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Ghosts of Christmas Past (And Finding Out the Truth About Santa Claus)

IN THE December 25 ISSUE

FROM THE Contributors,
andHometown History,
andJim Bulls,
andTerrific Tales
SECTIONS

by Jim Bulls

It’s a drippy winter night—Christmas time in Reedley. The storefronts are decorated with lights and the traditional Christmas tree sits in the middle of 11th and G streets. Christmas carols play through the PA system, as Santa greets shoppers along the street. The droplets of dew collect on invisible forms, making them come to life. The tule fog didn’t fully lift during the day, so the Valley floor will soon be socked in.

I go into Mainstreet Café and take a seat near the front window, with a clear vantage point of down town. It looks about the same as when I first saw it 60 odd years ago. The old streetlights are gone and there are trees planted in the sidewalks, but the buildings haven’t changed too much. I let my mind roll back as I sip my cup of hot chocolate—this is a great night for a visit from some ghosts of Reedley’s past.

Reedley Christmas Tree 1919

Down at the Santa Fe Market, I can just make out Lincoln Hagopian with his white apron and broom. Every day Lincoln, who was mentally challenged, would sweep the sidewalk around the building and greet customers and passersby. I can hear him now, joyfully calling out “Merry Christmas” and “Hi! How are you?” The Santa Fe Market was located in what is now Uncle Harry’s Classic Meals. Lincoln was a well-known fixture on G Street and always had a friendly word for everyone.

The fog has set in soupy and thick. I can hardly see across the street, but in the distance I can faintly hear, in my imagination, the distinctive sound of a Model T Ford approaching. It’s not long before I can see the wavering glow of headlights through the fog and the black shadow of an old touring car coming into my memory’s view. The rickety old wood spoke wheels squeak as it rounds the corner; vibrating, rattling, and shaking, the old car finally comes to a stop and the engine falls silent with a sigh of relief. Another ghost from Reedley folklore, Model T Sam, climbs out and shuffles into Stewart’s Pool Hall (currently Street Light). In the backseat of the old “tin lizzie”, among the horsehair stuffing protruding from the cracked leather cushions, sits an old lady wrapped in a quilt. She sits there quietly, watching the people on the street, beneath the tattered old canopy that offers little protection from the drippy night.

Sam was actually Samuel Abrahamian, and many people thought the old lady was his sister. In reality, she was his landlord, but I can’t remember her name. Does anyone else remember it? Sadly, the legend of Model T Sam came to an end in 1955 when he bought a new Plymouth.

Santa arrives in Reedley in American LaFrance firetruck, c. 1950s

I see Santa passing by the window, passing out candy to the youngsters and greeting the shoppers. I am reminded of another ghost, the great Charles B. “Gus” Garrigus: English teacher, State Assemblyman, and Poet Laureate of the State of California. He was also an usher at my church. He shook my hand every Sunday and greeted me as “John.” I asked my dad once why Mr. Garrigus always called me John or Johnny when he must know that my name was really Jim. Dad said that in England John Bull was like our Uncle Sam, and Mr. Garrigus was making a pun on my name: John Bull instead of Jim Bulls.

Reedley City Christmas tree, c. 1930s

When Christmas vacation started in 1949, I could hardly wait for the Christmas parade when Santa would arrive down town and greet all the girls and boys in the park. I was seven years old and I wanted an electric train more than anything in the world. The parade was led by the combined Reedley College/High School band, with various decorated floats and kids wrapped up like Christmas presents. It slowly made its way down G Street to the park. Everyone rushed to be first in line for Santa and it seemed like I had to wait forever.
 
Finally, it was my turn to climb on Santa’s lap. He looked down at me through his wire framed glasses, brushed his luxurious white moustache with his fingertips and in a big, jovial voice asked “Well John, what would you like for Christmas?” And that was the day I found out that Santa was Mr. Garrigus.

Jim Bulls is a contributor to our Hometown History section, being a charter member of the Reedley Historical Society; he also restores vintage cars.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Rose(Garrigus) BannholzerNo Gravatar January 25, 2016 at 2:15pm

I am reminded of another Santa story my dad, Charles Garrigus shared over 60 years ago. While being the store Santa at Cameron’s Toy Store in Fresno, my dad was driving home to Reedley in full Santa regalia when he noticed a young veteran hitchhiking home on old 99 near Fowler. Dad recognized the young man as a former student and being the actor he was, stopped his car and invited the young man in ho, ho, ho-ing all the way. The young man was transfixed because “Santa” knew where he lived without his giving directions. Still in disguise, he waved goodbye after dropping off his occupant. In his rear view mirror he saw the young man with dropped jaw, scratching his head outside his front door.

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