North Pole: From homestead to Christmas wonderland

Posted: Thursday, December 23, 2010

NORTH POLE -- Every kid knows that Santa, his eight tiny reindeer, and a whole cadre of elves live in the North Pole.

A lot of what kids expect to see in the mythical North Pole, including the jolly old elf and all of his friends, can be found in the real place, which happens to be located right here in Alaska.

But there's one thing missing: the toy factory. The fabled plant where Santa's elves labor tirelessly to make toys for the children on St. Nick's "nice" list is nowhere to be found.

The tiny town, with a population of nearly 2,300 (only a few are elves), once had ambitions of attracting such an enterprise.

In 1952, a subdivision in the area owned by Bon Davis was bought by Dahl & Gaske Development Co. After selling some of the lots, and starting a grocery store and used car outlet, the company decided to try to attract business to the unincorporated community. What better way to grab the world's attention than by calling the town North Pole?

"They reasoned that some toy manufacturer might be induced to locate a plant there so his products could be advertised as having been made in North Pole," wrote Bon Davis in "Stories of North Pole, Alaska," a book he wrote about the town's early history.

"Also, someone might start a Santa Land, which would become a northern version of Disneyland," he wrote.

"There's no question about it. It was strictly a commercial ploy," said his son Neil Davis, a now-78-year-old professor emeritus of geophysics at University of Alaska Fairbanks, and an author.

Bon Davis, for whom Davis Subdivision had been named prior to this new idea, was hesitant to cooperate when the company approached him and asked him to petition the United States District Court to change the name.

He thought the idea was "far fetched but acceded to their request," he wrote.

Shortly thereafter, a decree was issued, and the subdivision became North Pole.

After some debate over whether a neighboring subdivision would be incorporated along with North Pole under that name, North Pole became a third-class city in 1953.

Little did they know that the moniker would come to define the spirit of the place in the years to come.

Street names like Snowman Lane and St. Nicholas Drive greet visitors, and the internationally known retail store Santa Claus House brings the spirit of Christmas to visitors, be they children or adults.

Parents can even pay to have letters from Santa written to their kids, with a genuine North Pole postmark.

Bon Davis, and his wife, Bernice, were among the first homesteaders to set up shop in the area.

The community has grown since its beginnings as the site of a few undeveloped homesteads. Where once stood large tracts of unspoiled wilderness and a couple of homesteads now exists an assortment of businesses one expects to see in a larger city, including a Pizza Hut, public library, hotels and a fire department.

Bon Davis's early account paints a portrait of a fledgling community where civilization was scarce and open wilderness was plentiful.

Bon had tried a variety of professions during the Great Depression in the 1930s while living in Colorado, and none of them stuck. He was a school teacher, a cook and a coal miner, and "was always broke," he wrote.

"We were not discouraged but realized that our lot was not likely to improve if we remained in Colorado," Davis wrote.

He had been interested in Alaska since his father told him stories of rafting down the Yukon River in the late 1800s. Spurned on by the promise of an adventure in the Great Land, Bon and Bernice Davis left children Neil and Lewis with a relative and headed North.

They worked odd jobs in Juneau, Skagway and Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory, until they finally ended up in Fairbanks in April 1944. In search of a permanent homestead, the couple drove east along the Richardson Highway the morning after their arrival, stopping at the 15-mile mark.

They walked along a trailed that had been plowed to haul lumber back up to the highway, and eventually, the two of them stopped and knew they had found their future home.

The wildlife and the peaceful scenery appealed to them.

"We had been told that grayling and beaver were plentiful in both streams where a variety of waterfowl made their summer homes. Moose, deer, wolves, fox, snowshoe rabbits, squirrels and spruce hen lived on our homestead-to-be," Bon Davis wrote.

The cabin the couple built was frail and haphazardly constructed, and measured up at 15 feet by 20 feet.

There was a surplus of windows and doors due to Bon Davis's inability to properly measure logs, and the roof leaked like a colander when it rained.

But gradually, the couple built themselves a real home, adding an addition to the cabin when their two sons came up in August 1944. And after cultivating crops and fulfilling a bevy of homesteading requirements, the patent for their homestead was issued April 1949.

Eventually, others became interested in living on the homestead because it was conveniently located halfway between Eielson Air Force Base and what would eventually become Fort Wainwright.

"Because of the cheap land, it became a great place for military families," said Neil Davis.

Eventually, that homestead became a subdivision, and it took on the name Davis Subdivision. It was not yet North Pole.

Bon Davis severely undervalued his own property, Neil Davis said.

"He'd sell lots for two or three hundred dollars," Neil Davis said. "He thought he was getting all he could get for it. He was kind of naive on this stuff," he said.

According to Bon Davis's book, he sold two 1-acre tracts for $500. After Dahl & Gaske Development Co. bought the subdivision in 1952, certain lots that had previously cost $250 were jacked up to $900, and highway frontage that had sold for $1,000 under Bon Davis now sold for $5,000.

"He was not a good businessman. He never made any money. But he felt good about doing that sort of thing," Neil Davis said.

In fact, according to Neil Davis, Bon Davis ended up benefitting little in the long run from his stay at North Pole. He suffered two brutal accidents, one with a sawmill and one with a Skil saw.

A few months after a trip to the Lower 48 in October 1952, Bon Davis, unable to perform the physical labor required of him by the country lifestyle, moved to Fairbanks.

He worked at a federal prison in Fairbanks, eventually rising to the position of assistant director, and then took a job as a prison director in Nome, according to Neil Davis. He suffered a heart attack in Nome after 15 years living there, Neil Davis said, and went to live near his son.

"He died penniless, basically. In fact, my wife and I pretty much supported him until he died," Neil Davis said.

But Bon Davis, in his later years, was proud of what North Pole had become, and especially of the fact that he contributed by offering cheap land to those who might not otherwise have been able to afford it.

He even sold some land on credit to military service members, Neil Davis said.

North Pole became a first-class city in 1961.

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