When I was a boy in the 1950s my parents drove from Indianapolis, Indiana to southern Indiana to visit a village named Santa Claus where stood a huge Santa Claus statue. There I rode in a small train to view elf-like statues and visit the real Santa Claus. Many years later my wife and I took our kids to Santa Claus, Indiana to visit the expanded Holiday World and ride the roller coaster, a water log ride, and several kiddie rides. Also, to visit a very authentic-looking Santa Claus in a room filled with colorful Christmas decorations.
According to Holiday World history, Evansville industrialist Louis J. Koch visited Santa Claus, Indiana with his kids during WWII and was disappointed to find only a post office, a general store, a few houses and no Santa Claus. Actually, I bet he was really excited to find an opportunity where other entrepreneurs had failed. During the 1930s other businessmen tried their best to attract tourists to the Christmas-themed village, but eventually failed. During the late 1930s thousands of tourists visited Santa Claus Town, but tourism and sponsorship dried up during WWII, and a rivalry between two local opportunists didn’t help either.
I came across five different Santa Claus-themed companies incorporated during the 1930s in Santa Claus, Indiana. The first was the “Santa Claus Industries of Indiana”, incorporated by Stanley C. Hill, Laura B. Wylie, and William D. Fitzpatrick on October 2, 1931. Stanley C. Hill was a 44-year old Indianapolis salesman, Laura B. Wylie – a 44-year old widow from Elwood, Indiana who owned the Elwood Lumber Company, and William D. Fitzpatrick – a 43-year old Indianapolis attorney. I think this might have been a general store in the village that probably sold toys, but it didn’t last very long.
Santa Claus, Service Inc., incorporated on November 18, 1933. These incorporation papers were written with catch-all phrases that would include just about everything that could be sold in a Santa Claus-themed store. The incorporators were Eugene C. Wharf, Thomas M. Shircliff, and Charles R. Shircliff, all from nearby Vincennes, Indiana. Eugene C. Wharf was a 55-year old district agent for a life insurance company. Thomas M. Shircliff and his younger brother Charles M. were involved in the furniture sales business. Later, in 1935, they, started Shircliff Industries to manufacture furniture in Vincennes, as well as opening a Pepsi-Cola bottling plant there. Again, their enterprise in Santa Claus didn’t seem to last very long.
The first entrepreneur to be commercially successful in Santa Claus, Indiana was Milton Harris, a lawyer from nearby Vincennes, Indiana. For years thousands of letters and packages had been sent to and remailed from Santa Claus, Indiana to children as a Christmas surprise. In the early 1930s the village’s postmaster, James Martin, and Harris conceived the idea of opening there a Santa Claus-themed brick castle named the Candy House. In 1934 Harris incorporated the plan as “Santa Claus of Santa Claus, Indiana”, along with Cincinnati road building contractor Lester R. Geiler. I imagine Geiler provided some funds for the project, and maybe had something to do with the building of the Candy House.
Strategically, they also leased many acres of land around the village for further development of their Santa Claus Town. Gilbert Fahr, a farmer from Santa Claus, Indiana, later signed on as a director of this corporation. Maybe he was the farmer from whom Harris leased the land.
Milton Harris opened his Candy House, sponsored by Curtis Candy Company, during the 1935 season and it had a booming business. But, a competitor unveiled a huge “granite” Santa Claus on Christmas on a nearby knoll, and had bought the Santa Claus Inn in the village.
This competitor was Carl A. Barrett, President of the Illinois Automobile Club. Barnett claimed that he had also bought property around Santa Claus, Indiana, and that he intended to build a Santa Claus Park on this property, which was also Harris’s idea,. The trouble was that the property he bought had already been leased for 25 years to Harris. So, they went to court and Harris won a temporary injunction against Barrett in 1936. The enthusiastic Harris then built onto his Santa Claus Town, with other pavilions sponsored by companies like Daisy Air Rifles and Lionel Trains.
According to a 1938 newspaper article about the situation, “Barrett then asked a higher court to review the evidence.” The matter went to the Indiana Supreme Court to decide, and Harris eventually won his case. Barrett could not develop his Park, but he still owned the 40-ton Santa Claus (a crack revealed that it was not made of granite, but of concrete), and his Santa Claus Hotel and Restaurant.
According to a U.P. newspaper article dated December 21, 1938, “Last Sunday more than 10,000 persons walked through the streets (of Santa Claus, Indiana) … and the toy village contains miniature replicas of story book houses built by Milton Harris.”
Unfortunately, WWII interrupted the dream of Harris to build upon his Christmas-themed business. Sponsorship and tourism dried up during the war years, and when Louis J. Koch and his family visited Santa Claus Land, only the general store and post office were open. Koch opened his fantasyland train ride and exhibits successfully in 1946. Harris died in 1950, and his Christmas-themed park closed.
The Koch family have very successfully developed their modest Christmas-themed enterprise into the award-winning Holiday World & Splashin Safari. Also, an enthusiastic, Christmas-loving entrepreneur named Kevin Klosowski has recently renovated and reopened Santa’s Castle. And, even though the foundations of the little “story book houses” are still barely visible, he hopes to continue the legacy of Milton Harris.
by Robert F. Gilyeat, an Indiana State Archives volunteer