If Santa Claus had ever contemplated expanding his toy-making empire from the North Pole to a more strategic hub closer to the nation's capital, he might have found the mill town of Savage to his liking in 1948.
That was the promotional gimmick that a Baltimore businessman was betting on when he decided to remake Savage into "Santa's Maryland home" by converting the 150-year-old cotton mill to the manufacture of ornaments, and transforming the town into a working Christmas village.
Harry H. Heim lost his bid to create the Christmas ornament capital of the world — and dashed the hopes of the small town — when finances forced him to shut down the factory just three years after a grand opening attracted tens of thousands of visitors.
He sold the plant where glass was blown for Christmas balls and other premade glass ornaments were decorated by hand — which he had purchased in 1947 for $450,000 — to a plastics manufacturer in 1951. He died of a heart attack in Baltimore in 1953.
Yet Heim's escapades remain a nostalgic topic of conversation in Savage each December. Flossie Doughty, a lifelong resident, was 16 when Heim's extravaganza first took place on Dec. 11, 1948.
"Crowds of people came to the factory's opening on trains and buses," recalled Doughty, now 81. "It was just packed."
The southern Howard town drew new hope that its fortunes would be reversed with all the hoopla surrounding the factory's opening.
"Heim redid the [factory] houses in different colors and people put up strings of Christmas lights," Doughty said. "It was a pretty exciting time."
She remembers being one of a handful of children recruited to sell ornaments at Baldwin Memorial Hall, a community center that had been transformed into a toy shop.
"We were church volunteers and we worked for free" as part of a plan hatched by Heim and his supporters to have Santa's helpers boost factory sales, she said.
The Sun reported in its Dec. 12, 1948, editions that between 12,000 and 15,000 visitors had "swamped the little town [yesterday] … for a glimpse of Santa Claus's future home." Children arrived to meet Santa in three 10-car trains of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad – two from Washington and one from Baltimore – that were each labeled Santa Heim Special.
Gov. William Preston Lane Jr. delivered a speech to an enthusiastic throng while live reindeer and a menagerie of mechanical animals enthralled the kids, according to the article.
"Heim was sort of like a Walt Disney in that he wanted to create his own town," said Galen Menne, a retired pastor from the United Methodist Church of Savage and the founder of the Savage Historical Society.
Heim, who also owned ornament factories in Baltimore and San Diego encouraged people to refer to the town as Santa Heim, Merryland, said Menne. "Heim" means home in German, which was the factory owner's heritage.
"He even asked the legislature to [legally] change the town's name, but that was never passed," Menne said.
Heim was quite the promoter, Menne said, advertising the grand opening on WTOP and other radio stations and trying, without success, to get popular singer Bing Crosby to attend. Arthur Godfrey, a radio personality in those days, did put in an appearance, The Sun reported in a 1973 article on Savage's history.
"But he apparently overextended himself with his dreams and couldn't pay his bills," and his big plans came crashing down around him, Menne said. "It was not altogether as glamorous as people might think, but the factory did bring in jobs."
Leon Beaty, who moved from Savage to Glen Burnie nearly 50 years ago, worked in the factory's personnel and payroll department during the last two years it was open.
"Harry Heim was a good-hearted man, but he was too extravagant," said Beaty, who is 87 and attends historical society meetings. As a paymaster, Beaty had earned 65 cents an hour while Heim paid himself $600 a week, he recalled.
"I enjoyed that job as any I've had, and I've had quite a few jobs," he said. "But to me, that was obscene. Near the end, the checks I wrote all bounced. It was sad, sad, sad, and I saw it all happening."