How Charles Howard blazed a path to the North Pole via Albion

Dec 24, 2020

For countless children worldwide, the arrival of Christmas Eve brings the excited anticipation of a visit by Santa Claus. For nearly three decades, many men who portrayed Kris Kringle in stores and in parades traveled to Albion to receive training on how to properly play the role. The man who founded the school, Charles W. Howard, was in his lifetime a leading authority figure on the holiday character.

Though Howard died in 1966, his legacy remains actively celebrated in Albion. Earlier this week, New York State formally dedicated a portion of Route 31 as the Charles W. Howard Memorial Highway. His name is featured on many of the holiday-themed banners hanging from the lampposts lined up along Main Street. Within an open space between two building just south of the Erie Canal there is a mural and a sign, both honoring his memory.

"Albion people are very proud of the association with Charles Howard and he is indeed celebrated here," said Catherine Cooper, Orleans County Historian, who welcomed WBFO to peruse through numerous documents including vintage photos, newspaper clippings, brochures and other pieces from the Charles W. Howard Santa School and Christmas Park.

Howard was born in Albion in 1896 and by age seven was already demonstrating skill in making wooden toys and furniture. He received the gift of a Santa Claus suit from his mother, and by his own written account he proved to be an "acceptable" Santa when wearing the accompanying mask. He didn't like wearing the mask, he wrote, "for it was more frightening to children than his own."

When he was older, he took a job at a Merrill and Son Furniture in Albion, where dressed as Santa Claus he would build toys within a storefront window, viewed from the other side by a passing public. Many children, though either stayed in front of the window or went inside, where they could interact with Howard.

He later took a Santa job with McCurdy's Department Store in Rochester. It was there, Cooper explains, that he observed a lot among the other Santas that he didn't like.

“He felt that some of the Santa Clauses he encountered were not professional,” she said. “For example, a Santa Claus who would go off on his break and have a cigarette and then come back reeking of cigarettes, or whose beards didn't fit correctly, or who didn't have the right spirit. That dismayed him.”

And so in 1937, he opened his Santa School within his Albion farmhouse. Over time, word spread and department stores near and far began sending their Santas to the school for training. Inquiries came from abroad and Howard even traveled to Australia to conduct sessions.

The late Nathan Doan, with his wife Mary Ida, would eventually acquire the school. But first, in the 1950s, he was one of the students. Mary Ida Doan, speaking from her home in Bay City, Michigan, told WBFO that while Howard taught that Santa and the spirit of Christmas were about love and giving, there were other important lessons to share.

“He always said never promise a child a thing. That was probably one of the first lessons," she said. "Even if the parents were behind you, shaking their head ‘yes’ that Susie was going to get this doll, never promise. Because when mom and dad went to the store to get it, it may not be there, and then Santa would be in trouble.”

Mrs. Doan was asked about another potential dilemma for Santa Claus, when a child might ask for something not of material want but of an emotional nature. For example, an ill or unemployed parent. She recalled one child asking for an incarcerated father to be allowed home.

“Santa would always say, ‘well, I can't make a promise, but I'll tell you what I'll do, I'll say an extra prayer tonight. And we'll just see if we can get your dad home for Christmas for you,’” Doan said. “We had lots of children that wanted baby brothers or sisters for Christmas. Santa always said he wasn't really sure he could follow through, but we would do our best.”

Howard’s reputation as a high-quality Santa Claus grew. From 1948 to 1965, he was the Santa Claus who arrived by sleigh in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. He served as a consultant for the original version of the film Miracle on 34th Street.

In 1956, Howard opened Christmas Park on his property. His granddaughter, Jane Holland recalls the park in its prime attracted up to 80,000 visitors annually.

“I have often felt, and our family has felt, that he was right up there with Walt Disney as far as his imagination,” Holland said. “Before animation, or any of those kind of things, he built a toy shop as part of the park, and it had all kinds of moving mechanical parts. And as a child, it was fascinating to just be able to sit there with your imagination and watch all of these different things move.”

The park closed in 1965, and Howard passed away one year later. Even after his death, Howard’s reputation and passion for Santa Claus gained new followers. Ken McPherson has become a renowned Santa Claus in his own right, and owns many of the artifacts from Christmas Park.

"It's pretty remarkable, everything he has done," he said. "And it goes far beyond just Santa Claus, as well. He's done a lot, even prior to anything to do with Santa Claus. The Medina Toy Company, Howard's Ice Cream, was big in his community, big in his church. Taught Sunday School, signing in the choir, taught, or helped the school with plays. He could sing like nobody's business."

Holland notes that while her grandfather was an authority on how to be Santa Claus, he didn’t lose sight of the personality’s origin, the Christian figure Saint Nicholas, who is celebrated for his kindness and generosity to children. When he wasn’t playing Santa Claus, Howard’s work included reading to children at Sunday church services.

“That was a very important part of his day, was to make sure that every Sunday he did go and attend church and wanted to portray Santa as a child of God, and the fact that he was doing God's work to portray and spread that spirit of giving and love," she said. "That was something that was very important to him.”

Ken McPherson concurs, recalling Howard’s own account of a visit to a Rochester home.

“When he left, he was walking down the hallway to make his exit out of the back of the house, and he heard this music” McPherson said. “And he thought that it was a radio or something that was given as a gift, and it was just left down in another room. Well he stopped, because he heard the music was getting closer. He looked through this doorway, and there was a little girl staring at the Christmas tree singing ‘Happy Birthday, dear Jesus, Happy Birthday to you.’ Charlie said even that little girl didn't forget what what Christmas really is.”

Upon Howard’s death, the Doans took over the Santa School and moved it to Bay City, Michigan. Mary Ida Doan told WBFO of the importance to them to preserve the standards expected by Howard.

“It was a privilege to play Santa, the job. And the children would look up to you. You're a pretty important person in their life,” Doan said. “This is what Charles wanted. Santa was not a clown. Santa was taught and loved. And I think this is what we tried to portray the whole time that we were teaching.”

The Doans sold the school in the mid 1980s to current owners Tom and Holly Valent, who now operate the school in Midland, Michigan. Their next training is scheduled for October 2021.

“He'll always be grandfather to me. But it's been a wonderful thing to see, as I've grown up to learn more about him,” Holland said. “I'm most proud of the fact that he has touched so many lives, and continues to touch lives with the history of his teaching at the school, and many other endeavors that he had.”