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When Santa lived in Bluffton

He went under the name of Lazarus Basinger

Lazarus "Lotzy" Basinger, a Bluffton fixture who died in 1964, was known by all the youngsters in town as Santa Claus, as this photo taken by Paul Diller suggests.

Rudi Steiner of Homewood, Illinois, provides this background of Lazarus.

Over the decades Bluffton residents lift up several memorable individuals to a sacred list known as “Bluffton characters.”

These special people each developed a niche of their own calling, earning respect from the common citizen. Their traits and stories are recalled by many, although they are unknown by today’s younger and newer residents.

To us, their contributions to what makes Bluffton such an interesting and accepting community cannot be ignored.

One of those special people was Lazarus “Lotzy” Basinger, (also known as Santa Claus) a familiar face in the Bluffton crowd over his 90-year life span.

Lazarus was probably one of the last people in Bluffton who experience way of life of the earliest Swiss immigrants. He was raised on his father’s farm near Pandora, Riley Township, Putnam County, Ohio.

Lazarus “Lotzy” Basinger was the great-grandson Christian Riesenbach Böesiger (1770-1844), of one of the original Swiss immigrants to the Bluffton community.

Note: Today “Böesiger” and its many different German spellings is Americanized to “Basinger.”

His grandfather, Christian (Black) Böesiger (1795-1880) immigrated as a child with his parents from Belfort, Alsace, France, in the 1830s. Click here to read about Christian Böesiger.

Lazarus, born Dec. 1, 1874, was one of 11 children born to Benjamin Basinger and Mary Anna Zurfluh (also spelled Zurflugh). Both parents were first-generation children born in the Settlement to families of the earliest immigrants.

Lazarus was probably one of the last people in Bluffton who experience the way of life of the earliest Swiss immigrants. He was raised on his father’s farm near Pandora, Riley Township, Putnam County, Ohio.

Lazarus was a brick layer by trade. One of his final projects was creating the base that once held the Bluffton school bell as its original site was on the alley between Jackson and Lawn. The bell was eventually moved to the front of the middle school when that building was constructed.

He was very independent and lived alone in a small house near the site of the first mill on the bend of Riley Street (east side of Main).

From a Nov. 2, 1899, Bluffton News is an item about a cultural event held at the Mulberry school in Riley Township where "Orchestral music was provided there was a violin solo by Lazarus Basinger." And a follow up reported that “Lazarus Basinger was quite the fiddler.”At the time of this event, he was 24 and not yet married.

Like many siblings of immigrant families, Lazarus was proud of his Swiss heritage. He was in attendance at the 1959 dedication of the historical site of the first Swiss Mennonite Church where his great-grandfather was the first decan and among its first members. This site is on Phillips Road just north of the Allen-Putnam County Road. He also frequently attended the Swiss Day celebrations, which continue annually in Bluffton.

His most distinguishing characteristics were his full white beard, black hat and suspenders. He was known around town as “one of the last of the old Swiss guys.” He and several other remaining descendants of Swiss immigrants frequently could be found outside Sam Stepleton’s lunch café and pool hall on Main Street.

Because of his full white beard children called him “Santa Claus “and he handed out candy, often to the dismay of their parents because his personal hygiene was not the best.

Lazarus gave Bluffton residents some idea of what the original Swiss immigrants might have looked like. He knew the dialect, dress, customs and habits of the early Swiss families. The men he saw as a child in the Swiss community probably were all wearing full beards.

In 1905 he married Maude Frederick from Rittman, Ohio, when he was 32 and she was 20. In 1910 Lazarus and Maud were living in Pandora, with one son, Frederick, born 1907.

The 1920 U.S. census shows them living in Rittman, Ohio, with four children where Lazarus was a foreman for the Ohio Salt Company. Sometime before 1930 Lazarus and Maud divorced. Maud moved to Toledo where her sons Fred and Horace got jobs on the Pennsylvania Railroad; Horace as a brake inspector and Fred as an engineer.

In the 1930 U.S. census, Lazarus moved back to Bluffton with his second wife, Nancy. Where Lazarus found and married “Nannie “no one knows for certain. Census records show that Nannie was a resident of Dallas, Texas, most of her life. She was married three times and was a mother of four adult children at the time of the marriage.

There might have been a time after his divorce where Lazarus wandered around the U.S. for a while. Ship record from the “Governor Cobb” shows Lazarus Basinger entered the U.S. from Cuba at Key West, Florida, in December, 1925. The SS Governor Cobb provided regular service between Havana, Cuba, and Key West, Florida, during the 1920s.

In Bluffton, Lazarus was considered a “local town character” He was one of several colorful men, who were known by everyone and frequently were seen on Main Street in the 1950s and 1960. In his late years he seemed to have a carefree lifestyle.

Lazarus died Nov. 17, 1964, and is buried in Maple Grove Cemetery, Bluffton, next to his wife, Nannie, who died in 1933.

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One additional detail I recall (from my elementary school days in the early 1950s) was that Santa Claus's house along the Big Riley at the bend of Thurmond St. was then a fairly small building which had red and green asphalt siding in keeping with his Christmas theme.

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