A tribute to 'Santa's summer home' on exhibit in Anoka

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 12, 2012 - 8:27 AM

An exhibit at the Anoka County History Center touches on several aspects of Christmas in the area, including an amusement park that once stood in Ramsey.

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Santa Claus Town originated in the 1950s, inspired by questions from its creator’s children.

Photo: , Anoka County Historical Society

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Santa Claus Town, said to be Santa's summer home, was a familiar sight in Ramsey in the 1950s.

It was a highly visible landmark off of Hwy. 10, several miles west of Anoka, though the particulars, including its exact location and years of operation, are tougher to pinpoint.

Its creator, the late Bernard Swanson, an industrial engineer who lived in Ramsey, dreamed up the park in response to his children's questions about what Santa did in his off time, according to information from the Anoka County History Center. The whimsical amusement park originated sometime around 1953, but it was short-lived.

It's pictured in a collection of color and black-and-white photos on display in the history center's lobby, under the heading, "Santa's Summer Home."

Caitlin Frey, a History Center staffer who set up the exhibit, said of the park, "We thought it would be a fun, nostalgic theme. A lot of people remember it." The exhibit runs through December.

On the park grounds, a child-sized electric train, statuaries of Santa and a snowman that stood at the front gate, along with Mother Goose nursery rhyme characters, kiddie rides and a petting zoo, characterized the park.

Santa Claus Town speaks to what was happening in the county and beyond in the 1950s and '60s, according to Todd Mahon, the center's director. Roadside attractions were fairly commonplace at the time, as a result of "the post-WWII affluence and the relative ease in which cars could be purchased," he said. Combined with lots of road and highway construction at the state and federal level, "It was the perfect recipe for these roadside attractions," he said.

After the park closed in the 1950s or '60s, the storybook characters, which were auctioned off, landed at nearby farms, according to Robert Silberman, an art history professor at the University of Minnesota.

Silberman was struck by some of the structures that loomed in a field near Hwy. 61 and Carver Avenue in St. Paul in the 1980s. The figures, fashioned out of concrete, wire mesh and wood, were falling apart by then. Still, they piqued Silberman's interest for the fact that they're "somewhere between folk art and pop culture."

He ended up featuring some of the pieces in a 1986 art show that centered on Americana. Of the park figures, he said, "It wasn't out of a box. There was an individual character to it."  

Al Pearson, a Ramsey resident who leads the Anoka Historical Society Board, used to help his dad mow the ditch near the amusement park. "People coming up the highway would see it and slow down," he said. Beyond that, his memory of the park is vague. It goes to show how "history is everyday," he said. "You don't realize it until later and you wish you'd taken pictures and paid more attention to what was happening."

Gary Greb, a Ramsey resident and center volunteer, is pictured in a black-and-white photo in the exhibit, which he donated to the center. The family photo shows him seated alongside his two sisters in a sleigh at the park when he was a little over a year old in 1956. His family used to stop at the amusement park during road trips to visit his aunt and uncle, who lived in the area.  

A bird figure that "reminded me of home," or the wildlife in North Dakota, sticks with him today, he said. It was a "talking" parrot that was "rigged to greet each child by name," according to exhibit information. Other than that, he also drew a blank about the park. "I know it had rides," he said. "That's about all I remember. It was quite a while ago."

In addition to the "Santa's Summer Home" exhibit, an assortment of vintage Santa collectibles is on view in the lobby.

Old greeting cards, magazine and newspaper clippings, ads and figurines -- including a German-made doll from the 1930s that doubles as a candy holder -- give a sense of how the American image of Santa came about, she said.

In the United States, Santa went from being a "diminutive elf-like figure" in the 1860s to "the jolly man in a red suit that we know today," she said. The exhibit traces the transformation.

Anna Pratt is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

  • IF YOU GO

    When: Anoka County History Center, 2135 3rd Av. N., Anoka

    Where: Through December; Tues. 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Wed.-Fri. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m.  

    More info: Call 763-421-0600 or go to www.ac-hs.org

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