BELFAST, Maine — Belfast Fire Chief Jim Richards, who retired in September at the age of 90, was honored Thursday by receiving the first of a special Christmas ornament replica of the city’s beloved “Broke Neck Santa.”
For many decades, Richards led his crew as they strung up holiday lights and decorations downtown, including the vintage Santa Claus ornament whose head is cocked at a surprisingly sharp angle. Our Town Belfast, an organization that supports the city’s historic downtown, unveiled a limited-edition glass ornament that looks like the elf himself at a brief ceremony held outside the fire station.
“You went above and beyond to decorate the city every year,” Zach Schmesser, director of Our Town Belfast, said to Richards, who had a 53-year career with the Belfast Fire Department. “You set the tone.”
The ornaments were made in the last year using Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley’s overseas manufacturing contacts and expertise. Although the Santas’ necks appear to be straight in the boxes, once they are removed from their packaging, they will hang at their usual broken angle, Schmesser said.
“It’s been a well-kept secret over the last eight months or so,” he said of the ornaments.
But the original Broke Neck Santas — there are a few dangling downtown during the holidays — came to the city through less secretive means. Richards, who had been asked in the late 1970s or early 1980s to get something to decorate Belfast, found the gently used ornaments available in New Jersey. He purchased them, and the rest is city history.
An undated advertisement, which looks like it may be from the 1950s or ‘60s, offers brand-new Broke Neck Santas, which were originally called “Cletus Claus,” for $52.50. In the ad, the plastic figurine’s bright red coat and hat were undimmed by decades of sun and weather, but his neck looks the same as it does today.
“Introducing Santa’s boy … a new merrymaking character to watch out for as he goes frolicking along Santa Claus Lane,” the ad reads.
Back then, the money to buy Cletus and the rest of the downtown ornaments was donated by Belfast merchants, Richards said. The fire department keeps them looking good and has had to repair them once in a while, he said.
People in the community appreciate that work, and Broke Neck Santa even has his own Facebook fan page.
“He has been developing a cult-like following in the city of Belfast,” Schmesser said.
Last year, when Richards and others from the fire department were busy putting up the lights and ornaments, people would stop them to say thank you, according to City Manager Erin Herbig.
“There’s something festive about the installation,” she said.
Richards also has a “cult following” in the city, according to Mayor Eric Sanders, who lauded the retired chief’s 53 years of service.
“You’re pretty damn important,” the mayor told Richards.
The nonagenarian joined the department in 1968 and was appointed chief six years later. Less than 48 hours after that, a major fire broke out in the downtown business district and wiped out seven businesses.
“I was sworn in as chief at 10 o’clock Friday morning and half the town burned down Sunday morning,” Richards told the BDN in 2008. “I was worried about what would happen if we ever had a big fire and I found out right away. That took the pressure off. I haven’t had any pressure since then.”
On Thursday, he said has benefited from a good crew of firefighters and first responders.
“People have been good to me,” Richards said.
It has also meant a lot to him that so many people in his family have been part of the fire department and ambulance squad. Over the years, his wife and daughter have served on the ambulance crew and two sons and two grandsons have served on the fire department.
Patrick Richards, his grandson, was appointed the city’s new fire chief in September. He had served as deputy chief for about six months and before that was a firefighter and emergency medical technician with the department for 21 years. He also spent six years working as a professional firefighter and emergency medical technician in Bangor.
“We all do it together. It really is a group effort,” Patrick Richards, 43, said of working with the Belfast fire department.
Later this month, firefighters will once again put up the city’s holiday ornaments and lights, including Broke Neck Santa. Jim Richards said if he’s asked to help, he’d be happy to do so.
Those who want their own, smaller versions of Cletus Claus can purchase the $25 ornaments at the Colonial Theatre, the Green Store, YoMamma’s and Quench. Proceeds will benefit Our Town Belfast.