“Thousands Guests at Santa’s Town” was the headline of the Baltimore Sun’s Dec. 12, 1948 article about the opening of a special time in Savage, MD. This fascinating but fleeting part of the town’s and the Mill’s history has inspired a special exhibition currently on display at the Howard County Welcome Center in Ellicott City. Open through January 21, 2024, “Santa Heim – A Savage Christmas Story” shines a spotlight on the little-known story and the visionary businessman behind it, Harry H. Heim.
How It Began
A quintessential company town, Savage was part and parcel with Savage Mill, a mill that produced heavy cotton cloth for over 100 years. The Savage Manufacturing Company owned the town “lock, stock, and barrel”, including over 175 homes, the water and sewer system, and a company store. Demand for cotton plummeted after World War II, resulting in the Mill shuttering its operations in 1947. Hundreds of workers were left not knowing how they’d earn their livelihood or where they’d be living.
Saving the Day
Along came Harry Heim, owner of a flourishing Christmas ornament operation who needed space to ramp up production. People were looking for bright, shiny ornaments made in the good old U.S. of A. With his connection to Corning, from which he purchased glass ornament blanks, and his contract with Woolworth Department Store, Heim was determined to meet the demand. By February 1948 he’d purchased the Mill and all its holdings and announced his plan: turn the town into a year-round Christmas village renamed Santa Heim, Merryland, and the Mill into an ornament factory.
Over the ensuing months, Heim transformed the town into a magical wonderland. By that December, the company-owned houses sported a uniform look and fresh coats of paint, thousands of lights illuminated the town’s streets, and reindeer were ensconced in the park adjacent to the community Hall. Mr. Heim, a born salesman with a bold vision, detailed his plans in the company newsletter and to media outlets far and wide. Opening day, Dec. 11, 1948, Santa would arrive by helicopter and meet State and local dignitaries to kick off the celebrations. A circus set up on the town common would feature mechanical animals; townspeople dressed as fairytale characters would walk the streets greeting visitors. Shoppers would marvel at the glass blowing demonstrations inside the Mill and purchase ornaments and toys at the adjacent community Hall.
Many of the former Mill workers joined the venture. Alongside new employees, they lived in houses and boardinghouses Santa Heim operated and, encouraged by Mr. Heim, patronized the former company store to keep their community strong. Working alongside experienced glass blowers, they painted, finished, and packaged ornaments to be sold in department stores across the country. In 1948 alone, Santa Novelties produced 75 million ornaments, over 60% of the country’s tree ornaments. That December, Mr. Heim received one of the highest honors – his ornaments graced the White House Christmas tree.
Go Big or Go Home
According to multiple news outlets, opening day was an outstanding success. An estimated 12-15,000 people attended the festivities, many traveling for free on B&O trains Heim had chartered from Washington, DC and Baltimore with “Santa Heim Special” banners on the sides and Santa heads on the fronts. Barnum & Bailey clowns and a German orchestra entertained children and their families until they reached their destination, a Santa Heim castle erected on Route 1 just outside town. From there, children could hop on a miniature Tom Thumb train for a ride into Savage.
The subsequent year, Santa Heim became even bigger and more ostentatious, with a real circus including elephants, seals, a children’s roller coaster, and other rides inside the New Weave building. But trouble was brewing and surfaced the following year. Perhaps Mr. Heim had overextended himself with growing his operation so big so quickly. Or maybe he flaunted the law one too many times. By 1950, workers were not getting paid and Santa Heim had been shut down for fire safety violations, operating on Sundays in violation of the State’s Blue laws that forbid entertainment on that day, and ultimately for failure to pay taxes.
The Magic Lives On
Although Mr. Heim’s business venture failed after just a couple years, his message continues to ring true. We still believe in the magic of this time of year and in the power of supporting small businesses and one another.
Pay a visit to the newly-renovated Howard County Visitor Center this holiday season and view the exhibition “Santa Heim – A Savage Christmas Story”, on display through January 21. And stop by Savage Mill to support our small businesses, take part in our free Santa Heim walking tour on Saturday, December 9, and view a special display of Santa Heim ornaments in the New Weave building. Best of all, join us this Saturday for the beloved annual tradition of the lighting of the historic Bollman Truss Bridge, when once again thousands of guests come to Santa’s town!