Sugar And Flour From Wheeling Gaunt: A Yellow Springs Holiday Tradition
Stories mark this season, and that brings us to a Yellow Springs December story that many of us know.
Yellow Springs patron Wheeling Gaunt was born in 1812 on a tobacco plantation in Carrollton Kentucky. Enslaved by his father and stepmother, Gaunt bought his freedom and then his wife’s freedom with money earned polishing boots and selling apples, and by his industry and frugality, was at the time of his death, considered the wealthiest man of color in Ohio.
A few years before his death in May of 1894, Wheeling Gaunt gave about nine acres of land to the village of Yellow Springs. Attached to that donation was an unusual condition: that proceeds from that land be used to distribute flour each winter to the just and worthy widows of Yellow Springs.
The following Christmas, 23 widows received three sacks of flour each. In today’s measures, that’s about 75 pounds of flour, or enough for a loaf or two of bread every week for a year.
An article in the Yellow Springs Torch, on December 28th, 1894, said, “Many wealthy men have died in this community but none perhaps will be remembered so long and so gratefully as Mr. Gaunt.”
Today, the flour and sugar deliveries operation is coordinated by Ruthe Anne Lillich, Human Resource officer at the village.
"Each year in October [or] early November, I start going through the widows and widowers list that we have from last year," she says. "I start looking at the obituaries in the Yellow Springs News to see if any of the people listed have passed away in the past year or if there is in the obituary a spouse that’s been left behind."
Deliveries are done by the village maintenance crew, including electric and water distribution foreman Ben Sparks.
"We’ve got some of the same people that we do every year that we kinda know now."
But for some widowed villagers, the delivery can be bittersweet.
"We had a guy that was recently widowed. His wife had died two months previous to us delivering. And he was very angry,' says Sparks.
"Sometimes it’s a little too soon, and that’s a hard judgement call," says Ruthe Anne Lillich. "Some people appreciate it, they are in tears because it’s been a recent death, and others don’t want it this year and we understand that."
For villager Kathy Robertson, the experience has shifted over time, "The first couple of years it was hard because it just reminded me of the fact that I was a widow, so it was actually, you know, an emotional experience. But at some point that changed."
Like many of our widowed neighbors, Kathy now plans her holiday baking around the delivery of flour and sugar. For as Gaunt himself once said, "It’s not what you have but what you share."
"I usually have two or three grandchildren; we make sugar cutout cookies," says Kathy.
Villager Maureen Redman also uses the flour and sugar to bake cookies, "All kinds. Springerly, and candy canes. Gingerbread men. We’re big on gingerbread men. Because we decorate the tree with them and hope the animals don’t eat them."
"I love to make peppernuts. The old German Mennonite style," says Lynn McCown. "But they take a hundred years and so I only do it at Christmas when I can rope other people into helping. One of my best friends was Lenore, an elderly German lady, and Lenore was always like, ‘I would never take that. That would look like I didn’t have any money.’ And I was like, ‘no, I think that would look like you respect and appreciate Mr. Gaunt.' So then she would come and do cookies with me. She would help with it but she would never take the flour and sugar."
Several Yellow Springs organizations, including the Arts Council, the Historical Society and the 365 Project, a volunteer group promoting African American heritage, Black Culture and educational equity, have joined forces to build a larger-than-life bronze statue of Wheeling Gaunt.
This story was created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.