Sunday, December 1, 2013

SANTA CLAUS, INDIANA: CHRISTMAS TOWN USA by Ramona Cecil


I love Indiana history, so, as a Hoosier author, I’m always on the lookout for an interesting Indiana story setting. As we enter the season of the celebration of our Savior’s birth, it occurred to me that a little town on Indiana’s southern border could make the perfect setting for a Christmas themed story.

 

The town of Santa Claus, Indiana is situated in Spencer County along the Ohio River. With a population of under three thousand, Santa Claus would likely be but another sleepy little river town if not for its unusual name. How that name came to be, however, is so tangled in legend that the truth may be hard to untwine, lending a mythical aura to the town, which somehow seems altogether appropriate.

 

What we do know is that the community was platted in 1849 and originally given the name Santa Fe. It kept that name until the mid 1850’s when the town applied for a post office. The US Post Office Department denied the town's request informing them that the name Santa Fe was already taken, so if they wanted a post office they'd need to change the town’s name.

 

Okay, here’s were the historical facts get a little foggy. Where’s Rudolph when you need him? According to legend, on Christmas Eve, as the townspeople concluded services at the little log church, they convened their final town meeting for the year. The single order of business was to select a new name for the town, but they were having trouble coming to a consensus of what the new name should be. As the story goes, a sudden gust of wind blew open the church door and the sound of distant sleigh bells were heard. The children began to excitedly exclaim “Santa Claus! It’s Santa Claus!” The adults, probably tired and eager to head home for a warm supper and bed, grasped onto the name. The scriptures tell us that “A little child shall lead them,” so who is to say the inspiration for the town’s new name wasn’t heaven-sent? In any event, I love the story and I’d like to believe it’s true. My imagination goes wild. . .

 

Back to fact. On May 1st of 1856, the U.S. Post Office Department approved a post office for the town of Santa Claus, Indiana. In 1895, the name was changed to one word; Santaclaus and the place faded into obscurity until 1914 when the town’s post master, James Martin, began promoting the town’s festive postmark on Christmas cards. He even began answering children’s letters to Santa; a practice that is still carried on by volunteers today.

 

In 1929, a growing volume of holiday mail began flowing into the tiny post office to get the official “Santa Claus” postmark. This caught the attention of Ripley’s Believe It or Not and the town of Santa Claus, Indiana was featured in their newspaper cartoon. Thrust into the national spotlight, the little post office was deluged with over a million pieces of mail.

 

Santa's Candy Castle
In 1932 Santa Claus, Indiana came to the attention of a man named Milton Harris. The idea of the place sparked Harris’ imagination, and he dreamed of developing a themed attraction called “Santa Claus Town in the little southern Indiana berg. There Santa would work year round and it would be Christmas morning every day. With the dedication of Santa’s Candy Castle, Harris, with postmaster Miller, launched Santa Claus Town—America’s first theme park—December 22nd 1935. The attraction included Santa’s workshop complete with the jolly old guy himself and his elves, and a Toy Village where children could play with popular American made toys; something out of reach for many tykes during the Depression years.

 

A second attraction, Santa Claus Park, was crowned by a twenty-two foot tall cement statue of Santa which stood atop the highest hill in town. I remember seeing that statue when I visited the place as a child after it became Santa Claus Land, owned and operated by Louis Koch and his son, William. What fun to see Santa in the middle of the summer!  

Later renamed Holiday World, the amusement park at Santa Claus, Indiana has grown and grown and is now a fond childhood memory for my two own daughters.

 

Despite the widely held belief that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, we Hoosiers know better. The jolly old elf really resides right here in good ole Indiana, and we have the postmark to prove it!

As for my Santa Claus, Indiana story. . .I don't have it yet, but it's percolating.

2 comments:

  1. I often wondered about the history of the place. I love the idea of using American made toys and using the stamp to promote it. Did those people who handled all that mail get paid? By whom?

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  2. I love Indiana history too, Ramona! Thanks for sharing such a fun story.

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