McHistory: Intrepid Twin City explorer offered ‘proof’ that Santa exists
Most people know about the letter a little girl wrote to the New York Sun newspaper in 1897 asking whether Santa Claus is real. It prompted the famous response "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." Bloomington-Normal children encountered their own slightly more intrepid version of that idea a couple decades later.
“In 1927, apparently there were plenty of Bloomington-Normal area children whose faith in Mr. Claus perhaps was wavering somewhat,” said Bill Kemp, McLean County Museum of History librarian, for the WGLT series McHistory.
The Pantagraph hired a mysterious explorer, Danny Dare, to attempt to reach the North Pole in search of Santa.
“As all the boys and girls of Central Illinois know, I started North about a month ago in search of Santa’s toy factory. The Main thing is to find him and prove it, and then there can never never be any doubt again,” wrote Dare. "And those who have listened to silly talk about there being no Santa at all. Why? I hope those young folk will just enjoy this trip with me too, and not be mad if I prove them wrong.”
The dispatches appeared in The Pantagraph up until Dec. 22, said Kemp.
“That's the wonderful job that I've set for myself, and the Daily Pantagraph is making it possible for me to undertake it,” wrote Dare.
Dare set out from Canada and brought with him a secret map tied to an oil skin, and for sustenance 10 pounds of chocolate.
“A surprise flight and here I am. I tell you it was great. That trip across Lake Erie soaring miles about the wonderful cataract and gorge of Niagara and straight as a goal across Lake Ontario to the beautiful Toronto,” enthused Dare.
“The journey took nearly three weeks to get to the North Pole. It entailed rail, hydroplane, raft, and dog sled,” said Kemp.
Dare also was on foot for a while, all the while sending a blow-by-blow description of his adventure through the arctic wilds to children who read the newspaper.
“After my airplane broke down and things were looking mighty blue, I was only able to continue my search when the Pantagraph offered to finance the expedition,” said Dare.
Kemp said the series reads like a Jack London adventure tale.
“Along the way he found a French-Canadian woodsman by the name of the Jacques Valiant and then a fur trapper Joe LaFlame. This fur trapper evidently, instead of having his dog sled pulled by a team of huskies and malamutes, was pulled by six untamed wolves,” said Kemp.
He had to build a raft with a companion. They floated down an ice-choked river.
“For a while their only food was herbs, roots, and winter berries. Finally, they were able to bring down a moose and enjoy fresh moose steaks,” said Kemp.
After many adventures, Dare found himself in a deserted cabin.
“My only companion was Valiant. A tame wolf that ran away from his master and saved me from a hungry wolf pack when it was about to attack me,” went the tale.
Danny Dare was lost and efforts by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were unsuccessful.
“There we were valiant and I, alone in that cold lonely cabin. It was about midnight. Suddenly, I heard the tiniest patter of hoofs scurrying over the soft snowfields. Valiant, I said to my loyal friend, a wolf, I believe there must be a Santa Claus after all. Just listen to that!” Dare exclaimed.
Dare spotted Santa, a sleigh, and eight reindeer — yes eight, not nine. It was several years before the appearance of Rudolph in popular culture, according to Kemp.
“Well, do you know those words must have turned the trick? Sly old St. Nick knew I was there all the time. But do you think he would bother with a chap who didn't believe in him? Not Santa. He's got enough to do to take care of those who do believe anyway. There was the kindly old fellow himself, taking a magic ride down around the Arctic Circle with his reindeer and getting them in practice for his Christmas trip. He chose midnight I suppose, so their eyes would become used to the starlight, and they would be sure not to miss the way to any child," opined Dare.
“Then Santa heard what I said about believing him. And that's another strange thing, too. That I’ll explain. The clever old chap hears just about everything people say. Wonderfully sharp ears he must have," Dare told children in the paper.
“In fact he heard a girl on Mulberry Street in Bloomington who had the imprudence to tell her mother ‘I won't,’ when her mother asked her to do something,” said Kemp.
In the end, Santa Claus rescues Danny Dare from certain death and brings him to Snow Hut Village where Santa lived in an igloo. Then Danny wrote from the North Pole and confirmed to children back home that indeed Santa does exist.
“Excuse me a second, but Dasher just upset the tallow candle I am writing by. Great goodness, he's eating it! Hey, Dasher drop that candle!” exclaimed Dare.
Santa lit a new candle and put Dasher outside the igloo.
“What a place this Snow Hut Village is! A doll factory here. A toy workshop there. Christmas trees growing all in little rows," exulted Dare.
He wrote of measuring candy exactly to fill a stocking with room for an orange, a common practice for Christmas stockings on the hearth.
“Every day there's a new contest for official taster. You may imagine that it is the most popular job in the village. Of course, the candy taster doesn't taste every piece of candy that is made for Christmas. He just tastes the pieces that look best to him and is never allowed to take more candy than he can taste as that would be selfish. According to Mrs. Santa Claus,” Dare confided.
“And tomorrow I shall tell you all about how Dasher got his new antler. And something about Santa's and my plans for our trip through the air to Central Illinois," wrote Dare.
Santa Claus told Danny Dare that he would pay Bloomington a visit on Dec. 23 of that year for the annual Children's Jubilee.
“It was held at the Illini Theatre. The building is still there today, just a little bit west of Lucca Grill on Market Street,” said Kemp.
Santa did show up to hand out socks with candy to each child, said Kemp.