Sign unveiled naming Route 31 in Albion for Santa School founder

Photos by Tom Rivers: State Assemblyman Steve Hawley, left, and State Sen. Rob Ortt this afternoon joined in a dedication event for the section of Route 31 in Albion. The state Department of Transportation installed the sign declaring the section of 31 as the “Charles W. Howard Memorial Highway.” Howard operated a Santa School and Christmas Park in Albion until his death in 1966.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 21 December 2020 at 8:22 pm

Courtesy of Jan Downey: Jan Downey of Albion shared this photo of herself and her brother, David Taylor, when they visited Howard as Santa at Christmas Park. Downey estimated the photo is from 1956 when she was 5. Many local residents still have strong memories of Howard and Christmas Park.

ALBION – A sign proclaiming Route 31 in Albion as the “Charles W. Howard Memorial Highway” was dedicated today by two state legislators and other community members.

Howard started the world’s first Santa School and ran it from 1937 until his death in 1966. He also was the Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for 18 years.

He remains a revered figure among people who portray Santa Claus. The school he started continues in his name in Midland, Mich. Howard, who is known in the Santa community as “The Dean of Santa Clauses,” in 2010 was a charter inductee in the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame. (Click here for more information on the Hall of Fame.

The State Department of Transportation erected the sign on Route 31 near the Transit Road intersection, which is the eastern end of the town. Another sign is expected to go up on the western end near Wood Road.

The Albion Betterment Committee worked about two years to secure the approval. They sent letters to local government leaders – The Village Board, the Town Board and Orleans County Legislature. They all endorsed naming the section in honor of Howard, who also was a farmer, toymaker, and operated Christmas Park on Route 31 near Phipps Road.

The Albion Betterment Committee has worked in recent years to raise Howard’s profile locally and to help celebrate his legacy. The ABC put a sign on Route 98, south of the village, declaring Albion as the hometown of the Santa School founder. The ABC also has “Believe” signs in the community and is raising funds for a statue of hometown in downtown Albion. They group has raised $60,000 so far for the statue and plans to seek proposals for the project soon, said Joe Gehl, one of the ABC’s directors. He expects the project will be near $100,000.

Other groups have joined the effort to celebrate Howard. The Albion Rotary Club organized an effort to have a mural in Waterman Park that shows Santa in a sleigh over Courthouse Square. A new mural about Albion as home to the Santa School was completed this fall on the northside of the Lake Country Pennysaver.

A group of students in Rich Gannon’s AP US History class also had an interpretive panel made in Mount Albion Cemetery near Howard’s grave that celebrates his life.

The Betterment Committee sees Howard as a local man who did a lot of good for the community, a selfless person focused on others. Howard was known for setting high standards for Santa in how to act with children and how to look. He also designed and sold Santa suits.

Howard’s granddaughter, Jane Holland, was unable to attend today’s dedication. She sent a letter of appreciation that was read by Gehl.

“Grandpa was a humble man of little means but a big heart and a giving, caring soul,” Holland wrote. “To see him honored on this trail to and from the town the family still today cherishes and welcomes its comfort when we visit is a great privilege.”

State Sen. Rob Ortt said Charles W. Howard was a farmer in Albion who made a local and national impact, serving as the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Santa for 18 years and shaping the look and actions of Santas all over the country and even the world. Ortt and Hawley both thanked the DOT for getting the sign up on short notice before Christmas. The State Legislature and Gov. Cuomo both approved naming the section of the road in honor of Howard.

Joe Gehl, one of the directors of the Albion Betterment Committee, is interviewed by Ed Reilly of WGRZ (Channel 7 in Buffalo) in front of the sign, which was erected on 31 near Transit Road. That is the eastern end of the Town of Albion. Another sign is expected to be installed near Wood Road, on the western end of the town.