Many who bemoan the commercialism of Christmas consider the phenomenon to be a recent trend. In Indiana, however, corporate wrangling for holiday dollars goes back at least to the 1930s. A southern Indiana town has inspired entrepreneurs ever since town postmaster James Martin began promoting the Santa Claus, Indiana postmark in the 1920s. By 1929, Ripley’s Believe It or Not ran a strip about the annual flood of letters into the small post office every December from children around the country.
Corporations began to send large holiday mailings through the Spencer County post office for its unique postmark. Teaming up with postmaster Martin, salesman Milton Harris hatched a plan to capitalize on the town’s cachet. With an dedication ceremony that was broadcast on Evansville’s WGBF, Santa Claus Town opened on December 22, 1935. The theme park that promised Christmas all-year-round boasted a Candy Castle and a Toy Village sponsored by the leading manufacturers of the day, including Curtis Candy and Lionel Trains. “A Santa Claus Seal of Approval” was a value-adding tactic incorporated in the packaging of toys displayed in Santa Claus Town. Chicago retailer Marshall Fields sent its holiday mail orders from Santa Claus for the postmark and special seal.
Days after the dedication of Santa Claus Town, a 25-foot Saint Nick—purportedly made of granite—went up on an adjacent hill. Chicago businessman Carl Barrett had purchased land in the hopes of creating his own Santa Claus “Park”, and annulling Harris’ rights to the property he’d leased. A crack in the “granite” showed the statue to be concrete; and a struggle for market share in the town’s holiday business followed suit. The legal battle went all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court, capturing the national attention with reports on “Too Many Santa Clauses” in Business Week and Newsweek . Ongoing litigation and wartime privations dimmed the town’s holiday glow somewhat, but by 1946, a venture known as Santa Claus Land managed to thrive—ultimately emerging as the park known today as Holiday World.
Although subsequent owners attempted to revive the magic of Santa Claus Town, Milton Harris’ project never regained the commercial success of its heyday in the 1930s. By the 1970s, the Candy Castle had become a private residence and all but one of the miniature buildings in the Toy Village had met the wrecking ball. In July 2006, however, a restored Candy Castle opened to the public, its new owners promising to resurrect the rest of Santa Claus Town as well.