Mickey Tower worked for Charles Howard, bringing magical scenes to Christmas Park
Albion man was tasked with bringing Howard’s ideas to reality
ALBION – Mickey Tower remains thankful for Charles Howard, the founder and visionary behind a Santa School in Albion and later a Christmas Park.
Tower was 20 when Howard hired him as a carpenter and electrician to be part of a team in building rides and other attractions at Christmas Park at the corner of Phipps Road and Gaines Basin Road in Albion.
Tower, now 87, said Howard was amazingly creative. He cast a vision for how a ride should look, and he told Tower, his brother Arnold Tower and Norman Starkweather to make it happen with no blueprints to go by.
“He had a very big imagination,” Tower recalled. “He wanted to build the world’s biggest apple pie and he did.”
The trio worked there about two months a year for about a decade. Working for Howard helped the three young men gain a reputation locally for challenging construction projects.
They helped build the track for a train at Christmas Park, a tunnel, wooden snowflakes, wooden icicles hanging down from the roof, the fire place, and many other projects. There was never a slow moment. Howard had short- and long-term projects. Tower recalled the effort in turning a pond on the property into Snowflake Lake.
The fire place is one of the few remaining pieces of Christmas Park. Tower remembers filling Charlie Howard’s car and trailer with stones from Howard’s fields for the fire place.
Tower and his two colleagues would make the pieces for the attractions and exhibits, and set up gears and wires to make many of the parts move and light up.
He remembered “Santa’s Castle” where Howard told the trio to put a cloth on the ceiling to resemble clouds, and then he wanted flickering lights to look like stars. Howard told them what he wanted, and left them to work out the details.
Tower also remembered Howard buying a “Christmas tree ride” and telling his construction crew he wanted a large metal Christmas tree in the center. The carpenters and electricians were tasked with getting elements of the rides have a magical element – to go up and down with lights. Howard created the park in Albion before Darien Lake and when Disneyland was in its infancy.
Howard opened the Christmas Park at his farm on Sept. 2, 1956. The Santa-themed amusement park welcomed about 80,000 visitors annually.
“People came from all over the world, but the Albion people didn’t patronize like they should have,” Tower said. “It was very entertaining. It was something for your imagination.”
Howard ran the park as executive director until 1964. He died of a heart attack on May 1, 1966.
Tower said the crew was kept busy by Howard. Now, at 87, he regrets he never took photos of the crew in action. This was long before social media when now so much of life, even the mundane, is photographed and shared with others.
“At that time it wasn’t important,” Tower said about taking photos.
Tower recalled when Howard wanted reindeer antlers to be mounted and moving slightly as part of a sleigh for a float in a parade. He left it to Tower and his two buddies to figure out home to make that happen.
“He didn’t like anything fake,” Tower said. “He wanted it to be nice and to look like Santa.”
He remembers going with Howard to Watertown and filling two tractor trailers with amusement rides. Tower and his co-workers needed to get them into shape, and add some of the Christmas features envisioned by Howard.
“He was pleased with what we did,” Tower said. “He told us what he wanted, but didn’t tell us how to do it.”
The crew would transport rides and displays to the State Fair for Howard, and set them up. They did the same for Howard in building exhibits for fruit and muck farms. Howard was respected for telling a story, even about growing onions and apples, in a captivating way.
When Tower, Starkweather and Tower weren’t working for Howard, they built and remodeled houses.
Tower in the mid-1960s got out of the construction business and went to work for 10 years at Wolcott Dairy, and then worked 8 years in maintenance for Bayex in Albion,. He ended his career with Tower Electric.
He said Howard was a one-of-kind visionary whose mind was always racing.
“He had so many ideas,” Tower said.