Most folks in Harlan County are familiar with the Mountain Santa, and this year marks the fourth decade he has made his rounds distributing gifts to children on Christmas.
The Mountain Santa, also known as Mike Howard, started handing out toys to children 40 years ago and is still going strong.
Howard holds roadblocks to raise money to help finance the operation. He will be conducting roadblocks on Friday and Saturday at the Village Center Mall and the Walmart Bridge in Harlan as well as on Dec. 5 at the stoplight in Wallins.
“We started out with one truck, and now we’re up to 115 trucks,” said Howard. “That’s truckloads that we give out.”
He said when he started, he went on one run on Christmas. Nowadays, that number is up to six.
“It still takes us 10 to 12 hours on Christmas Eve,” said Howard. “It’s grown a lot.”
According to Howard, he got the idea when his brother portrayed Santa at a country store.
“I walked in and he had the (Santa) suit on, giving candy out to the kids,” said Howard. “The next year, I asked him if he was going to do it again and he said no. I thought I’d try it.”
Howard said he put together one pickup truck load of toys that first year.
“It’s been climbing ever since,” Howard reminisced. “I’ve got a big load coming in Friday from Mississippi. There’s a load coming in Saturday from Louisville.”
Howard said early on he and an assortment of volunteers wrap gifts two nights a week, but as the holiday draws closer they will be wrapping three to four nights a week.
Howard said the operation has grown into a year-round operation to get ready for Christmas.
“Christmas Eve we’ll empty the building out, and then in January people start bringing toys and we start stacking them up right on through until about October,” Howard said. “Then we’ll start wrapping.”
Howard’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by the community. Recently, Howard was drawn to what he thought was just a birthday party, but when he arrived he discovered a surprise party for him in honor of 40 years of the Mountain Santa.
“They really pulled one off on me,” Howard said with a smile. “I thought it was for my birthday. When I walked in, it was for 40 years. They tricked me on that one.”
Howard is quick to mention he doesn’t do it alone, and relies on many other people to help get the job done.
“If it wasn’t for the people of Harlan County — and other places — there’s no way that I could do what I do,” said Howard. “The Lord has sure blessed me with help.”
Anybody wishing to donate their time or toys to help out can contact the Mountain Santa at 606-664-2458, or just drop off or mail donations to Mike Howard, 268 Santa Lane, Wallins Creek, Kentucky, 40873.
Reach Joe P. Asher at 606-909-4132 or on Twitter @joe_hde