Mechanical Santa a simple charm for an ever-complex time
By ANDREW MCGINN
The sun had already set and I was beyond ready to settle down for that long winter’s nap.
Actually, it was only a few minutes past 5 o’clock on Monday, and it was technically still fall, not winter.
’Tis the season for seasonal affective disorder to rear its head.
But what to my wondering eyes should appear as I left work, passing by the Masonic Lodge window on the west side of the Square as I do so often, but Santa’s workshop running at full bore.
The antique display of Santa’s workshop — in which Kris Kringle and his elves mechanically rock back and forth just so, a low-tech decoration that has reliably captivated generations of Jefferson kids — appeared to be operating like new.
Why this caught my eye is simple: just a few hours earlier, Shirley Stapleton had told me that the elves on one end of the display were no longer moving. It would seem that the display was finally beginning to reflect the wear and tear of the years.
Stapleton explained that, if a local handyman wanted to take a look at it, they were more than encouraged to drop her a line. I was going to help spread the word.
Yet there they were on Monday evening, toiling away for all to see. All the elves were doing their part ahead of Santa’s big day.
For all I know, Stapleton had arranged for someone in the interim to tinker with the display.
But as I drove past the window, a knowing grin came over me.
We all know there’s magic in that display.
The display — I’m still not sure what to call it; a motorized diorama, perhaps? — is making the rarest of public appearances this year, thanks solely to the fact that this year has been one like no other in our lifetime.
The display is the property of what’s now Greene County Elementary School. Because of the pandemic, the school had made the decision not to bring it out of storage this Christmas season.
“It’s kind of a crowd attractor,” remembered Stapleton, who taught elementary special education locally for more than three decades before her retirement.
Knowing that, she contacted the school, whose administrators confirmed that, yes, putting the display out this Christmas season would likely provoke a virtual collapse of civil order, er, social distancing guidelines.
So Stapleton — who dutifully decorates the Masons’ window on behalf of Jefferson Matters: A Main Street and Chamber Community — asked to borrow it.
“I just asked,” she said.
The fact that it’s still in such good shape after all these years is probably nothing short of remarkable, given that elementary kids are essentially two-legged cats.
As Stapleton recalled, nearly every elementary teacher in Jefferson at some point has told kids not to put their fingers in it.
“All the teachers remember it,” she said.
We also have the teachers to thank for saving the display from leaving the community after it was mistakenly auctioned off in 1992 following closure of the old “pink school” alongside desks, lockers, film projectors, globes and even the 1934 prints of George Washington and Abe Lincoln in oval frames.
But, really, that’s about all we know for sure about the display that has come to, in the words of retired elementary teacher Barb Gorman, symbolize Christmas for kids in Jefferson.
It left such an impression on me as a kid that when I returned home in late 2013 to be editor of the paper, I set out to tell its story.
While I didn’t find much, it’s worth repeating some of what I found now that it’s on public view for possibly the first time ever.
It still amazes me that the same, simple electromotor has been able to keep a cardboard Santa bellowing in approval of his elves — in a hypnotic, back-and-forth motion — for decades.
Traditionally, it went on display at the elementary school the week before Christmas vacation.
The elves, who hammer, sew and paint away, are all powered by electromotors behind the display.
“It’s really rudimentary,” Stapleton said.
The display has little in the way of a paper trail and even less in the way of identifying markings. In fact, the only reference to the display I’ve been able to find in the Bee & Herald archives is from a December 1955 column by Mary Kay Kidder.
The now-late Kidder, who penned the paper’s “Diary of a Housewife” column, devoted just a single sentence to the mechanical Santa workshop after it was sent to the kindergarten as a gift from Jefferson State Bank.
The history of the display — and how it came to reside at the elementary school — is so murky that even Rudolph’s red nose would have a hard time cutting through what’s fact and what’s fiction.
A retired custodian told me that he believed the display dated from before the North Grade building even had electricity. It was only fitted later on with an electrical cord, he said.
It was also said to have been made by either the uncle or father of a local kindergarten teacher.
In reality, the animated display was more than likely from a big-city department store window, or at least intended for one.
“That was something you were used to seeing in the store windows in Des Moines,” Tom Yepsen, a retired school administrator, told me back in 2014.
Yepsen came to know the mechanical Santa display as a local kindergartner himself in the late ’50s. Ironically, he was principal of the North Grade the year it was put up for auction, a goof he attributed to “some miscommunication somewhere.”
One name, however, kept popping up in recollection after recollection: “Miss Mabel.”
Miss Mabel was Mabel Davidson, an inspirational kindergarten teacher who taught at the pink school from 1920 to 1962.
When Davidson died in 1981 at 88, she left her body to science — one final act for the teacher who seemingly made it her duty to inspire wonderment.
The product of a pioneer family — her grandparents were early settlers in Greene County — Davidson had graduated from Jefferson High School in 1910.
Her kindergarten classroom was the kind of place where a squirrel — a gift from a student — was content to nap underneath her desk lamp and where a resident chicken nested on eggs.
We now have photographic evidence to suggest that, following Miss Mabel’s departure, it passed to teacher Vivian Autenreith. I wrote a story in November about a trust established by Mrs. Autenreith shortly before her death in 1991. Nearly 30 years later, Mrs. Autenreith’s last wishes were finally carried out this year with the distribution of $1.2 million to the Greene County Community Center and the Greene County Medical Center.
To illustrate the story about Mrs. Autenreith’s final act of kindness, I was given my choice of old photos. Not surprisingly, I immediately zeroed in on one with the mechanical Santa display in the background of her classroom.
I think we can confidently date the original arrival of the Santa display in Miss Mabel’s room to the ’50s, based on the recollections of former students and Kidder’s mention of it in her 1955 newspaper column.
There’s also one other clue: the name “Gregory Motors, Brooklyn, N.Y.” on the electromotors that power Santa and the elves.
A Google search revealed inventor E.E. Gregory’s 1943 patent filing with the U.S. Patent Office for an electromotor of the same appearance — a device used for “producing reciprocal motion of parts of advertising posters or displays for the purpose of attracting attention.”
The patent filing notes the electromotor’s simple construction, and that it may be operated for long periods without oiling, adjusting or other servicing.
The U.S. Patent Office patented Gregory’s electromotor in 1948.
Gregory Motors apparently made all sorts of animated window displays. An earlier Gregory patent, for a “motor for animated advertising sign,” dates to 1925.
Stapleton plans to leave the display in the Masonic window until January, but casually admits, “I could keep it up til July.”
I don’t think anyone would mind.
After a year of fear and loathing, of Facebook feuds and Twitter tantrums, the display’s simple magic is medicine for the soul.
Merry Christmas, my friends.