
1 ¼ cups powdered sugar
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup, (one stick) of sweet butter, room temperature
¾ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
¼ cup molasses
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Place the confectioners’ sugar in a brown paper bag.
In a medium bowl, combine all the dry ingredients, set aside.
Place butter brown sugar and molasses in a bowl of an electric mixer. Beat on medium speed until fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and continued to beat until fully incorporated. With mixer on low, add the flour mixture mixing until just combined. Scoop out dough in tablespoon amounts, roll into balls arrange them 1 ½ inches apart on a prepared baking sheet.
Bake about 15 minutes until the cookies are golden and firm to the touch with slight cracking. Rotate the sheets halfway through the cooking time. Transfer the sheets to a wire rack and cool slightly. While still warm and working in small batches place some cookies in the paper bag and shake gently until well coated removed from bag and let them cool completely on a wire rack once a have cool down completely store in an airtight container.
About the photograph, it was taken on Cooper Foster Park Road, Brownhelm, on Christmas Eve in 1940. The young girl is Dorothy Kneisel, age 8, along with her brothers, LeRoy, Don and Bob. Bob was my little league coach when I played for the Brownhelm Phillies. Dorothy married Doug Walker. They raised eight children, all D’s. Danny, David, Debby, Diane, Denise, Donna, Darlene, and Dawn. I knew Donna since age 5. We went to kindergarten together all the way through high school. This story, and the photograph are dear to my heart. That photo is timeless. It could have been taken in Ottawa, Okinawa, or Oslo. But it was taken in Ohio, in Brownhelm. Where Santa Claus visits every home, every year. This story, as tears of tradition trickle down my cheek, is dedicated to Mr. & Mrs. Walker, their eight children, Coach Kneisel, Brownhelm Santa, and all those who live in Brownhelm, past, present, and future generations who never stop believing. Brownhelm, Ohio, a tiny town with a ginormous heart. Just one of millions of reasons that makes America great!
Taste the Freedom