The man who developed the world’s first theme park and built the town of Santa Claus, Indiana, passed away at home this evening at the age of 86.
William Albert Koch, Sr. will be remembered as a man of great vision. From the development of Santa Claus Land (now called Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari) to the establishment of Christmas Lake Village, a rural community designed to reverse Spencer County’s population drain, Bill Koch took risks to fulfill his dream of developing the town of Santa Claus into an exceptional place to live and visit.
Born in Evansville in 1915 to Louis J. and Clarice A. Koch, William (nicknamed Bill) was a 1932 graduate of Reitz High School and a 1937 graduate of Purdue University. He conducted post-graduate work in naval architecture at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and served in the Navy in World War II.
After returning from the war, he was on hand when Santa Claus Land opened on August 3, 1946. Despite initial concerns that his father’s retirement project was a folly, Bill Koch became involved and was soon general manager of what would eventually be known as the first theme park in the world.
In 1962, Koch was present when President John Kennedy signed legislation creating the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in nearby Lincoln City, Indiana. He was also instrumental in persuading the federal government to reroute Interstate 64 so that when it was built in the 1970s it would run through extreme southern Indiana. One of his most recent projects was the upcoming rerouting and expansion of U.S. 231 through Spencer County.
Visitation arrangements for Bill Koch are pending. A funeral mass will be conducted St. Nicholas Church in Santa Claus, with burial in the church cemetery.
Koch is survived by his wife of 40 years, Patricia Yellig Koch, plus their five children: Will and Philip of Santa Claus, Daniel of Miami, Florida; Dr. Kristi Koch George of Indianapolis, and Natalie Koch, of West Lafayette, Ind. He is also survived by a sister, Katheryne Bosse, of Longboat Key, Florida.
The family requests that in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions be made to the W.A. Koch Family Fund, which is part of the Spencer County Community Foundation.
Bill Koch: A Man of Vision, Integrity, Generosity
In this Southern Indiana town with streets named Donder and Comet and Blitzen, there’s another name as prominent as the jolly old elf’s.
That name is Koch.
As in Bill and Pat Koch, and their five children: Will, Kristi, Daniel, Philip and Natalie Koch.
The Koch family not only put the town of Santa Claus on the map, they made it a fun place to work, live and play.
The Kochs steered the world’s first theme park from a quaint kiddie park to a major attraction with a waterpark and roller coasters.
They built a gated subdivision with lakes, tennis courts and a golf course. Christmas Lake Village was Bill Koch’s field of dreams. He built it and people came.
He opened a camping resort. He built a town hall, a medical center and a bank for the community that grew from 37 to 2,000 residents. He served on 27 boards at one time. He was instrumental in getting a major interstate highway that changed the face and economy of Southern Indiana.
The list goes on… So, too, do the ambitions of this gentleman who always wears a suit and tie, even to the beach.
“Well, why not? It’s comfortable,” says Bill Koch.
To most people, he is Mr. Koch. To a select few, he is still Mr. Bill, a necessity from the days when there were many Mr. Kochs.
He is third-generation Koch, a key name in Southern Indiana’s industrial history, dating back to the little tin shop his grandfather expanded into a family corporation. His father set the foundation for the Santa Claus venture, but the town’s success was created by Bill Koch, his wife, Pat, and their children.
Today, their Koch Development Corporation operates Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, Lake Rudolph Campground and R.V. Resort, Kringle Place Shopping Center and Holiday Village, a new subdivision.
Bill Koch is humble about the accomplishments and candid about the failures.
“Not everything has worked,” he says. “We quit as many things as we started. You don’t give up. You just keep going. You try something new.”
Much credit goes to Pat Koch, who does whatever is needed—even scrubbing restrooms at the theme park.
The Koch children not only follow in their parents’ footsteps, they also carve their own paths as they take Koch Development Corporation into a new century of change and progress.
Philip Koch is in charge of the campground and shopping center.
Will Koch is President of the theme park.
Dan Koch is Chairman of the Board.
Joining the Kochs in their enterprise are 60 full-time and 1,000 seasonal workers.
A LITTLE TIN SHOP WELDS GENERATIONS OF KOCHS
On the wall of Bill Koch’s office are numerous awards, newspaper stories and pictures of him with U.S. presidents, some who visited the theme park.
But the most revered portraits are those of the two men with thin sepia faces and features like his own: his dad, Louis J. Koch, and his grandfather, George Koch.
George Koch came with his parents from Germany in 1843 to reunite with relatives in the Indiana river town of Evansville.
George Koch was adventurous and had a gift for commerce. At a young age he’d load a flatboat with handcrafted merchandise and float down the Ohio River to trade.
He later founded George Koch Tin Shop, and was joined by his three sons, including Louis Koch. In 1904, the sons incorporated George Koch Sons, Inc. in honor of their father.
When young Louis Koch took over the tin shop, many people doubted his ability but he proved them wrong. His passion to invent and build products was ahead of his time. He led the company into the sheet metal industry.
In keeping with family tradition, Louis Koch’s sons pitched in at the company. William Albert “Bill” Koch worked after school and during summers, then joined the firm after getting an engineering degree from Purdue University in 1937.
Tin wasn’t the only thing on Louis Koch’s mind.
The father of nine children loved holidays. It bothered him that there was not a greater memorial to Santa Claus in this namesake town, a tiny burg only 45 miles from Evansville. Louis Koch decided to do something about it: he started a mail-order gift business and a theme park in Santa Claus.
The decision changed the course of son Bill’s life—and ultimately impacted many others in Southern Indiana.
SANTA CLAUS LAND: THE WORLD’S FIRST THEME PARK
While his father toyed with the Santa Claus venture, Bill Koch was overseas serving his country in World War II.
After his U.S. Navy duty, Bill went to work for George Koch Sons as an engineer in the sales department and also did advertising for the company.
At that point in the mid-1940s, the Santa Claus project wasn’t much more than a mail-order house and the bare bones of a theme park called Santa Claus Land. It had a Mother Goose train, some storybook characters and a toy shop with elves. It was America’s first theme park, opening nine years before Disneyland.
Bill Koch wasn’t impressed by his father’s Santa Claus undertaking.
“I thought it was sort of a folly,” he recalls. “I didn’t think it would go anywhere.”
But his dip into advertising pulled him in.
“I started working for the mail-order house,” he says. “There was something that just took me by shock and storm. And here I am. I haven’t left.”
The catalog had Christmas gifts and unusual items that couldn’t be found at stores.
“We decorated the carton with things that showed it came from Santa Claus, Indiana. It was unique. It went well for a few years, then it fizzled out. When stock came in and sold out, we couldn’t get more,” says Bill Koch.
“We started going to department stores and putting toys on display. Stores took orders for the toy to be sent to a child, packaged to the hilt with Santa Claus.”
It went fine until the year they stocked the warehouse with Erector Sets and Gilbert trains, expecting to make a small fortune—but lost a big fortune.
“We didn’t sell any because they could go to the local store and get them,” says Bill Koch. “We sold all of those items at about 35 cents on the dollar. That was the end of that.”
But it was the start of something else—the emphasis on developing the Santa Claus Land theme park.
Santa Claus Land expanded to include a toy shop, a gift shop, a restaurant and exhibits. Rides were added and advertising got the word out.
“People kept coming here by the thousands,” says Bill Koch. “There were no parking lots. The highway would be parked with cars for a couple of miles back in every direction. We would have as many as 10 state police directing traffic to get people in and out.”
Santa was the lure. Jim Yellig, the man in the red suit, was a natural Santa and kids loved him. And he was there year-round! When he wasn’t on his throne delighting children, he was in his sleigh atop the roof, communicating with the crowds below via microphone.
For the Kochs, it was hard to make ends meet on the place, much less grow. In 1955, Bill Koch proposed an admission charge of 50 cents for adults, with kids free.
“Every member of the family tried to talk me out of charging. I was so doggone stubborn I wasn’t going to give in,” he says.
It paid off. Visitors paid up. The revenue enabled the park to grow and add new attractions.
“That was our salvation,” says Bill Koch. “If we hadn’t done that we wouldn’t be here today.”
Santa Claus Land grew to include more shops, shows, a wax museum and rides.
The site also served as a community center for meetings and meals. People lined up for chicken and turkey dinners, and exotic fare such as Baked Alaska.
The four initials for the dining room were F.F.F.F., which stood for Famous For Fine Food.
“We stated that and got people to believe it. And they came here,” says Bill Koch, adding, “And the food was good.”
With the growth, there was one slight problem: There weren’t any motels nearby and the cabins and campgrounds at Lincoln State Park, five miles away, often were full.
Bill Koch saw it as an opportunity. In 1958, he opened a 150-site campground, Lake Rudolph Campsites, across the lake from the theme park.
“First, it would be a source of income. Second, it would be a source of people,” he says. “I figured that would be a double payoff.”
He figured right.
MR. BILL MARRIES SANTA’S DAUGHTER
Santa Claus (Jim Yellig) was a popular figure at Santa Claus Land.
Mr. Bill (Bill Koch) had quite a following, too.
“To the young girls who worked here he was quite interesting because he had a TV,” recalls Santa Jim’s daughter, the former Patricia Ann Yellig. “He was the first one to have a TV.”
Many of her classmates worked at Santa Claus Land, as did her mother. But Patricia Ann Yellig had another mission. She went to nursing school—then the convent. She was a Daughters of Charity nun for 10 years.
After leaving the order, she moved back to town in the late 1950s. At a friend’s birthday party, she ran into Bill Koch, 17 years her senior.
“He asked to take me home,” she says.
They dated a bit after that. But she had plans. She went to St. Louis for a nursing job. The distance wasn’t a deterrent.
“He kept calling, saying he had business in St. Louis,” she says.
She moved back. He proposed. She said yes.
Their age gap wasn’t an issue. “I was older,” he says, “but she said she was more mature.”
The newlyweds wasted no time in starting a family.
In six years, they had five children: Will, Kristi, Daniel, Philip and Natalie.
CHRISTMAS LAKE VILLAGE
Philip Koch remembers the summer days of his early boyhood in the 1960s, when he and his three older siblings would pile into the family station wagon and bump along the dusty back roads as his father hunted for land to buy.
“It was hot. There was no air-conditioning in the car. Dad would be smoking a cigar,” he says.
It was the groundwork for his father’s field of dreams.
As Philip Koch puts it: “He wanted to have a better place to raise his kids, so he developed Christmas Lake Village. You’d think a new father might want to build a new house or something, but he wanted to build a town.”
Bill Koch prefers to put it this way: “I wanted to build a city.”
He had seen the projections for his community, and he didn’t like what he saw. The population of Spencer County was projected to decline. He wanted to do something about it.
He had a plan: Build a place where people would want to live—a gated community with a lake, pool, park, tennis, ball fields and a golf course.
Pat Koch was skeptical, to say the least.
“I told him he was absolutely crazy. Why would anyone want to live in Santa Claus?” she says. “He said, ‘If we offer the type of lifestyle they want, it will be a beautiful place to live.’”
She gave it the nod, figuring, “Well, I can always go back to nursing.”
Bill Koch bought up property, most of it farmland.
“It was the only time I ever saw him not sleep well,” says his wife. “He had to get all the pieces and put it all together.”
He ended up with a 2,300-acre spread, but it was far from a done deal.
“We had to create the town to get the water. We had to form a town council, get a sewer company, a board of directors, to get all this accomplished,” he says.
They also had 27 miles of roads to name.
Bill and Pat Koch studied Christmas books, song books and the Bible to come up with festive street names—such as Snowball, Jinglebell and Chestnuts-by-the-Fire Drive. Despite the paved merriment, sales were grim.
“I remember we’d watch and watch to see if anybody came in to buy a lot,” says Pat Koch. “We gave away chicken dinners if they’d go look at lots. It was rough.”
During that time, Santa Claus Land was put on the back burner because money and energy went toward the grand scheme of the subdivision.
Pat Koch remembers all too well how committed her husband was to building the subdivision’s golf course. On July 11, 1967, a bad storm was brewing and she was worried about making it to the Evansville hospital on time to give birth to their fifth child. Bill worried how the weather might hamper construction of the golf course.
She recalls he told her, “You know, Pat, I hope you have the baby soon. I have some people coming at noon to work on the golf course.”
Baby Natalie was born midmorning. Her father made his appointment and sent her mother five dozen roses for the punctual delivery.
THE THEME PARK GROWS WITH THE HELP OF FIVE ELVES
The children grew up helping out at the theme park. Pat Koch recalls the many times the kids came home with cotton candy all over their shoes.
The family went on working vacations to amusement parks to try out rides and to camps to hone skills.
“We took them to a place in Arkansas where they learned how to make animals do tricks,” says Pat Koch. “Kristi had a horse. She rode the horse through hoops of fire at the park.”
The oldest child, Will, ran tech for the musical shows and eventually married one of the entertainers. After graduating from college and working several years at an outside corporation, he rejoined the family company in 1987 to take over management of Holiday World.
And these days it’s an entirely different show.
For years, Santa Claus Land was a subsidiary of George Koch Sons. Anything major had to be approved by Bill Koch’s brothers, who were 45 miles yet a world away in Evansville’s business district.
“They didn’t think the same way we did,” says Bill Koch. “They didn’t know anything about the amusement business. They knew about manufacturing.”
There were other issues outside all the Kochs’ control, such as the advent of shopping malls and specialty shops that offered Christmas items year-round.
“The whole picture changed on the wintertime market,” says Pat Koch.
The focus of the park shifted to outdoor amusements. A new identity was needed to go along with it.
“Everybody thought of it as a kiddie park to come see Santa Claus,” she says. “We couldn’t grow. We needed to change the image of the park.”
The solution: Change the name of the park.
“The people in marketing said it was a terrible idea,” says Bill Koch.
He did it anyway.
Santa Claus Land became Holiday World in 1984. The scope of the park was expanded with new sections themed after Halloween and the 4th of July.
That same year, the park gained independence from George Koch Sons, which meant Bill Koch no longer had to consult with his brothers to make changes and add new rides.
Bill and Pat Koch became co-chairmen of their newly formed Koch Development Corporation.
A water park, Splashin’ Safari, was added to the theme park in 1993. The water park complex now covers 18 acres with numerous pools and slides.
In 1993, Natalie Koch rejoined Koch Development Corporation after graduating from college and working outside the family business. She was in charge of the park’s operations and human resources until the fall of 2000, when she left the daily operations of the park to work on her MBA degree at Purdue University.
The park’s staff was voted “Friendliest in the World” in a survey by the trade journal Amusement Today, which also named the park the world’s cleanest.
To celebrate Holiday World’s 50th season in 1995, a $2 million wooden roller coaster was constructed and named The Raven. Attendance reached new heights in 2000 with the debut of the bigger, bolder, $3 million roller coaster, The Legend. Both coasters have received top reviews from publications and coaster enthusiasts worldwide, with The Raven named the world’s #1 Wooden Coaster and The Legend #5 in 2001 by the readers of Amusement Today.
PROGRESS & PRIDE
Lake Rudolph Campground & R.V. Resort is another example of surviving and thriving by adapting to the times.
It opened in 1958 as Lake Rudolph Campground to accommodate visitors to the theme park. It was an immediate success, and has grown considerably in scope and function since.
But, over the years the campground had to change to meet consumer demand. It went from public to private and back to public, closing for several years to deal with the transitions.
In 1999, the name was changed to Lake Rudolph Campground & R.V. Resort. It has 240 public sites for campers and tents, plus rental RVs and cabins. Amenities include two swimming pools, miniature golf, fishing lake, paddle boats, playgrounds, country store, shelter house, game room and discount tickets to Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari. The campground is under the direction of Philip Koch, who rejoined Koch Development Corporation in 1989 after graduating from college.
Philip oversees the town’s only shopping center, Kringle Place, purchased by Koch Development Corporation in 1997. The Kochs renovated Kringle Place into a German/Bavarian village befitting the town’s heritage. Businesses in the plaza include a supermarket, fitness center and new specialty shops.
In the coming year, Kringle Place will get a famous tenant, the Santa Claus post office, the only in the world with the official Santa Claus postmark. Every year, thousands of children send letters to Santa that land at this post office.
The town of Santa Claus is known far and wide for its post office and its recreational facilities, and it is a popular place to vacation.
As a place to live, it can’t be beat.
Christmas Lake Village is home to three-quarters of the town’s residents. All the lots have been sold.
A second residential community, Holiday Village, is located across town. It has 400 acres and 600 home sites. Holiday Village streets are named after monthly highlights, such as New Year’s Eve Drive, Super Bowl Drive, Groundhog Day Drive.
HIGHWAYS AND HISTORY
Bill Koch has an unusual hobby: highways.
Nearby Interstate 64 is his pride and joy.
It was originally scheduled from Louisville to veer north through Vincennes to St. Louis. He thought it would make more sense if it ran straight across the southern part of the state.
The year was 1957.
“I immediately started working on it. I found out it had not been set in concrete,” he says.
He went to a highway hearing to see what he could do.
“I told them, ‘Gentleman, I think the route for 64 is too far north. What do I need to do to get it to go straight across?’ They said, ‘You have to get the governors of Indiana and Illinois to agree to get the road changed so the Bureau of Roads will agree to relocate it.’”
He got the governors to agree, then took his campaign to the local level.
It took years, but the interstate route was moved south, largely because of his efforts.
“I never wanted the credit, I just wanted to get the job done,” he says. “I wanted to be a catalyst in making things happen.”
Since Interstate 64 opened in 1976, things have happened in Southern Indiana. A power plant and AK Steel built major production facilities in Rockport, Ind. Toyota built a vehicle manufacturing plant in Princeton, Ind., because of Interstate 64. The economic impact of Interstate 64 rippled to countless smaller businesses. It created a number of steady, well paying jobs for citizens.
In recent years, Bill Koch worked hard for the relocation and expansion of Highway 231. The highway, soon to become a reality, is a needed main artery connecting the southern part of the state with Interstate 64.
Bill Koch also had a major role in the development of the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in nearby Lincoln City.
“It was a state memorial. I wanted to make it a national memorial so more money would be available for it,” he says. “It now gets about a quarter-million visitors a year whereas it used to get maybe 30,000 or 40,000.”
Bill Koch received an honorary Doctorate of Law degree from the University of Southern Indiana in 1992. He served on the board of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
Pat Koch has a number of irons in the fire of her own.
She coordinates the Santa’s Elves, the volunteer service project that ensures the thousands of children who send a letter to the Santa Claus post office get a response from Santa.
She spearheaded the construction of St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Santa Claus.
She is working on a graduate degree in pastoral ministry. She expects to get her degree by the time she is 71.
Bill and Pat Koch always encouraged their children to follow their own dreams.
For two, this meant pursuing outside professions. Son Daniel is an attorney in Florida and daughter Kristi is a doctor in Indianapolis.
Will and Philip chose to stay in Santa Claus to carry on the family enterprise. Natalie is working on her MBA degree after eight years with the company.
Each adds a unique talent to the business, and is given the freedom to help it flourish.
And each will honor the legacy of their parents in their own special way.
Released: 17 September, 2001
Media contact: Paula Werne, email@example.com; 812-937-5209