Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Grinch hijacked the Polar Express

I moved to the township way back in the 1980’s, and the sole criteria for selecting this house over any other we looked at in Northeastern Ohio was the studio. We were artists. My sister still is. I jumped ship.

Peninsula, the village in the township, has the reputation of one of the artiest little towns in America.  A good percentage of the village residents are self employed, many as artists, artisans, shop keepers.

The township and the village have something else:  the National Park. It’s a big and powerful national park. Headquarters seem to be Omaha, but it might as well be the moon. Orders come down, to be fulfilled. Its main mission is our reinvention in their image. Covered bridges where they never existed, for instance.
And there are even more powerful folks than the park. These are the conservancies. The Conservancy for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Just rolls off the tongue. The Conservancy for the Cuyahoga Valley Railroad. The Countryside Conservancy.  Put “Agenda of” in front of each of those conservancies, and you’ll have a better understanding of the unnatural forces the village and township are up against.

Long ago, in the eighties and nineties, none of those acronyms existed. The CCVRR was just the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, and came to merchant meetings like the rest of us trying to make a living.  You could run a Polar Express and make money at Christmas! And they did. (We had no idea it was copyrighted, but that’s another story. And, it’s still The Polar Express! Chalk that one up to national government!)

The first Polar Express ran from Cleveland to Akron to Peninsula, and back. Tots needed to be in pajamas to board, and got hot chocolate, a cookie and the story on the trip down and back. The next year one of the town stalwarts said “We have to do something for those kids.” His lumber yard and hardware store was a big complex at the end of the line.

All the next year John’s elves made wooden decorations, hung lights, outfitted one shop door as Santa’s workshop, with busy elves swinging hammers, putting together toys.  There was a sleigh with Mrs. Claus. All the store windows illuminated busy elves. John’s piece de resistance: anyone in town with an elf hat could stand along the track and wave to the children. And hopefully jump up and down.

And so it went, for several years. The next part is no fun to write about, so I’m just lifting it from John’s obituary, December, 2005:

It was billed as the Million Elf March, a community tribute to John Lahoski.

Nearly 350 would-be elves assembled Tuesday at the decorated North Pole as two Polar Express trains filled with youngsters pulled into Peninsula.

But Lahoski -- Santa's head elf and widely known as Mr. Peninsula -- was missing.

He died on Monday evening while lighting holiday luminaries on the state Route 303 bridge over the Cuyahoga River with his wife Judith. He was 63.

For years, Lahoski had dressed as an elf, turned the family's Terry Lumber Co. into the North Pole, and talked co-workers and community members into joining him.

"He looked goofy as an elf, but it was very endearing," said Ed Andros of Peninsula. "He's meant so much to this community."

Last year, Lahoski got 100 people to be elves on the last night of the Polar Express run by the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. He had hoped to double that total this year.

"This whole event is really a tribute to (Lahoski)," said Ham Loughry, who ran Santa's workshop Tuesday night. "This is turning into something unbelievable."

Elf volunteers -- as well as Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, a nutcracker and a few Raggedy Ann dolls -- stood alongside the tracks waving as the train full of wide-eyed children arrived just in time to see Santa ride past on a one-horse sleigh.

"John was a very special man with a big heart who loved children," said Vicki Smith, 56, of Akron, who was dressed as Raggedy Ann.

As the train rolled into Santa's village, many of the elves -- some with tears in their eyes -- sang Christmas carols. The event, Andros said, was a fitting tribute to a very special man.

A memorial plaque placed by the
Garden Club 

The next year the event belonged to the Conservancy for the CVRR, in partnership with the Conservancy for the CVNP, and the National Park, itself.  All the wooden props are assembled each year, massive amounts of North Pole decorations go up along Mill Street.

December 2006 the community decided it needed another million elf march, to honor John, and commenced assembling on Mill Street. When they started toward the North Pole, the road was blocked; they were turned back by Park Rangers. No elves wanted. The elves were already there. Paid actors.

John always told people they were doing a good job. “You’re doing a good job, Joanne.” A pat on the shoulder; he was gone. He could turn a day around. I wonder what he would have said to the Park that night.

So, the Polar Express still runs, and Santa and the Elves are hired help. The children don’t know the difference, and some day everyone who does will be gone.

The new North Pole


  1. How could they do that just one year after his death - paid actors, how awful - If he could see them, I wonder too, what he'd say.

  2. I wish they had pushed aside the barriers as did the WW2 veterans at the WW2 War Memorial in DC. But that is a hollow wish for the past. The adults will know what was lost, but the children's eyes will glow.

  3. There is a lot I could say, but I will leve it at Phooey.

  4. My eyes are sad.
    A legacy lost.
    Jane x

  5. I'm so sorry. Your story is becoming more and more the norm... which (bluntly) pisses me off. Sometimes I'm glad I'm as old as I am... I've not got the fight left in me... at least not the fight it takes.... and I don't want to spend what years I have left incarcerated. But still.....

  6. Paid actors? Did they think that people would no longer want to participate because John died? Someone is making money off this no doubt.

  7. He must have been very special indeed and to do that to him makes me upset.

  8. Isn't that too bad. Another opportunity for community involvement removed.

  9. Park Rangers turning back elves? Did this make the news? Very sad.

  10. Total shit....just the way local events have been taken over by local government in rural France with paid performers condescending to people well able to make their own entertainment - makes me spit.

  11. That is so sad and a terrible waste of tax payers' dollars when there were people willing to help out that were not paid actors. Oh to have been part of it when John was involved with it; thank you for keeping his legacy with it alive even though the park service decided to do something else totally different.


  12. Oh my goodness! This is so utterly ridiculous. We usually donate to the Nature Conservancy and this makes me want to stop. Crazy! And the park service too? It's so sad.

  13. Red Tape, Health & Safety, Insurance, killed our village Carnival. I feel sad for those Elves turned away.

  14. Paid actors?? I find that rather UN-Christmassy.
    Volunteers who WANT to be there and make the children happy seems like a much better idea.
    Administrations have to stick their fingers in every pie don't they?
    At least The Polar Express is still running.

  15. Hari OM
    Another wedge driven into community effort and spirit...done in the name of community service. Tsk. True, the childrens' eyes will still shine, but that 'man for all seasons' needs a story board to go beside it telling the history as you have just done. Just saying...

    (Re weirs - you just gave me an idea for Sunday's post!) YAM xx

  16. Dear Joanne, this posting made me sad. Not just at the death, at a relatively young age, of John Lahoski, but at the misguided intentions of so many bureaucracies that set out to help and end up hindering. Again and again I've seen this happen. And always there's a poignancy that rends the heart. Peace.

  17. Dang it, Joanne, that's a depressing Christmas story!!!

  18. Much of the land round here is designated as a National Park. Much as I value such things and think on balance that they're a good idea, they can be a pain in the neck for locals who want to get on and do things the way they want to do them.

    1. The history of the park lands is reinvented by the park and told as they believe it for ever and for ever. It is the very sad downside of a public good. I am resigned.

  19. What the heck? Paid actors? They sure know how to ruin a good thing. And I'm pretty sure the paid actors didn't do as good of a job as the townspeople did!