The History of Santa's Candy Castle
Once Upon a Time in a Place Called Santa Claus...
So begins the real-life fairy tale of Santa’s Candy Castle, located in the picturesque town of Santa Claus, Indiana. It is the story of how this magical castle was created, became loved by thousands, then closed and was all but forgotten. It is a story of ordinary people making extraordinary efforts to restore and preserve a special part of American history. To tell this story – the whole story – requires us to go back to the time before the town was called Santa Claus. And so our story begins, more than 150 years ago...
How Santa Claus, Indiana got its Name (and Post Office!)
In the early 1800’s, pioneers settled a small town in the gently rolling hills of Southern Indiana, originally naming it Santa Fee. In the 1850’s the town’s application for a post office was denied, because another town with the same name already had a post office. On Christmas Eve, as services concluded in the small log church, the townspeople decided to stay and hold their final town meeting of the year. The only order of business, selecting a new name for the town, was not going very well. Suddenly a gust of wind blew open the door to the church, and sleigh bells were heard in the distance. “Santa Claus!” exclaimed the excited children, providing the inspiration for the town’s new name. On May 21, 1856, the U.S. Post Office Department approved a post office in the newly-renamed town of Santa Claus, Indiana.
The Santa Claus Post Office becomes Famous
The town’s unique name went largely unnoticed until the 1920’s, when Postmaster James Martin promoted the Santa Claus postmark as a festive way to adorn Christmas cards. A growing volume of holiday mail began to flow through the otherwise tiny post office each year, ultimately becoming so substantial that it caught the attention of Robert Ripley. In 1929, Ripley featured the town’s post office in his nationally-syndicated “Believe It or Not” newspaper cartoon. The feature thrust Santa Claus, Indiana into the national spotlight and the following Christmas its little post office was flooded with over a million pieces of mail. The town would never be the same again.
Creating the Dream of “Santa Claus Town”
By 1932, Santa Claus, Indiana’s national fame had caught the attention of a visionary named Milton Harris. Harris dreamed of creating a themed attraction called “Santa Claus Town”. No one was exactly sure what Harris had in mind though, since places like Knott’s Berry Farm’s Ghost Town (1940) and Walt Disney’s Disneyland (1955) were still many years away. But Harris’ vision was clear: Santa Claus Town would be a magical place where Santa would live and work year-round, and where it would be Christmas morning every day of the year. Harris secured leases on most of the land in the town of Santa Claus, and began seeking sponsorship from American toy and candy manufacturers.
Santa’s Candy Castle: The Nation’s First Themed Attraction
The first building in Santa Claus Town was Santa’s Candy Castle, a red brick building with all the elements of a real castle that looked as though it had been lifted from the pages of a fairytale. It was sponsored by The Curtiss Candy Company, creators of the Baby Ruth and Butterfinger candy bars, who were famous for their larger-than-life advertising campaigns. Santa’s Candy Castle was dedicated amidst tremendous fanfare on the cold, snowy day of December 22, 1935. With broadcast television still years away, the formal dedication ceremony was broadcast live by radio station WGBF of Evansville. Thousands attended the dedication including national business leaders, politicians, and most importantly, many very excited young children. The grand affair marked the opening of Santa Claus, Indiana’s first tourist attraction and the first themed attraction in the United States.
Santa’s Workshop and Toy Village
Santa Claus Town expanded in 1936 with the addition of Santa’s Workshop and the Toy Village. In Santa’s Workshop, children could experience the magic of watching Santa Claus make toys in a fully functional wood shop. The Toy Village featured miniature fairytale buildings sponsored by America’s leading toy manufacturers including Daisy (air rifles), Lionel (electric trains), Buddy L (steel trucks), Wyandotte (pop guns), and Strombecker (doll furniture). No admission was charged to enter these buildings and nothing was for sale. Children could simply play and have fun with all the popular toys of the day. As America struggled through the Great Depression and many families did without, the Toy Village offered thousands of children the Christmas morning they otherwise wouldn’t have had.
All But Lost and Forgotten
But just before Christmas in 1941, everything changed as the attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into World War II. Sponsors were lost as companies shifted from production of toys to war goods. Tourism stopped due to limited gasoline supplies and the rationing of tires. Santa Claus Town became a shadow of what it once was. After the war, Santa Claus Town creator Milton Harris began working to try to return the attraction to its original glory. Sadly however, Harris passed away unexpectedly in 1950; his dream never fully realized. Others attempted to carry on variations of Harris’ vision, but the magic had been lost. In the 1970’s, Santa Claus Town closed to the public and the attraction became vacant and sat in disrepair. The magical fantasyland that had once been loved by thousands was seemingly lost and forgotten.
Recapturing the Magic
As the years passed, it appeared unlikely that the story of Santa Claus Town would end “Happily Ever After”. But in early 2005, newspapers reported that a private family had purchased the properties that comprised the original attraction, and had begun a restoration effort. The stories described an average family, whose love for history, tradition and the spirit of Christmas was anything but average. Those traveling down Candy Castle Road in Santa Claus, Indiana soon began to see steady progress being made on the property. A Santa sighting at the castle in late 2005 led many to believe that the magic was gradually returning to this special place.
Happily Ever After
In July 2006, “Happily Ever After” began to come true for Santa Claus Town. Santa’s Candy Castle re-opened to the public for the first time in over three decades, and a whole new generation began to experience its magic. And just like it was in the beginning -- over 80 years ago -- admission to the castle is still free. But the final chapter is far from over. Restoration efforts continue on Santa’s Workshop and the Toy Village, offering the promise of many more exciting new experiences to come. In the meantime, we invite you to come and experience the magic of Santa’s Candy Castle for yourself.