Origins of Santa's Castle
by Gordon Linge
Gordon Linge played a major role in the creation of the Castle and was charged with setting up the holiday attraction in its early years.
Storm Lake’s "busy sidewalks…. busy sidewalks" during the "Golden Years of Downtown's Main Street's Christmas Season" was always a place one had a good chance of running into Santa Claus. That was true in my youth in the 1950s, and I suspect that was true in the decades before as well.
My earliest memory of meeting Santa took place in Strickler-Spooner’s Five and Dime on the east side of Lake Avenue in the 500 block. Santa was in the store’s cramped office up a short flight of steps at the back of the store. There, as a four-year-old, I sat upon Charlie Foot’s lap totally in awe and happy to receive a beautiful candy cane. Charlie was the legendary Santa of the day and really played the part to its fullest ... or at least he had me as a true believer!
A few years later, Santa would set up his reception area in either a vacant store or in a small shed temporarily parked near the Bank Corner. Known as "Santa’s Workshop," a tree with a Lionel train encircling its base enhanced the annual experience. In the early 1960s Bob Laird, the Chamber of Commerce Director, learned about a set of four used animated Silvestri elves busily preparing for the holiday that was for sale in a midwestern city, perhaps Kansas City. The retired department store window figures were purchased and added to the display.
That marks the official start of what has become known as Santa’s Castle. Suddenly, the trip to visit Santa in Storm Lake became a much bigger deal. More animated units were added nearly every year. Numerous individuals, too many to mention without fear of leaving out key contributors, served over the years to decorate the magical shrine.
As an aside, having been fascinated as a child by miniature animated displays in the Paxton Jewelry store window, I was easily swept up in fantasy attractions. A clockmaker would circulate small cuckoo clock like displays such as “the old woman who lived in a shoe, she had so many children she didn’t know what to do”. The size of an actual high top lady’s lace shoe, the display had numerous doors and window that opened and closed revealing a chaotic household and a mother running in circles.
So from those basic impressions, I looked forward to the day when I might be asked to design and decorate the workshop. That finally happened in 1971. I was a senior art major at Buena Vista. My mother, Esther, worked at Van’s Book, Bible and Shoe Repair store on West Fifth Street. A sign over the steps leading to the basement store space proclaimed Van’s slogan appropriately read “Your Soul is Our Sole Concern”. Among the books they sold was one titled “Christmas Trees Around the World”. That was the spark for my first year's contribution. I quickly assembled a team of individuals and assigned each to make the decorations for a Christmas tree. Overall, eighteen different countries were represented. The book illustrated and provided instructions as well as sharing the story behind each custom.
Edna Robbins of Linn Grove had a major card collection and I asked to borrow a large representation of Christmas Greetings to included. Antique toys were tucked under trees. The WORKSHOP became more of a museum-like exhibition of the holiday, appealing to a larger audience. Attendance doubled. The following year, the Carnegie Library building became available and businessman, John Dvergsten christened it SANTA'S CASTLE due to its distinctive architectural features. For the next five years, the size and scope brought in more visitors…. 12,000, 18,500, 24,500. 33,300 and more.
There was no longer any doubt, Santa was real and he lived in Storm Lake!
Storm Lake Chamber of Commerce had created a monster and funding seemed to have reached a maximum. The honorarium for setting up and dismantling the display amounted to about 25 cents an hour when all was taken into account. The actual payment was in the joy and gratification received in return. It was humbling to see families lined up around the block, wrapped in blankets in cold, windy, snowy conditions waiting for an hour just to reach the front door.
When everything was finally in place, Christmas music was piped and, according to one young Castle assistant, “the music filled any remaining space in the Castle.” It was a totally immersive environment and memorable experience.
Fast forward forty years. While on summer visit with my parents, Walter and Esther Linge, I was in Walmart when a lady approached and inquired if I was Gordon Linge. Confirming that I was, she immediately launched into glowing comments about what Santa’s Castle had meant to her as a child. She went on to say she had always wanted to meet me some day.
Wow! How great a compliment could one possibly receive? Decades after the fact, someone still remembered and cared enough to thank me for my contribution to the community spirit of Storm Lake.
This was just the beginning of a professional life for me in creating museum exhibitions, public events and attractions; which include traveling a Jim Henson Puppetry Exhibition to eleven museums coast-to-coast, the Louisiana Folklife Pavilion at the World’s Fair in 1984, a Mardi Gras Museum, a life-size NASA space station attraction, Pro Sport Hall of Fame and more. Ironically, there would be another one other castle in my life: a live performance space known as "the Children’s Castle!" Unfortunately Hurricane Katerina ended that one, but Santa's Castle lives on.
It has been fun and it still is, so, dream on! Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!
Santa’s Workshop 1971 / Santa’s Castle 1972 - 1976
"Santa's Workshop" on the corner of Lake Avenue and 5th Street.
Gordon Linge featured in the Storm Lake Register, November 29, 1971
Raggedy Andy welcomes visitors to Santa's Castle, 1974
Vintage newspaper ad
Location: 200 E 5th St, Storm Lake, IA 50588
Call: (712) 749-9247