Bethlehem To Bethlehem
of the season touches two towns
with a special name
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
"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
"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
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.
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
"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
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,
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
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