Upland Chronicles: Byron Herbold spread Christmas cheer for years

Dec. 23, 2012 @ 11:16 PM

When Christmas time comes around most people regardless of age think back to special childhood memories.

For those who grew up in Gatlinburg in the 1940s and 1950s, Santa Claus arriving in a jeep on Christmas Eve comes to mind. The man wearing the red suit was Byron Herbold.

Byron Herbold was born in Cincinnati on Feb. 22, 1907. After he married Sally Ann Volz the couple moved to Gatlinburg where Byron operated a small store in the north end of town.

Sadly, Herbold passed away Dec. 10, 1964. His wife Sally, who was a cosmetologist, remained in Gatlinburg until her death in 1990.

Although Byron and Sallie were childless, they loved to provide Christmas cheer to the children in their adopted hometown. The following reminisces of Byron Herbold as Santa Claus was written by Nancy Shilling Lingerfelt, daughter of Dr. Ralph Shilling:

Long ago in the days when Gatlinburg was a sleepy little post-war mountain village, there was a man named Byron Herbold who lived there. Byron had a small grocery store, and his wife Sally had a little beauty shop right next door to the store. 

They had no children, but they had two very interesting hobbies. One was a collection of electric trains and model buildings which was set up every year under their Christmas tree, and which eventually covered most of the living room. We children couldn’t wait to go and spend and afternoon watching the trains switch tracks, little men come out and wave lanterns, smoke come out of chimneys and many other magical things happen.

Byron’s secret hobby was Santa Claus. Tourism had not yet touched the mountains with money. Many children were dressed from mission boxes delivered to the school from across the country, and in some families the children took turns with one or two pairs of shoes while the other brothers and sisters went to school barefoot.

My father, young in medicine, and fresh from the battlefields in the mountains of Germany, purchased a 1946 Willys jeep almost as soon as he arrived in Gatlinburg. This was a most wonderful machine which could ford creeks, pull out stuck tractors, and climb mountains where no roads existed. Daddy used it daily to make his house calls in the hills and hollers of Sevier County. On Christmas Eve, this jeep magically turned into Santa’s sleigh! I never questioned why Daddy wasn’t home on Christmas Eve...he was hardly ever home. 

I think probably Byron worked all year gathering supplies and toys. He certainly was not rich enough to go and buy them all at once. For weeks before Christmas there’d be conferences about which families needed what, and as the days of December flew by, brown paper grocery bags were stuffed with food and toys and made ready for delivery.

On Christmas Eve the journey would begin around dusk, and off would go the jeep (driven by Buford Reagan or someone in the fire department if Daddy was out on a call). By the time we children were ready for bed, we’d hear sleigh bells in the yard and a knock at the door. There would stand Santa, dressed in the most beautiful red velvet suit (made by Mrs. Sally), shiny patent leather belt and boots, and wonderfully soft white hair and beard that you just couldn’t help reaching out to touch. His eyes were blue, with the kindest, happiest look; and his lap was the perfect place to snuggle while you whispered your Christmas wishes into his ear. He always drank a coke, using a straw to keep his beard from getting sticky. He never brought presents to us then, but we knew he would be back later.

It was probably the summer that I turned 12 when I walked into Byron’s store one day to get something for Mama and realized that I was looking into the eyes of Santa Claus! I waited until there was no one else in the store and then I asked him about it. He confessed that it was true, but made me promise that I would not spoil his secret by telling my brother and sister or my friends.

Somehow that made Santa all the more special to me knowing who he was and that he lived an ordinary life 364 days of the year. When I would see him, I would run to hug him and whisper “Hello Santa!” in his ear. His eyes would twinkle with that special Christmas Eve look as he hugged me back.

For a few years the custom of Santa’s real presence persisted. Then as the town prospered, simple things got lost in the quest for more tourists and more money. Children became greedy and were no longer satisfied with small gifts. Byron grew old and the children who loved him grew up. I graduated from nursing school.

Two weeks before Christmas 1964, I was working in my dad’s clinic when they brought Byron in. He had suffered a massive stroke and it was obvious that his life was ebbing. It was my privilege to care for him in his last hours and return in some small measure the love and care he had given to others. One last time I whispered, “Hello Santa” and he smiled at me with his eyes.

His Santa was a simple one. There were no elaborate gifts, just extra groceries from his store and small inexpensive toys. However his love and caring thoughts toward others reached far beyond those small items he gave so freely.

He will always embody the real meaning of Christmas, and indeed of Santa giving unselfishly to others; and in doing so, fulfill the teachings of Christ, who taught us to love one another as our Father in heaven loves us.

— Carroll McMahan is the Special Projects Facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments, please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.