Industrialist built world of Christmas in Indiana
IT WAS a place like no other on Earth – Santa Claus Land, in the town of Santa Claus, Indiana, which opened on August 3, 1946.
It was an amusement park with fun things to do largely aimed at children, like many other amusement parks, but this one was different. Santa Claus Land was an immersive experience, allowing visitors to feel like it was Christmas, all year around.
While that may not seem like anything new to us now, this was arguably the first themed amusement park in the world. It opened years before Walt Disney created his first Disneyland, built on the theme of bringing his cartoons to life.
Santa Claus Land was the brainchild of industrialist and train enthusiast, Louis J. Koch, from Evansville, Indiana, who loved trains and children – he had nine, children that is, not trains. Koch was something of a visionary, who had shown a creative flair for often finding new directions for the family business.
Although his previous business ideas all had to do with metalwork, he knew what amused children and could see a need for a particular kind of amusement park, one that catered to youngsters wanting to meet Santa in his “home town”. The venture paid off and the park is still there, transformed from its modest beginnings into the huge Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari.
It all began with the founding of a town in the 1840s, about 90km east of the large city of Evansville. Originally called Santa Fe, it was the small hub of the local farming community.
As it grew over the ensuing decade, the town applied for its own post office, which was rejected because there was another Indiana town called Santa Fe. At a town meeting, close to Christmas, in December 1856, the locals voted to change the name to Santa Claus.
The name made the town a curiosity, and occasionally letters arrived addressed to
Santa Claus, but it was not until the early 20th century that it became a tourist attraction. In 1914 the local postmaster, James Martin, started to reply to the letters sent by children across the US to Santa.
Koch bought more than 100ha of land at Santa Claus and his park finally opened in 1946, with rides, a toy shop, Christmas displays, a restaurant and a resident Santa. It was a huge success and inspired many other themed parks.