Building a Better Christmas: The U.S. Corps of Engineers Wives Club Santa Claus Shop
Today’s post is written by Cody White, an archivist at the National Archives at Denver
Christmas is often a time for charity, the bringing of holiday cheer to those less fortunate, and one such heartwarming tale can be found at the National Archives at Denver in the most unlikely of record groups; RG 77 Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers. Found amongst the series of engineering maps, drawings, survey notebooks, and construction files from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is one series simply entitled “Installation Historical Files, 1946-1977.” Comprised of two scrapbooks, this series documents the Albuquerque, New Mexico chapter of the U.S. Corps of Engineers Wives Club and their service to the community, especially around Christmas 1950.
Founded in 1946 by 32 charter members, we learn from the scrapbooks filled with photographs, event flyers, and newspaper clippings that from the group’s inception, the women focused on charitable contributions within the community. It wasn’t, however, until 1950 that the Santa Claus Shop was created and in turn seems to have become an enormous success.
With the concept first originating in Denver, the wives club brought to Albuquerque the idea of a place where down-on-their-luck parents could “buy” Christmas gifts for their children. These toys came from a variety of sources such as toy drives across the city where residents could donate new or broken toys to be fixed, from local businesses who donated new or returned toys, and even from the women themselves who made mittens, dolls, and stuffed animals. The club members’ husbands, all Army Corps of Engineers personnel, also helped. On Sunday mornings a government truck was borrowed to make the rounds and collect donations. One particular Army officer even made 31 stick horses to donate while a group of U.S. Navy Seabees, probably more accustomed to constructing Marine airfields and bases, spent several nights welding and painting old tricycles. Within no time it was reported that the chairwoman’s garage was full and so the use of a high profile vacant store was donated to them for the season.
Eligible parents were given vouchers in relation to how many children they had and when the Santa Claus Shop opened they were able to use those vouchers to “buy” gifts. One particularly grateful parent reportedly told welfare department caseworkers that this was the “first time they had actually been able to shop for toys for their children.”
The Santa Claus Shop was reprised in 1951, this time with help from the Lions Club and Albuquerque Fire Department, but nothing is reflected in the scrapbooks after that. Regardless, for at least two years thousands of Albuquerque area sons and daughters awoke Christmas morning to gifts under the tree, all thanks to the efforts of the Albuquerque U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Wives Club.
All documents referenced, photographs, and quotes come from RG 077 Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, accession NRG-077-09-048 “Installation Historical Files, 1946-1977,” Box 1, NARA identifier 4527081.