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That time bad weather killed Saultites' appetite for the Santa Claus Parade

And a whole village took its place

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

“The… Santa Claus parade is dead,” declared a 1967 article in the Sault Daily Star, “and a glittering Santa Claus Village has risen from its ashes.”

The Junior Chamber of Commerce – also known as the JCs or Jaycees and Jaycettes – had initially run the parade since the early 1950s.  However, in 1967, after almost having to cancel the parade in past years because of poor weather, they decided they needed a change. They opted instead for an indoor show at the Memorial Gardens, inspired partially by Santa’s Village in Bracebridge.

The event would feature characters from fairy tales, Disney movies, and children’s stories, including Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Pinocchio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Three Little Pigs. Of course, Santa himself would also be present, hard at work in his workshop, along with other Christmas favourites like Rudolph and Frosty.

The Jaycees recruited high school students to play the numerous characters, and local nursing students to help with costume makeup application.

With a budget of $2,000, the Jaycees were counting on being able to re-purpose props from parade floats. 

They also launched a sizable fundraising initiative, including a major rummage sale, and solicited donations. Numerous local businesses also supplied materials free of charge to the project, and even the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests got involved, donating Christmas trees.

A small admission fee would also be charged to help fund the undertaking: $.50 for adults and $.25 for children.

Construction began in November 1967, and the bulk of the work was performed by “a score of Jaycees working 50 hours a week for a solid month on the project,” according to the Sault Daily Star. The sets were elaborate, including a Big Bad Wolf that actually blew down some of the Three Little Pigs’ houses.

Santa’s Village was open to the public on December 15 and 16, 1967.

Parents expressed to the Sault Daily Star that they actually preferred this to a parade – they didn’t have to hunt for a parking spot, they got to stay indoors, and it provided a more interactive experience for their kids.

An estimated 11,000 people visited the attraction over the course of the two days.  In contrast, the Santa Claus Parade typically drew in 7,000 spectators.

In 1968, the Jaycees planned for Santa’s Village to come back bigger and better than ever, with more fairy tale sets than the previous year. They also served as a drop-off location where people could donate toys to children in need.

Once again, an estimated 11,000 people showed up, including one enthralled little boy who reportedly told his mother, “I told you that wasn’t the real Santa at the (department store.) He’s right there.”

However, despite the success and holiday magic that Santa’s Village created, it was short-lived. In 1969, due to an increase in the cost to rent the Memorial Gardens (along with an increase in the cost of other materials and the extensive commitment needed to realize the project), Santa’s Village was put on hold.

A statement by W. R. Claringbold, Junior Chamber of Commerce president, elaborated on the issues. 

The Jaycees did not receive the full reimbursement they were promised by the Community Services Board. While they had space to build and decorate their sets at Strathclair Farm Barn before moving them to the Memorial Gardens, that proved a nearly impossible undertaking, with paint freezing while it was being applied. 

Many of the sets were damaged by weather and wildlife while being stored over the rest of the year. And, again, Claringbold stressed, “The man-hours required to build this village is staggering.”

The Sault Community Services Board chair disagreed, saying he “was very upset, disappointed, and utterly disgusted with the” statement.

Despite the dispute and the initial cancellation of Santa’s Village, it still pulled through in 1969.  The old Woolworth building on Queen Street provided their space free of charge, and the Jaycees agreed to stage a smaller version of the event.

Over four days in December 1969, Santa City, as the event was now called, attracted over 5,700 people.

In 1970, the Village moved again, this time to the Armoury on Pine Street, with an estimated 6,000 people attending.

But just as it seemed like things were getting back in order, disaster struck. The roof on Straithclair Barn, where the Jaycees were storing their props, collapsed.  The damage meant that most of their sets were destroyed, with only a few left in salvageable condition.

However, the Jaycees took this setback as an opportunity to make the village bigger and better than ever. They hoped to involve local businesses and even began to investigate the possibility of creating a permanent location complete with family camping facilities.

In the meantime, Santa’s Village returned to the Woolworth building in 1971. In 1972, the Jaycees ran a Christmas Family Day at Fort Wosguhaegun.

Ultimately, however, plans for a permanent village fizzled and the Jaycees no longer ran the Santa’s Village events. The Santa Claus Parade would return in 1986, this time run by the Queenstown Association.

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at www.ssmpl.ca and look for more Remember This? columns here