At Christmastime, Pearl Stanley can be found in her Yellow Springs, Ohio, kitchen mixing up batches of chocolate chip cookies and cranberry-apricot bread to give to family and friends.
The tasty treats are the result not just of Stanley's good will, but of a free bag of flour delivered to her doorstep each holiday season. It's a tradition that dates back to 1894 in the western Ohio village. Shortly before his death that year, a former slave named Wheeling Gaunt deeded nine acres of farmland to the village with the stipulation that rent from the land be used to buy flour to give to widows at Christmas. Though the property no longer is rented, village taxpayers continue to honor Gaunt's wishes and since the 1950s have even sweetened the holiday gift with sacks of sugar.
"We've always honored this tradition and always will," says Village Clerk-Treasurer Deborah Benning, whose family has lived in Yellow Springs since the early 1800s. "We take responsibility for each other here. We care about each other."
Last December, Gaunt's generous idea once again wrapped the village of 3,761 people in holiday spirit as the Yellow Springs Public Works crew delivered 10 pounds of flour and 10 pounds of sugar to each of the 110 widows in the community. "They're always happy to see us coming," says Public Works Superintendent Kelley Fox, who heads the annual giveaway and has helped make the deliveries for 24 years.
Stanley, 89, is delighted with the free flour and sugar. "It's been a great help to me," says Stanley, whose husband, Clarence, died in 1995. "Everyone like me who's on a limited income really appreciates it."
Fox maintains a list of widows by checking obituaries each week in the Yellow Springs News and by word of mouth in the close-knit community. Before making a delivery to a new widow, Fox checks to see if she is comfortable with the tradition.
"I really appreciate it, but it does make George's going-away hit me again," says Evelyn Britton, 76, a widow since 2006. She uses the sugar to make a medley of candy—fudge, peanut brittle, buckeyes and haystacks—for gifts to send to relatives in Waycross, Ga. The ingredients last her for at least six months, and in the spring, Britton uses the donated flour for a bake sale that benefits the Yellow Springs Library.
"I make pumpkin bread. It's nice and moist. I pride myself on that," says Britton, "and my cornbread cake. I've never found anybody yet who didnt like it."
"Even if the widows don't consider themselves particularly needy, they accept the gift and pass it along," says Bambi Williams, 76, who bakes molasses cookies to give to friends. One year she gave her flour and sugar to a family that lost everything in a fire.
"We just really appreciate this legacy and wouldn't want it to fade away," Williams says.
Gaunt's legacy of kindness is astounding, considering his own life of hardship. Born into slavery in 1812 on a tobacco plantation in Carrollton, Ky., he was separated at age 4 from his mother.
"Gaunt saved enough money, $900, over 32 years to buy his freedom. In the 1860s, he moved to Yellow Springs, attracted by the racial tolerance of the area and nearby Wilberforce University," says Phyllis Jackson, village historian. Through hard work and frugality, Gaunt acquired several pieces of property and was one of the town's wealthiest residents when he died at age 82.
"He was—and is—the town benefactor," Jackson says.
Gaunt's name lives year-round in Yellow Springs at Gaunt Park, the property he willed to the village, but it's at Christmastime when the magnitude of his kindness touches every widow's heart.
"Who would have thought of the widows with little kids who wouldnt have any cookies or cakes?" Britton says.
She'll be waiting this year, mixing bowls and cake pans ready, for her delivery of free flour and sugar—a gift from a caring community that is as precious today as when it was first given 114 Christmases ago.