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Spirit of Christmas lives in North Pole, Alaska

NORTH POLE, Alaska — Every kid knows Santa, his eight tiny reindeer and a whole cadre of elves live at the North Pole.

A lot of what kids expect to see in the mythical North Pole can be found in Alaska. But the fabled factory where Santa’s elves labor tirelessly to make toys for children on St. Nick’s “nice” list is nowhere to be found.

The town of North Pole, with a population of nearly 2,300, once had ambitions of attracting such an enterprise.

In 1952, a subdivision in the area owned by the late Bon Davis was bought by Dahl & Gaske Development Co. After selling some lots, and starting a grocery store and used-car outlet, company officials 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,” Davis says 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.”

“There’s no question about it. It was strictly a commercial ploy,” said his son, Neil Davis, a 78-year-old professor emeritus of geophysics at University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Bon Davis, for whom Davis Subdivision was named, was hesitant to cooperate when the company asked him to petition the U.S. District Court to change the name.

North Pole became a third-class city in 1953.

Street names such as Snowman Lane and St. Nicholas Drive greet visitors, and the retail store Santa Claus House brings the spirit of Christmas to young and old visitors. Parents can even 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. Bon Davis’ account paints a portrait of a fledgling community where wilderness was plentiful.

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

Davis had been interested in Alaska since his father told him stories of rafting down the Yukon River in the late 1800s. Spurred by the promise of an adventure, Bon and Bernice Davis left sons Neil and Lewis with a relative and headed north.

They worked odd jobs in Juneau, Skagway and Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory, until they ended up in Fairbanks in April 1944. In search of a permanent homestead, the couple drove east on the Richardson Highway the morning after their arrival, stopping at the 15-mile mark. They had found their future home. The wildlife and the scenery appealed to them, and they built a cabin.

The couple added to the cabin when their two sons came up in August 1944, and a patent for their homestead was issued in April 1949.

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

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

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

According to Bon Davis’ book, he sold two 1-acre tracts for $500. Dahl & Gaske Development Co. bought the subdivision in 1952. Certain lots were jacked up to $900, and highway frontage that sold for $1,000 under Davis went 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 of his father, who ended up benefiting little from his stay at North Pole.

He suffered two accidents, one at a sawmill . In October 1952, Bon Davis, unable to perform the labor required for his country lifestyle, moved to Fairbanks. He worked at a federal prison, rising to the position of assistant director.

He then took a job as a prison director in Nome, where he suffered a heart attack 15 years later 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, especially that he contributed by offering cheap land to those who might not otherwise have been able to afford it.

North Pole became a first-class city in 1961.

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