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Holiday Green Fades in Santa Claus, Ga.

Times Staff Writer

Santa Claus is not very busy in this southeastern Georgia community that bears his name--at least, not as busy as the town’s 275 residents would like him to be.

Back in the 1940s, when this Toombs County community incorporated and gave the local streets names like Reindeer Drive and Candy Cane Lane, there were high hopes that Santa Claus would become a booming tourist attraction. Its location along U.S. 1, then a main route to Florida, seemed to guarantee success.

But along came the interstate highways that, like the Grinch that stole Christmas, routed vacation-bound travelers away.

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“The interstates killed us,” said Santa Claus Mayor Bernard Harden, 48, an insurance salesman who lives on Dancer Street.

Old-Time Post Office

To help boost the trade in Christmas-card mailings with a Santa Claus postmark, a tiny cinder-block building next to the white-columned City Hall is being remodeled to resemble a turn-of-the-century post office.

The interior will feature a genuine antique postal cage, complete with iron-grilled stamp window and old-fashioned call boxes--the gift of a benefactor from nearby Lyons, the seat of government of Toombs County.

“During the Christmas season, we’ll have senior citizen volunteers in there hand-stamping cards that people bring in or send in to mail,” the mayor said.

About 5,000 pieces of Christmas mail are stamped each year with the special postmark, only a fraction of the 500,000 cards handled annually by the post office in Santa Claus, Ind., which opened in 1856.

Local officials and residents here say that what the town sorely needs to pull more travelers off the beaten path is a major year-round attraction--like a candy factory or a toy manufacturing plant with old Kris Kringle as a full-time employee.

Grocery, Motel

“Something like that would really put Santa Claus back on the map,” said Della O’Neal, owner of the Santa Claus Grocery, the town’s only other business besides the 18-unit Santa Claus Motel.

The town owes its existence to a roadside stand that was opened in the 1930s along U.S. 1 by C. G. (Farmer) Greene, who peddled pecans, fresh fruits and souvenirs to passing motorists.

“He was a real jolly fellow with a red complexion and roly-poly figure who was always laughing and smiling,” Harden said. “He started calling the community around here Santa Claus to help promote his business.”

In 1941, Greene spearheaded a movement to have the community incorporated and became its first mayor. When he moved on, the job of chief civic booster was taken up by William Salem, a real estate developer from Lyons who built most of the town’s tidy red-brick-and-frame houses.

In the spirit of the town’s namesake, Harden said, Salem would sometimes let people move into the new homes and begin paying for them later when they had the money. Spruce Street was rechristened Salem Boulevard in his honor--the only street in Santa Claus without a name related to Christmas.

Loss of Traffic

The arrival of the interstates--I-75 to the west and I-95 to the east--reduced the town’s prospects, however, and left it stagnating like many other communities along U.S. 1.

But civic enthusiasts have not given up hope. “I’ve noticed that a lot of older people are beginning to come back to Route 1 because they feel like they’re in a trap on the interstates,” O’Neal said. “I think eventually more and more people who want a more relaxed drive on the way to Florida and back will also start using it.”

The Christmas season officially opens here on the Friday after Thanksgiving with the lighting of the 30-foot evergreen in front of City Hall at 25 December Drive. The building is decorated with a Nativity scene, a plastic Santa Claus on the front steps and candles in the windows. Its white pillars are wrapped in red ribbon to resemble candy canes.

A week before Christmas, a community holiday party is held at City Hall, with Santa Claus passing out candy and fruit for the children.

Candle Ceremony

But the town’s biggest drawing card these days is Santa Claus’ annual Christmas Eve candle-lighting ceremony. Six streets and U.S. 1, the town’s eastern border, are lined with hundreds of lighted candles in paper bags to help St. Nick find his way to children’s homes. Hundreds of visitors from around the area drive through town to view the sight.

“It’s really a beautiful sight,” the mayor said. “From 6 o’clock in the evening, when the candles are lighted, until way into the night, we get a constant stream of cars going through with their headlights off.”

The mayor says the community would like to find an investor willing to set up a toy or candy factory here to capitalize on the town’s name. “It’d be a natural,” he said.

Perhaps no one would be more thrilled if such a project materialized than Barbara Blaxton, manager of the Santa Claus Motel. Right now, her biggest customers are the temporary workers at a Georgia Power Co. nuclear plant in Baxley, about 25 miles south of Santa Claus.

“We could stand getting more tourists,” she said. “If I owned this place, I’d put in water beds, new carpets, mirrors and all kinds of things for them. I’d really have this business going.”


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