I grew up in a tiny little mountain town deep in the heart of Appalachia called Wallins Creek, Kentucky. Wallins is basically a “holler” (what y’all call a suburb) of another small town, Harlan. Harlan is, of course, the setting of the TV series Justified.
I have amazingly fond memories of growing up there, even though the economic conditions forced me to leave as soon as I graduated high school. It was the kind of place that if the sun was out your parents expected you to be playing outside, once your chores were done, of course, and you weren’t expected home until sunset. It was the kind of place kids would swing from vines in the woods, swim in the creeks at the “swim’n hole”, catch crawdads in the creeks (crayfish to you city folk), and turn the mountains and woods into just about any fantasy world a kid’s imagination could take them.
Some of my fondest memories of my childhood were how the people of such a small community could come together in times of need. Of the many acts of kindness I witnessed, none were greater and more steadfast and loyal than that of the man who was, in my eyes, an angel among men. Mike Howard was his name, though many of the local children simply knew him as Santa Claus.
Harlan County and Wallins Creek aren’t known for their booming economies. The only employment in Wallins Creek was that of a coal miner. It was the kind of town that was the inspiration behind the old song by Tennessee Ernie Ford called “Sixteen Tons.”
You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store
It was a town that literally used to only have a company store to shop in, and company housing for the families of the workers, neither of which was adequate and would be considered atrocities by today’s standard. Sure, things got better over time, but the area always had its fair share of poverty and those who simply had to do without the things most people these days would consider basic.
For forty-one years, Mike Howard and his angelic heart created a bright spot for the children of this economically depressed area. He collected toys all throughout the year, storing them in what many of us local children called Santa’s Workshop which was simply a large garage at his home. Then, when Christmas finally came, he donned his Santa suit and white beard and with a convoy of pickup trucks behind him, he delivered Christmas cheer, love, and kindness to the children who needed it most.
It is with tears in my eyes and a hole in my heart that I write this, as Mike Howard, the “Mountain Santa” left this world for another after losing his battle with cancer. May God bless his family, who are finding the resolve to keep up the tradition, and who are keeping the legend of the Moutain Santa alive in the hearts and minds of the children of this sleepy little Appalachian town.
In my eyes, and in the eyes of many other people who were blessed to grow up in such a place, Mike Howard was truly a legend. He was a hero to many, and an example for everyone. He will truly be missed but will live on forever in the hearts and minds of those whose hearts he touched.
Please watch these videos in remembrance of Mike “Mountain Santa” Howard: