116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Cedar Rapidians remember many of the city’s former holiday traditions: Armstrong’s and Killian’s windows, driving through Cedar Memorial to see the lights, visiting Santa at Memorial Coliseum.
But one amazing holiday event in 1929 was never duplicated.
The Gazette — then The Gazette and Republican — collaborated with Capt. Frank E. Kleinschmidt, an Arctic explorer who lived in New York City, to find Santa at the North Pole and bring back pictures and movies of the jolly old elf.
It’s important to note early on that this “expedition” was a stunt, undertaken as entertainment. I found that many newspapers across the country, from 1926 to 1941, hired Kleinschmidt to find and interview Santa and report back for their readers.
Nonetheless, The Gazette had some fun with the project, reporting it was “going to organize and outfit an expedition to pierce the frozen north and answer these questions: Is there a Santa Claus? Where does he live? What is he doing to get ready for Christmas, which is just a few weeks away?”
The newspaper invited children to write letters to Santa, telling why they believed in him. The expedition would deliver the letters to Santa.
On Nov. 13, 1929, The Gazette said it had sent telegrams to “four of the most noted explorers of the north, asking them to head the expedition, which will start at the earliest possible date. Airplanes will be used for the main trip to the north and for establishing bases. For the intensive explorations from these bases, planes and dog teams will be used as the occasion demands.”
One plane would carry a wireless radio to send messages back to The Gazette and motion picture equipment to record the journey on film. The Gazette named a “Santa Claus Editor” for the project.
One explorer who answered the telegram informed The Gazette that Santa’s home could not be exactly at the North Pole since that spot was in the middle of the ice-covered Arctic Ocean. The Gazette expedition instead would aim for a large, unexplored land mass, called the “Pole of Inaccessibility.”
On Nov. 16, The Gazette announced that Kleinschmidt, “accompanied by a companion plane with a special writer and cameraman from The Gazette and Republican,” would head north the next week in search of Santa.
The explorer’s telegram of acceptance came from Mineola Flying Field at Long Island, N.Y.
It read, “Accept with delight your proposition to pilot and head expedition to Polar regions in search for Santa Claus. Will have plane ready to take off when your companion plane joins me here. Wire when. Happy to undertake exploration for kiddies of The Gazette-Republican and confident of finding Santa Claus. Await further instructions.”
Kleinschmidt had more than 15 years of experience in the Arctic, traveling with Eskimos and their dog teams, taking pictures and making movies of the Inuit, polar bears, seals and walruses. He also knew a thing or two about marketing those materials when he returned home.
And they’re off
Two days later, on Nov. 18, The Gazette reported an unnamed Gazette reporter, an unnamed cameraman and pilot “Red” Garland had taken off for New York in a “mammoth airplane.“ Garland bemoaned the lack of notice, noting children didn’t get to see the ”Spirit of Christmas“ plane take off, when, in fact, no plane left Cedar Rapids.
But the fun continued, with The Gazette reporting Kleinschmidt, showing his marketing chops, had ordered Garland to bring along electronics from local businesses — a Hartman Aerorobe from Enzler’s and a Philco radio from Smulekoff’s.
Continuing the narrative, The Gazette reported Kleinschmidt and his wife, Margaret, greeted the Cedar Rapids crew at the Mineola field. The planes were loaded with gas and oil and mailbags containing the children’s letters.
“We will make the very best time possible to the Northern tip of Hudson Bay,” Kleinschmidt said. “From there we will fly as far as we can with safety. If we find it impossible to reach Santa’s home in the airplane, we will proceed by dog teams and reindeer, which will be provided by my Eskimo friends.”
The Gazette promised daily stories from the north via the wireless equipment the expedition carried.
Making good time, Kleinschmidt sent a message from 6,000 feet above Canada on Nov. 20, as Margaret Kleinschmidt piloted the plane dubbed “The Santa Claus Special.” (Their flight really happened.)
“Already the air is very cold, and we are fortunate in having our Eskimo parkas, made of reindeer skins, with us.”
A Nov. 21 radio message was received from Fort Severn in far northern Ontario, indicating snow and rainstorms. No wireless messages were received, causing some concern.
On Nov. 22, though, the steamer Sea Lion found “two planes” floating on Hudson Bay near Fort Severn.
“After we had bucked heavy snow and rainstorms, the wind died down,” Kleinschmidt reported. “We ran into fog, and sleet formed on our wings, and we were losing altitude. Then sleet formed on the propellers. … The wings themselves became so coated with ice they lost their lifting capacity, and we were forced to land in the water.
“We sent out SOS calls, which brought us the sealing schooner Sea Lion, a Hudson Bay company boat especially built for combating the icy waters of the Hudson Bay.”
Next week: On to Santa Land