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Area churches celebrate the reason for the season

With Santa Claus, stockings and gifts, reindeer, elves and sugarplums, there are many things that come to mind when thinking of Christmas; but churches around Gage County are looking to focus on the real reason for the season.

Jesus Christ, for whom the holiday is named, was born on Christmas Day, and local churches are preparing for the day with a reminder of the true meaning of Christmas.

“For us, we focus on Christ,” said Father Robert Barnhill of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Beatrice. “That's the reason for the season. In our modern world, that's getting lost.”

St. Joseph is getting ready for their Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services, and they are hoping people keep in mind two important tasks this year: giving and the poor.

The angels first brought the news of Jesus’ birth to poor shepherds, Barnhill said, and remembering those in need is a key part of the Christmas season.

Barnhill said he knows many people come to church just for the Christmas season, but said it’s like coming home.

“Come home for Christmas,” he said. “What is home? Your faith home. Going back to the place where their parents lived, the place where they were baptized or where they got married.”

During the two years Barnhill lived in Rome during graduate study, his church home was St. Peter’s Basillica, where he’d worship at the Christmas midnight mass, he said.

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Pastor Jerry Gilbreath of Zion Lutheran Church said that this year’s Christmas Eve program coincides with an important part of the Lutheran faith.

It has been 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, and congregations continue to celebrate his impact.

Gilbreath said there’s probably some poetic license involved, but their program tells the story of Martin Luther and the Christmas tree. Walking through the forest with his father, Luther is said to have seen ice on tree branches glistening in the moonlight and had a vision of adding candle lights and creating a new Christmas tradition.

“This is the first church I've served that only has one service on Christmas Eve,” Gilbreath said. “I've been in large churches that have had up to four services where you're kind of the focus as a pastor. Here, I get to worship on Christmas Eve and I don't come home drained after four services.”

Gilbreath said the church is expecting a big crowd for their Christmas Eve program, and he thinks there that between 400 and 500 members of their 600-member congregation will attend. A lot of that will be family members coming to watch, he said, but they’ve been getting bigger, and a lot of that has to do with family bonds.

“We're in a period of growth,” Gilbreath said. “In the past three years, we've had 60-plus new members and half of those are kids. So, we're a young church, but we're also a family church. That's our niche. I know churches in Lincoln have their niches like music or whatever, but family is our niche.”


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100 years of Grandma's Fruit and Nut Cake

This year, Beatrice Bakery is celebrating an impressive milestone.

Grandma’s Fruit and Nut Cake--Beatrice Bakery’s number one seller--has been around for 100 years.

The recipe didn’t originate at Beatrice Bakery Company, but the company is keeping the tradition alive with thousands of fruitcakes produced each year, making their way to holiday celebrations around the country.

It was 1917 when the Lantz brothers immigrated to the United States and settled in St. Louis, where they opened up a bakery. Their grandmother’s fruitcake recipe proved to be a hit with area residents, as well as a treasured family heirloom. When the brothers retired from the baking business, they needed to find a bakery that would carry on the tradition.

The Beatrice Bakery bought the formula in the 1960s with a promise to never change the recipe and, since 1963, the same ingredients have gone into the fruitcake, using the same cooking techniques and even some of the same equipment.

Keeping the recipe the same was not only a promise, but one of the reasons Grandma’s Fruit and Nut Cake has such staying power.

Beatrice Bakery’s president, Greg Leech, said the company has seen an uptick in online sales after being featured on the QVC television network, and more people have been walking into the store in the basement of the factory.

“We're just known for our fruitcake,” Leech said. “That's the main reason they come in. Then they see our other products. The main reason they come in is to buy fruitcake.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the retail space was bustling with out-of-towners. Some of the shoppers had seen a feature story in the news and came all the way from across the state, while others even crossed state lines to get to the bakery.

Inside the shop, near a tree decorated with small, plastic fruitcakes, a group of four women from Lincoln were perusing the display. They’d carpooled to Beatrice to pick out the perfect fruitcake.

Justine Lovell had seen Grandma’s Fruit and Nut Cake on 1011 and on the Food Network show “Unwrapped” a few years ago and got a group together to come down to get some.

“I'm just excited to come here,” Lovell said. “I just got the regular one, but I got one chocolate for myself.”

Lovell’s friend, Ruthann Ronne, bought a peach-flavored cake and an Irish crème one, but said she had family reasons for not buying a traditional fruitcake.

“I like it, but my family doesn't,” Ronne said. “So that means I'd eat the whole thing.”

Lovell scoffed, sitting down on a bench in the shop to jokingly chide her friend.

“If you go to a hamburger place, you should get hamburger,” Lovell said. “If you go to a fish place, you should get fish, if you go to a steak place, you should get steak. So, if you come here, you should get regular fruitcake. That's my theory.”

Jonathan Hnosko was helping the group with their shopping, though his job is typically done behind the scenes. He’s Beatrice Bakery’s food safety and quality control officer, meaning he’s usually working on labeling, nutrition and safety. But this time of year, he’ll make an exception.

This is only Hnosko’s second month at the bakery, but he’s learned to love the famous holiday treat.

“You know, I had tried fruitcake and it wasn't really something that was a favorite of mine until I had a chance to try this,” he said. “And this really does taste different from what most people would say is a stereotypical fruitcake.”

Over the course of the year, the bakery ships about 700,000 pounds of cakes out the door. They use about 35,000 pounds of walnuts, 50,000 pounds of pecans and 140,000 pounds of cherries and pineapple, Leech said.

Their walk-in traffic has nearly tripled in the last few years, he said. Usually, traffic increases in the months leading up to Christmas, but this year, the bakery was packed during the eclipse in August.

“We had one guy who stayed out in a camper out at the fairgrounds,” Leech said. “He came in on the morning of the eclipse and bought some fruitcakes. And he walked, clear from the fairgrounds. They started eating them, they saw the eclipse and then they drove here afterward and bought some more.”

Fruitcake has been Leech’s whole life, he said. Next month, he’ll have been with the Beatrice Bakery for 39 years. Then, in May, he’s planning to retire from the business to spend more time with his family.

“I have wonderful people that work for me and the public's been wonderful,” Leech said. “I'm going to miss that part. I'm not going to miss the rush from October through December.”


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County considering communications equipment

The Gage County Board of Supervisors is continuing discussions about how to handle a communications tower that has caused issues in recent years and has prompted the board to consider buying new equipment.

The tower has developed a “lean” due to windy conditions, and multiple tower companies have declined to perform maintenance on the tower near the ball fields in Blue Springs as a result of safety concerns.

On Wednesday, the County Board heard a proposal to purchase new repeaters and equipment that could potentially be installed elsewhere in the southern part of Gage County.

Doug Ostergard, sales manager at First Wireless Inc., discussed the tower during Monday’s committee meetings and brought a rough cost estimate to Wednesday’s regular meeting.

“There are repairs that need to be done to that tower, lighting and the antenna being misaligned, and that tower crews can’t climb it because of safety concerns,” he said. “I think we’ve gotten here because there’s some relatively minor repairs that need to be done, but there’s an unwillingness to climb a tower due to safety concerns.”

Ostergard said a new repeater and the corresponding equipment that would be installed in the dispatch center in Beatrice would cost approximately $27,000.

Mark Meints, interim Wymore Police Chief, said on Monday that the tower was built around 1970 and was last painted around eight years ago.

Wires on the tower are no longer covered, and he said the elements have taken a toll on it. The lights on the tower were also knocked out after it was struck by lightning.

The tower serves departments in the general southern part of the county, south of Highway 136.

If the tower is deemed unfit to use for communication equipment, installing equipment on an area water tower or leasing space on a cell tower are possible alternatives.

“We as a board are fully aware that tower is 40-plus years old, maybe pushing 50, and we’ve gotten a lot of good use out of it over the years,” said County Board Chairman Myron Dorn. “It served us well, but also, age is catching up with it.”

Ostergard said an existing tower in Odell would be the assumed location for the equipment if purchased, but a rural Wymore water tower is also an option if the tower in Blue Springs is abandoned.