Santa Claus Land: The first theme park?

Although Santa Claus, Ind., is now best known as the home of Holiday World, its origins are a fascinating piece of Americana that includes being the site of America’s first theme park.

In the late 1840s a group of German immigrants who settled in this southwestern Indiana community lacked a suitable name for their town. In 1852, when everyone was present at their tiny log church for Christmas Eve services, it was decided to hold the final town meeting of the year following worship. There was one order of business: the naming of their town. As they huddled around the pot bellied stove, a gust of cold wind blew open the church door. The faint sound of sleigh bells could be heard in the distance. As the adults pondered who could be out that night, the children ran to the doorway shouting “Santa Claus! It’s Santa Claus!” And, as Paul Harvey says, “Now you know the rest of the story” about how Santa Claus, Ind., was named.

Records show that the first letter to Santa arrived at the Santa Claus post office in 1914 and was personally answered (in the name of Santa Claus) by postmaster James Martin. That same year a young sailor from nearby Mariah Hill, Ind., was stationed in Brooklyn Navy Yard during the Christmas season. His shipmates decided to throw a party for needy children who lived nearby. Because everyone knew his hometown was near Santa Claus, Ind., Jim Yellig was the unanimous choice for Santa. After seeing the joy in children’s faces when they saw Santa, Yellig made a wartime promise to continue his role as Santa if he made it home from World War I safely. When he arrived home at the war’s end in 1918, Yellig took a personal interest in seeing that every child who wrote Santa in care of the Santa Claus post office received an answer from Santa. During the 1920s and 1930s many articles, including a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not column, were published about the tiny town with the unusual name.

Letters addressed to Santa Claus went from a handful to an avalanche. In 1939 the volume of mail grew so heavy that Yellig and the postmaster solicited the help of the Santa Claus American Legion and other community volunteers. Fundraisers were held to pay for printed Santa letters and the postage needed to mail them back to eager children. Groups of volunteers worked long hours addressing and stuffing envelopes. This tradition continues today under the guidance of Santa’s Elves Inc., which was founded in 1974. Up to 10,000 letters in as many as 65 languages are answered each year by volunteers. Non-English letters are answered in the child’s own language by Benedictine monks at nearby St. Meinrad Archabbey and the Sisters of St. Benedict at the Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand.

In the mid 1930s local attorney Milton Harris worked out an arrangement with Curtiss Candy Company and built a “castle” for selling candy to visitors. He also built a factory that made Santa Claus sleighs pulled by reindeer. A few toy companies built small factories nearby where they could build toys and sell them to visiting children. Businessman Carl A. Barrett collected donations and in 1935 opened a park with a log cabin and a large granite statue of Santa Claus erected near the main road and less than a mile from the other buildings.

But children visiting tiny Santa Claus, Ind., were so disappointed to find out the “real” Santa Claus wasn’t there and this bothered Evansville industrialist Louis J. Koch, the father of nine children. He created Santa Claus Land as a retirement project. Koch’s original plans called for the park to open in the early 1940s, but its actual debut was postponed until August 3,1946, the year after World War II ended. By this time Koch’s son, Bill, had returned from the war and was interested in helping his dad develop both Santa Claus Land and the town of Santa Claus. Bill Koch married Yellig’s daughter, Patricia, and the two kept busy with this new venture as they raised five children.

Santa Claus Land was the first theme park in America. (Walt Disney constructed Disney Land in 1955.) Plans for the original park included a real Santa Claus, and no one was better suited for the part than Jim Yellig. There was also the Mother Goose Land Train with 1/4 scale locomotive which is still in operation, a toy factory with elves at work, a small snack area, and, of course, a souvenir shop. During its second year of operation, Santa Claus Land opened a toy shop, antique toy displays, a restaurant named Christmas Room, and a gift shop which included even more future collectibles in its inventory. The House of Dolls housed an impressive collection of dolls which included U.S. presidents and first ladies, a wax museum, and antique dolls. In 1955 the Pleasureland ride section opened in the area now known as Rudolph’s Reindeer Ranch. That year admission was charged for the first time; adults paid 50 cents each but children were still free. Over the next 40 years Santa Claus Land expanded to include entertainment, more rides, a wax museum, and collections of antique trains, dolls, and foreign toys. Because the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial is only a few miles away, an exhibit of Lincoln memorabilia was also added.

But times, they were a-changin’. Santa Claus Land became thought of as a place for pre-school children and not a destination for the whole family. So in 1984 Santa Claus Land was renamed Holiday World. Two more holiday areas, Halloween and the Fourth of July, were added. In 1993 Splashin’ Safari added 23 acres of water attractions. A wooden roller coaster, the Raven, was added in 1995. Holiday World celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2006 with a new holiday section, Thanksgiving. Its major attraction was a record-breaking roller coaster named the Voyage. Pilgrim’s Plunge, the world’s tallest water ride, headlines expansion plans for 2009.

Bill Koch remained active in managing the park as well as promoting the town of Santa Claus until his death in 2001. His widow, Pat, still takes an active role in the family business as well as community projects. The oldest of their five children, Will, is now president and general manager of Holiday World.

Many people have treasured items they purchased at Santa Claus Land and have displayed each holiday season for decades. Others are reminded of good family memories when they see Santa Claus Land items in antique malls or on Internet auction sites. So it is not surprising that the popularity of items originally sold in Santa Claus Land gift shops and used by employees continues to soar with collectors. Because there were so many items sold in the gift shops, most items remain very affordable.

For More Information:

Holiday World & Spashin’ Safari
452 E. Christmas Blvd.
Santa Claus, IN 47579

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