From Bethlehem To Bethlehem

Spirit of the season touches two towns
with a special name

By Don Ward

BETHLEHEM, Ind. – The serenity of the flat farm land and wooded hillsides along the Ohio River here in Clark County, Ind., is relaxing. But getting here would have likely tested even Mary and Joseph.
Each year at Christmas, however, hundreds of visitors make their annual trek down the curvy road leading out of New Washington on Hwy. 62, and over the steep hill into the valley to get their Christmas cards stamped at the tiny Bethlehem, Ind., post office. Postmaster Lora Eickholtz estimates her office stamps 45,000 cards a year.
Except for the river and boat dock, though, about the only other attraction in the valley is the Inn and Lodge at Bethlehem, a house and barn that owners Chester and Jeanne Browne have converted into a stylish bed and breakfast.
The Indianapolis couple entertain seasonal visitors and corporate groups throughout the year at their inn and lodge, both of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The five-bedroom house dates to 1830 and the four-bedroom barn to 1850. Both sit only a few hundred yards from the river and provide tranquil outside sitting areas for absorbing the view.
The town of about 85 year-round residents faces Wise's Landing in Trimble County, Ky., across the river. Bethlehem consists of only a few streets and houses huddled near the river across farm fields at the bottom of the hill.
Time seems to stop here. That's what drew the Brownes here 11 years ago.
"It was always a lifelong dream of mine to own a bed and breakfast," said Chester, an insurance salesman and Louisville native who bought the property in 1988 and, after much renovation, opened the inn and lodge two years later.
Chester's first wife died, and soon after marrying Jeanne, he brought her to the valley, where he at that time owned a farm a few miles away.
"She just fell in love with this place," Chester said. "We decided right then that we wanted to do this."
The house has a unique history. Built by a local entrepreneur, Asa Abbott, the house was part of an estate that spanned several hundred acres. Abbott was a grocer who appointed himself postmaster, the story goes, as a way of generating traffic to his store. It didn't hurt that the farm sat at the edge of the town's main river landing.
Upon his death, Abbott left the house to his daughter, who married Flavian Holloway. For years, the house was known as the Holloway House.
When the Brownes bought it, they had to install plumbing and electric. The fireplaces had been bricked up and the walls buried beneath several layers of wallpaper. The Brownes restored both and had the original wooden floors sanded and treated.
Jeanne, who runs an interior design business in Indianapolis, decorated the house and barn, each of which feature vastly different color schemes in the various rooms. Many rooms feature great views of the river and 11-foot ceilings. All rooms have private baths.
A stay at either the inn or lodge comes with a full breakfast.
Just across the street from the lodge stands the newly renovated Bethlehem Elementary School, which is now used for wedding receptions, retreats and other group functions. Chester serves on the historic preservation committee responsible for raising the $200,000 in public and private funds required to renovate the old school.
Over the years, the Brownes' properties have been featured in several newspapers and magazines, including AAA's Home and Away. But about the only tie to Christmas is a specially hand-carved wood nativity set that the Brownes commissioned in 1996 by Brown County, Ind., artist James Dallas Wittwer. The nativity set, which depicts "The Morning After" Christ's birth, is housed under a glass case and sits in the dining room of the lodge.
Chester says the busiest season is fall. "We often have all nine rooms full during the weekends of October and November. We also get a lot of corporate people here for retreats."
Down at the post office, Eickholtz receives customers in search of the Christmas spirit in the form of a holiday stamp. The stamp features the Wise Men on camels following the Star of Bethlehem.
The one-room post office is about the size of a backyard out building that has been converted into two rooms by way of a wall divider and sales window. It houses 100 post office boxes, but Eickholtz says only about 35 people pick up their mail there.
"Every year at Christmas, we get people here from all over," said Eickholtz, who grew up here. "I don't mind it because that's about the only thing that keeps us in business."
Eickholtz said the postal service at one time considered closing the small office, but the locals fought it and won.
"A lot of people don't think we even sell stamps here. They bring in their Christmas cards already stamped and just want us to mail them from here," she said. "But we sell stamps and everything else, just like any post office."
You probably won't find a star shining over this Bethlehem, but you won't forget the tranqility of your visit to this small river community beneath the hill.
Especially this time of year.

By Don Ward

BETHLEHEM, Ky. – Every year around this time, the lights go up, Christmas music plays over a loudspeaker and the cars line up and down the road as visitors arrive in this quaint, roadside farming village in Henry County, Ky., to view the live nativity scene.
But unlike the nativity scenes you might find in larger towns, this one sits in the heart of Bethlehem.
That's Bethlehem, Ky. – a town that consists of a bend in the road that passes by Wood's Grocery and the post office.
People drive from several counties to view the scene, which today consists of volunteers from 10 local churches and live animals from area farms.
Many people also come to get their Christmas cards stamped with a special post mark depicting the three Wise Men on their way to visit the Christ Child. Postmaster Cecil Peyton and one part-time employee happily stamp every one of the nearly 25,000 cards. Several boxes of cards begin arriving almost daily, beginning in late November and throughout much of December.
"They come from all over the world," Peyton says as he shuffles through cards from various U.S. states and European countries.
Peyton's late mother, Anna Laura Peyton, also served as postmaster and gave up a front room in her home more than 50 years ago to house the post office. She designed the Christmas stamp that her son still uses on each holiday card. In all those years, the only change was the addition of the words, "Christmas Greetings."
These days, you'll find Peyton often entertaining local residents in the living room, where they sip on his instant coffee and recount tales and jokes.
"It's sort of the local hangout for these oldtimers," said Peyton, 63, who took over the job in March 1981.
Peyton and his post office were even featured in a December 1996 CBS Evening News segment with Harry Smith.
"You meet a lot of people in this job – especially around Christmas," Peyton said. "And I don't mind the additional work. Everybody's in a good humor at Christmas."
His customers say driving the extra miles to Bethlehem at Christmas are worth it.
"I come over here to get my Christmas cards stamped because people notice that they come from Bethlehem," said Shirley Marshall of Lockport, Ky.
People also don't seem to mind the trip here to view the nativity scene. In recent years, the event has averaged more than 500 people daily, organizers said.
The townspeople here are proud of their nativity scene, which this year will be staged from Dec. 22-29 from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. daily. The nativity scene has been a tradition here since 1959, when then-pastor Jack Austen of the Point Pleasant Methodist Church first organized it.
"At first, we used regular bath robes and things we had at home," explained Wendell Roberts, 81. "But then one year, somebody visited the Holy Land and brought back some more realistic garments that some ladies here made scarves and head pieces out of."
Local farmers cut the poles to make the rafters of the manger. "We wanted to keep it crude so it would be more realistic," said Matthew Martin, 78.
In the early years, they used coke stoves for heat but now use electric space heaters when it's cold, said Alvin Lee Roberts. The electricity for the site is donated by Kentucky Utilities. The event had to be canceled a couple of years because of bad weather.
The animals used include one cows, two donkeys and two sheep. One year, a calf was born in the manger during the nativity scene.
The rules for participating in the nativity are fairly straightforward. They must be at least 17 years old and stand in 50-minute sessions before the second set of actors comes on to relieve them.
"I can remember when kids used to be excited about getting old enough to play a part in the nativity," said Ronnie Golden, 60. "It was always a big deal."
Now in its 40th year, the live nativity defines the community for outsiders and continues to fascinate newcomers.
Although it is admittedly lots of work, somehow locals here are moved each year by the Christmas spirit to keep it going.
"Every year, some people say we should stop doing it. But it wouldn't be Bethlehem without the nativity scene," said Marilyn Sewell, an employee at Wood's Grocery.
"It has changed because a lot of people who started with it have moved out. But others have come to take their place."
Also unique is that the scene sits on a roadside lot where three crosses stand as a reminder of Christ's sacrifice and resurrection.
"This is probably the only place you'll find that depicts both the birth and crucifixion of Christ," Martin said.
And for the people of Bethlehem, Ky., it's probably one of the few places they'd want to be on the night of Dec. 24.

Back to December 1999 Articles.



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