Original Santa Claus statue.
In a town named Santa Claus, hilltop Santa is dusted with Christmastime snow.

America's First Santa Statue

Field review by the editors.

Santa Claus, Indiana

Marble white, standing on a hilltop like a yuletide Acropolis, the oldest Santa statue in America is the civic icon of the tiny town of Santa Claus. At 22 feet tall, weighing a reputed 40 tons, Santa holds a sack overflowing with simple toys -- a doll, a drum, a horsey -- no doubt crafted in his workshop at the North Pole.

Santa Claus statue.
He knows when you've been sleeping.

Santa is surrounded by a 20-foot-wide Christmas star and faces east toward biblical Bethlehem. On the pedestal of the statue are inscribed Santa's formal proclamations to kids ("Honour thy Father and thy Mother that thy Cup of Life may be Overflowing with Happiness") and parents ("Life hath Given thee Nothing more Sweet than the Patter of Feet Across thy Floor") and the universe ("There is Nothing so Universal as the Spirit of Santa Claus").

This Goliath of Christmas cheer has a surprisingly bad-tempered history. He was the vision of Carl Barrett (1890-1978), one of several businessmen who came to Santa Claus, Indiana, hoping to open Christmas-themed attractions in the 1930s. The Santa statue was the kickoff project of Barrett's Santa Claus Park. His chief rival was Milton Harris (1898-1950), whose Santa Claus Town was only a few hundred yards down the road. Harris was racing to complete his own kickoff project, the Candy Castle. As it turned out, Barrett unveiled his statue and Harris opened his Castle on the same day, December 22, 1935, each trying to steal the spotlight from the other.

Santa Claus statue before his makeover.
Santa before his 2011 makeover.

Barrett told the press that President Roosevelt might unveil the statue by remote control, and that the governors of Indiana and Kentucky might attend. As it turned out, the statue was unveiled by local school kids and the highest ranking official at the hour-long ceremony was the mayor of Evansville. But the public loved it anyway, with Barrett declaring that Santa Claus Park would become "a children's dream paradise." The huge crowd at the unveiling was larger than Santa Claus the town (pop. 60 at the time) had ever seen.

Barrett styled himself a champion of Christmas integrity (as opposed to Harris) but told some whopper fibs that should have put coal in his stocking and his name on Santa's naughty list. He claimed that a hole in the ground near the statue was formed by meteorite -- a Christmas Day "falling star" -- that had inspired the town (previously named Santa Fee) to change its name to Santa Claus. In fact, the town had changed its name for an entirely different reason, and the hole was just a hole. "Gill Fahr was one of the people that dug that hole," said Pat Koch, founder of the town's Santa Claus Museum. "They even threw pieces of metal into that crater to make it look real."

Santa Claus statue
Santa Claus surveys his namesake town. The small brown building is its original post office.

Oldest Santa Claus statue.
Santa as he looked soon after his 1935 unveiling.

Another of Barrett's fabrications was that his massive Santa was carved out of Mount Airy granite. Cracks that formed in the statue after only a few years showed that Santa was made of everyday concrete.

By then Barrett was gone, forced out of business by a series of legal actions won by Harris. The courtroom victories, however, cost Harris precious time and money. His Santa Claus Town never grew much beyond the Candy Castle. Pat Koch said that Harris died in 1950 while shouting at some guy in the Castle parking lot. "He walked out to yell at him and collapsed."

Barrett lived another 28 years, continuing to insist, well into his eighties, that his statue was granite and the meteor crater was real.

Since this is a Christmas story, it has a happy ending. After years of abandonment and neglect, Harris's Candy Castle reopened in 2006, and Barrett's Santa statue was restored in 2011. The Koch family, which owns the town's successful theme park Santa Claus Land (renamed Holiday World), sandblasted layers of ill-conceived paint off of the statue, returning Santa to his original ethereal whiteness. The Koch's also rebuilt the statue's crumbling star and pedestal, and cleaned up the surrounding property.

Giant Santa is once again an impressive sight, especially after dark, when spotlights make his concrete glow like fresh Christmas snow. The rest of Barrett's Santa Claus Park has been lost to overgrowth and time, but if you travel with a metal detector you might find the filled-in crater.

Also see: A Town Named Santa Claus

America's First Santa Statue

Address:
69 N. IN-245, Santa Claus, IN
Directions:
On the west side of IN-245, just south of its intersection with IN-162. Up on a hill, set back from the road.
Phone:
812-544-2434
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Santa Claus MuseumSanta Claus Museum, Santa Claus, IN - < 1 mi.
Santa's Candy CastleSanta's Candy Castle, Santa Claus, IN - < 1 mi.
Holiday WorldHoliday World, Santa Claus, IN - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Big Cartoon Wolf Statue, Henderson, KY - 40 mi.

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