December 11, 2003


Flour, sugar and tradition of caring

Kent Harding, a member of the Public Works crew, made a delivery to Dee Bryce during the Village’s annual flour and sugar distribution in 2001.

When Wheeling Gaunt prepared his will in the late 1800s, stipulating that the Village deliver flour to local widows each Christmas season, he probably didn’t imagine that the flour would be delivered in large white vehicles fueled by engines rather than horsepower. And he probably had even less idea that the distribution would be seen in homes all across the nation via something called television, as happened in 1996.

Many things have changed in the 107 years since Gaunt’s death in 1896. But some things remain the same, especially the spirit of goodwill and caring that comes with the Village’s annual holiday custom of distributing flour and sugar to local widows.

“ I think it’s wonderful,” one Lawson Place resident said on Monday, when Kelley Fox, a member of the Village Public Works crew, came to her door with her 10 pounds of flour and 10 of sugar. “It lasts all year.”

“ Thank you,” another said to Fox. “I appreciate it.”

“ It’s a great program,” a Phillips Street resident said when she received her flour. “I use it every year to make cookies and cakes. You have a good holiday, now.”

Four members of the Public Works crew — Fox, Joel Crandall, Kent Harding and Vertis Douglass — spent all day Monday distributing the flour and sugar to about 120 widows in town. All longtime veterans of the Village crew, the men clearly enjoyed themselves as they went from door to door in Lawson Place. As much as delivering food, they were delivering a community’s caring, and they took that job seriously. They offered holiday greetings, condolences to those not feeling well, and most of all, to those who wanted to talk, they listened.

“ It’s hard to get old,” said one Lawson Place resident as she told Fox about a recent hospitalization. He listened patiently as the story continued, then, at her request, took a look at a broken lock. At another apartment, Fox cheerfully hauled out a bag of trash and placed it in the receptacle by the street.

“ Some of the women are lonely. They look forward to seeing the guys,” said Roxie Potts, the Village administrative assistant, who assembles the list of local widows. “Being able to help people and do something nice — I’m just glad I get to be a part of it.”

Of course, the status of widows has changed considerably since the late 1800s and many on the list are current or former professionals with active lives and considerable means of their own. But when they express discomfort with receiving free flour and sugar, the men encourage them to accept the gift in the spirit of Gaunt’s will.

“ You know, the first year they came I said I don’t need it, give it to someone else,” said Phyllis Duckwall, who lives in Park Meadows. “But they said, it’s not about need, it’s about being a widow.” Now comfortable with the tradition, Duckwall said the flour doesn’t go to waste. “I use it,” she said. “It doesn’t just sit on the shelf.”

Both Crandall and Fox grew up in the village, and Harding has been here since high school. The men have known many of the women since childhood, Fox said, and that adds a personal touch to their visits.

That personal caring seems to be what Wheeling Gaunt had in mind when he requested that the Village take care of its widows. A former slave from Kentucky, Gaunt arrived in Yellow Springs in the 1860s and became one of its most respected citizens and landowners. In 1894 Gaunt deeded nine acres of land to the Village, stipulating that the Village use the proceeds from the property to buy flour for widows at Christmas. Although the land, which has since been turned into Gaunt Park, no longer produces income, the Village continues the tradition he began.

That the tradition is unique became abundantly clear in 1996, when a story about it in the Wall Street Journal sparked a media frenzy. That year, a half dozen reporters from ABC, CNN and the Los Angeles Times came to Yellow Springs to report on the flour and sugar distribution and ABC broadcasted the story on its evening news.

“ It’s a nice story,” the Yellow Springs News quoted ABC correspondent Erin Hayes as saying at the time. “We need more nice stories.”

The flour distribution process begins with a list maintained by Potts, who keeps up to date on local deaths and new widows to add to the list. Sensitive to the women’s grieving process, Potts calls each new widow to see if she wants to receive the gift that year, or wait for the next. It’s hard to make those calls, she said, but she doesn’t want the tradition to cause pain rather than pleasure.

The men are also sensitive to the needs of new widows on the list, whose names are highlighted in red.

“ If it’s the first year after a death,” Fox said, “sometimes you need to lend an ear.”

Whether listening to the recently bereaved or extending holiday greetings to active professional women, the men of the Public Works crew, along with Roxie Potts, are the ones keeping alive the tradition begun more than a century ago. And they’re doing it in a way that would have made Wheeling Gaunt proud.

— Diane Chiddister