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Museum honors Jim Yellig, the man who became Santa to the world

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By Janet Robb

SANTA CLAUS – It took just one time in the red suit for Jim Yellig to know he was Santa Claus.

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Now everyone, those who sat upon his lap and those who have only heard about him, can learn about this long-time Santa thanks to a new exhibit at the Santa Claus Museum.

The exhibit opened Dec. 10 and tells the story of Yellig and his journey as Santa. Yellig first put on the suit when he was chosen to portray Santa Claus for a Christmas party, since he was from the Santa Claus area. It was 1914 and he was docked in Brooklyn during World War I on the USS New York.

A story accompanying the exhibit said "Yellig was so touched by the children's happiness that he prayed, 'If you get me through this war, Lord, I will forever be Santa Claus.' "

And that's what he did. For several decades he put on the bright red suit, trimmed in fur with black boots and wide belt and listened to the wishes of children. From the early 1940s until his death in 1984, he portrayed Santa at Santa Claus Land, which is now Holiday World & Splashin' Safari.

To honor her father, Pat Koch enlisted help from the Weber Group in Sellersburg to create a life-size figure of her father. "They looked at hundreds of photos to make the figure," she said. "I'm very happy with how it turned out." Koch pointed out that every detail of the exhibit is how her father would have been, from his original suit and boots right down to his finger in the air telling children to be good.

"He never played Santa," Koch said. "He was Santa."

According to the story, which accompanies the exhibit, his suits were sewn by Frieda Foertsch, a longtime park employee, who used rabbit fur for the trim and made two pairs of pants for each outfit. The suit the figure is wearing was "worn by Jim along with his yak-fur beard, trademark boots and belt and three or four pairs of pants in a single season, worn at the knees from captivated youngsters …"

In addition to listening to children's wishes, Yellig answered children's letters, which was started by Santa Claus Postmaster James Martin, who enlisted his help. Koch said it wasn't until she was 12 that she realized that Santa and her dad were one in the same. By that point, she said, she was helping him answer letters and continues this tradition with the help of Santa's Elves Inc.

More than Santa

Started in 2006, the Santa Claus Museum was an idea of Koch's to record and present the history of the town. "I felt like I needed to do something to keep the history alive," she said.

Since then, Koch has worked to organize the Santa Claus memorabilia she had in storage along with donated items to educate everyone about the town.

Post office documents, including one where the postmaster requested the town be named Santa Fe but after being told to use a different name, changed it to Santa Claus, are among the many documents on display.

"We've been very lucky with some of the donated items," Koch said, adding that some things she's received, she didn't even know they still existed.

The museum is located at 41 North Kringle Place, next door to the Santa Claus Post Office. It's open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays and from noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. To donate items, e-mail scmcurator@ psci.net or visit the museum.