Focus on History: The 1958 Amsterdam Christmas Festival


   Santa arrived by helicopter at the parking lot behind Lurie’s Department Store in downtown Amsterdam on December 6, 1958. 

   According to Recorder news coverage, Santa then proceeded down East Main Street aboard an armored personnel carrier (on loan from the National Guard) to what was then Coessens Park in the city’s East End.

   A Christmas village had been built at the park and Santa took up residence for three weeks in his newly constructed workshop as part of Amsterdam’s Christmas Festival. 

   Mayor Thomas F. Gregg in a fund raising pitch to the Lions Club in September had said a Christmas Festival was one of his dreams to boost the reputation of Amsterdam.  Schoharie had held such a festival in the past. 

   Gregg operated a butcher shop on Railroad Street downtown.  A Democrat, he was mayor for one two year term, 1958 and 1959. 

   Attractions in the 1958 Amsterdam festival included a life size 15 piece Nativity scene, supported by a $750 donation from Gardiner Kline of the Recorder.  A miniature fire truck from Boston gave rides to children around the park.  There was a cafeteria with refreshments and, of course, Santa’s reindeer.

   The reindeer were eight English fallow deer rented from Catskill Game Farm.  The game farm also provided six llamas, eight sheep and several donkeys.  Closed in 2006, Catskill Game Farm once housed thousands of animals and was one of the biggest private zoos in America.

   A large organ operated by an animated Santa Claus played holiday music at the festival.  The organ was paid for by William Hosner, J. Donald Smeallie and Theodore Blood.

   Many organizations financially supported Amsterdam’s festival.  The Mohawk Mills Association cancelled its yearly kiddies Christmas party and instead donated $500 toward the cost of Santa’s workshop. 

   Amsterdam Rotary gave $50, retail merchants of the city Chamber of Commerce $100 and the Polish American Veterans Auxiliary $25.  Two sleighs were loaned by Frank’s Auto Service on Route 30 to display Santa’s presents.  By early November $2700 had been raised in private donations, including proceeds from a fund raising dance.

   At the end of December, festival chairman Harry C. Miller estimated that 35 thousand to 40 thousand people had visited the festival.  Mayor Gregg said he hoped that the festival would be even bigger in 1959. 

   The festival owed $2,200 from 1958.  Discussions were still going on as Thanksgiving 1959 approached.  The Recorder wrote, “Time is running out on the festival.”

   The newspaper added that some called the festival “One of the best things to happen in Amsterdam in several years.”

   Coessens Park in the East End apparently featured some holiday decorations installed by the Junior Chamber of Commerce in 1959.  But there was no Christmas Festival that year nor in subsequent years.  Mayor Gregg died in 1960.

   A large lighted sign had proclaimed Seasons Greetings during the 1958 event.  Jerry Snyder of Historic Amsterdam League said that sign was found not long ago in the carriage house at city hall on Church Street.

   Snyder said, “The letters are each about 3 feet tall and each word is on a frame about 20 feet long. [There are] 102 full size light bulbs with 6 or 7 per letter. 

   “The wiring and sockets are shot and we were thinking that it would be a nice piece of Amsterdam history for Historic Amsterdam League to restore/update as we also found a picture of it hanging across the columns on the front of city hall in 1963.”

   Snyder added, “We’re going to shoot for having (the Seasons Greetings sign) ready for the weekend after Thanksgiving if all goes well.”


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