KNOXVILLE — The new look of a familiar face watching over Knoxville for the past 50-plus Christmas seasons will be revealed at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21.
“Santa was looking pretty haggard,” said Linda Cunningham, whose property on Fork Hill is home to the jolly wooden cutout from late November to early January.
Cunningham said the most recent Santa, an 18-foot tall, two-piece structure, was last repainted in 2012. She said, “His paint was peeling and the boards were starting to rot. Bob (Cunningham’s husband) said, ‘We should do a new Santa.’”
The wheels were quickly put in motion to help give Knoxville a brighter Christmas during a tough year. The Cunninghams purchased all the supplies and asked their artist friend, Knoxville resident Ray Wherley to help design Santa’s new look.
Over three months, Bob and Wherley cut out the new three-piece structure from plywood, framing and securing it with piping to keep Santa standing. Wherley was given full creative license to bring Santa to life.
“My inspiration was the cartoons I’ve seen over my life. I’ve been drawing Santa for years; every year I design personal Christmas cards. This Santa will be fatter than the last one. We went for jolly,” said Wherley, adding this was a fun project he was proud to work on. “This was an opportunity to do something for the town that will be there for years to come hopefully.”
This will be the third Santa to grace Fork Hill at the west end of Main Street/Route 49. According to history compiled by resident Tom Foster, the first Santa was built by Cecil Mainus around 1965-66. It was replaced by Terry McFall and Jace Steadman in 1981 or 1982, this time as two pieces, making it easier to haul up and down the steep hill. That Santa was Knoxville’s guardian until this year, but he’s not going anywhere.
Residents can own a piece of history by purchasing a “Santa Box,” said Cunningham, who is on the board of the Northern Tier Recreation Authority, the group behind the Knoxville Community Center.
For $10, the keepsake boxes include a piece of the previous Santa, a photo of him on the hill by Dustin Riehl and a poem penned by resident Georganna Doran (see sidebar). Proceeds benefit NTRA to help maintain the Community Center building and its offerings.
The boxes will be available to purchase at the event or anytime at the Community Center in room 1. They can also be paid for online on PayPal via the link at www.facebook.com/KnoxvilleCommunityCenter and picked up at either location.
Before the reveal on Nov. 21, NTRA is offering a scavenger hunt starting at 12:30 p.m. Participants can register at the parking lot of the new Dollar General (old feed mill location). From there, businesses throughout town will give each participant a Santa letter with clues that unscramble into a Christmas-themed word. Anyone finding the answer can enter their name into a drawing for prizes back at the Dollar General lot, where they can also see the Santa unveiling at 2 p.m.
Also at the lot, the top half of the old Santa will be available for photos and NTRA will sell hot dogs and hot chocolate. Normally closed on Saturdays, Debra’s Café at 201 W. Main St. will also be open for the event.
Cunningham said she and Bob, who grew up in Knoxville and remembers seeing Santa every year, have been Santa’s landlords since purchasing the property on Fork Hill about 25 years ago.
“We were happy to keep up the tradition,” she said. “Now, we’re happy to be part of this new piece of Santa’s story.”