Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Boy Who Sued Santa — And Won!

That’s no trick headline you see above. After an incident in the Adirondacks 65 years ago, Santa’s business operations in the mountains were taken to court — by a five-year-old plaintiff.

As you might imagine, there were proxies involved: Santa’s interests were represented by Santa’s Workshop, North Pole, N.Y. (in Wilmington), and young Michael of Saratoga Springs was spoken for by his parents. Attorneys handled the court proceedings on behalf of both parties.

The brainchild of Julian Reiss, Santa’s Workshop opened in 1949, and today is in its 69th season. As a theme park, it quickly became wildly popular. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise, covering the park’s 50th anniversary in 1998, recalled, “On the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, 1951, the Workshop hit its peak: there were 14,000 paid admissions to the Workshop — and children were admitted free!”

If you’ve ever been there, one of the most popular things to do is pose for pictures while touching, leaning on, or standing next to the actual North Pole. For many, no visit was complete without touching it, something untold thousands had done during the first few years of operations.

But on August 2, 1953, the practice took a dark turn. The pole consisted of a thick layer of ice encasing a refrigerated iron pipe, but on this particular day it had been defrosted. As the re-freezing process began, young Michael, visiting the park with his mother, reached out, touched the metal, and became instantly stuck to it.

An older child (like the one some of you are envisioning from A Christmas Story — Flick, who on a dare got his tongue stuck to the flagpole) might become frightened, but a five-year-old, with no understanding of what was happening to him, would panic, which Michael did. While screaming and attempting to free himself, the poor boy’s hands, face, and tongue became frozen to the pole. The frantic, frightening situation ended when park personnel managed to free him, but Michael’s injuries became the subject of a negligence lawsuit filed by his parents.

The official complaint charged that no guards monitored the pole during the defrosting process, and that signs invited children to touch the North Pole, which their son did. As a result, according to claims made in court, Michael suffered physical injuries that were painful and lasting: a small scar above one eye; frost burns to the face, tongue, and hand; and the inability to discern between sweet and sour tastes. In addition, he often cried spontaneously after the incident and was troubled by nightmares.

Sixteen months after the ordeal, a judge in Ballston Spa ordered Santa’s Workshop to pay the boy’s parents $1,000 (equal to about $9,100 in 2018).

Despite some negative publicity, the park continued to flourish. As noted in the same Adirondack Daily Enterprise article cited above, Santa’s Workshop hosted more than 10 million visitors during its first 50 years. I’m pleased to say I was one of them.

Photos: the North Pole at Santa’s Workshop (the North Pole website); headline (Schenectady Gazette, 1954)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

3 Responses

  1. Beth Rowland says:

    I don’t know where you find these stories, Lawrence, but they’re great!

  2. Jim S. says:

    Rumor has it young Michael went on to work in the coal industry.

  3. Susan Gaffney says:

    I went there as a child, too, Lawrence, and later, in 1962, worked there as a gnome: one of Santa’s helpers. A college friend and I lived with the Richardson family in Wilmington. We were all picked up in a van in the morning by a man named Charlie Call, and our uniforms were short jumpers, footless leggings, and little red booties, plus that cute hat.

    It was a wonderful job, and a great summer. In the evening, or on days off, we’d hitch-hike to Lake Placid (we felt safe hitching in a group), walk around the big city, and visit the former Arena Bar & Grill. (Drinking age was 18 back then.)

    One night, Kathy and I started walking and talking, and we ended up walking from Wilmington to Jay to Upper Jay and back to Wilmington, and got back just in time for our work shift.

    I loved looking up at the mountains, but sorry to say, back then I had no clue that there were trails that led up them, and the only mountain that we climbed was Whiteface from the highway.

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