A publication of Appalachian Voices

A publication of Appalachian Voices

Santa train rides again through Appalachia

The crowd started to trickle in by nine, watching the volunteers of “Dante Lives On” set up their bake sale on the concrete slab that marks the site of the former theatre. By ten, children were playing on the grassy lot that once housed the company store. The Santa Train used to stop at the depot, but the depot isn’t used much any more.

Several hundred people watched the CSX/Kingsport Chamber of Commerce sponsored Santa Train pull into Dante, Virginia, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. That’s the traditional day for the event. The train started its run in Shelby, Kentucky, stopped at twelve towns, and deposited Santa in Kingsport for the city’s Christmas Parade in the afternoon. A special treat this year was the presence of country music star Alison Krauss on the back platform, helping Santa and his pals throw out fifteen tons of goodies.

Sixty-four years ago the Santa Train pulled into Dante, a prosperous mining town with three to four thousand inhabitants, for the first time. Folks living in Dante today were children when the train first came round, and they still relish the day.

Their family took Ruth Sproles and sister Shirley to the platform at the depot to await the train. Ruth remembers Santa pointing to her and telling the crowd to move back, “so I can throw something to the little girl in the red coat.”

Ruth and Shirley were in attendance early this year, talking with friends at the tables set up by Dante Lives On.
The woman who heads Dante Lives On, Bobbie Gullett, was busy laying out the baked goods and apple butter, the tree ornaments and photo albums. The last two items offer pictures of the old theatre, the old company store, the hotel, from the days when Dante was a self-sufficient company town. Proceeds go to furnishing the museum which the volunteers of Dante Lives On have spent four years acquiring and refurbishing.

And Bobbie Gullett has never missed a Santa Train Saturday in 64 years.

“It didn’t make any difference what you got at Christmas . . . the important thing was what you got from the Santa Train.”

It wasn’t that the children of Dante wouldn’t have had a Christmas otherwise. The town was booming during the early days of the train.

Bobbie’s father, Emory Cook, worked for Clinchfield Mining Company, as did everyone else’s father. And he was a preacher. Bobbie and her older sister, Gaynell, remember their youth in Dante as unique, happy, and prosperous.

Mining jobs were good-paying jobs and people had started moving to the community to take those jobs early in the twentieth century. The little community with its various hollows reaching back into the hills was diverse, with African-Americans, Hungarians, Greeks.

Dante had everything a family could want, all provided by the Company. “Clinchfield owned everything,” Bobbie recalls.
The big company store had a grocery section, a hardware section, a dry goods section, and the children’s favorites: a candy store and a toy store. There was a twenty-bed hospital, a baseball field, the school, a drug store, and a theatre. The Company even opened a Ladies Shop where the post office is now. There was a service station, although there wasn’t much need for cars. The Company sent trucks around to pick up miners for each of the three shifts. And you could call in an order at the general store and see it delivered. When the Cook children went to see their paternal grandparents, they could leave early from the depot, ride the train to Kingsport and get back late that night.

The Company owned all the workers’ homes as well until the late 1940s, when they began selling them to the miners instead of renting them out. The Cooks were one of the first to buy the home that Gaynell still lives in—now much expanded.

Most homes in Dante have not fared so well. When Clinchfield left, so did many of the workers. The current population of Dante is between 850 and 900. Houses up several of the hollows are losing their battles with the elements. In addition, Clinchfield tore down the store and the theatre. The hotel had been torn down to build an office building which is now owned by People, Inc.

The school in Dante burned, and Bobbie and her siblings were bussed to a school in Castlewood, where she graduated high school. There has been no school at all in Dante since 1991.

There is also no grocery store or convenience store, no gas station, no medical services. Bobbie says you have to go to St. Paul for everything. Still, she feels lucky to have found a job close by, so she could continue to live in Dante.

Emory Cook retired from the mines in 1966, and saw the decline of the town over the next thirty-odd years. Bobbie Gullett lived in nearby towns for a while, but returned to Dante to help take care of her mother. Like many current residents of Dante, she commuted to St. Paul, in her case for almost forty years before her retirement this past summer.

St. Paul, the stop after Dante on the Santa Train, has grown and prospered as it absorbed Dante’s business and some of its people.
The stops on the Santa Train route have different stories. The fortunes of some have risen; the fortunes of others have fallen.
And the Santa Train itself has seen many changes.

Jane Covington, resident vice-president of public affairs for CSXT, has ridden the train for the past nine years. She says the crew has worked to improve the process from a safety and efficiency standpoint. For some years, Santa and his helpers had thrown packages from the train as it slowed, and children ran to pick them up after the train had passed. Now, the train stops at each locale for a scheduled time. Workers know exactly how many and which plastic bins to empty out at each stop.

The Food City Kingsport store solicits the donations of toys, candy, clothes and money. Over the last fourteen years, Food City’s involvement has grown to the point that 50 employees work on the project each year.

The stops have even become somewhat specialized: special needs children gather at Fremont.

And, of course, celebrities like Alison Krauss join the crew these days—probably as a treat for the adults as much as the children.
There is a ground crew that hops off the train immediately to distribute presents to children in the back who can’t buck the crowd. (Ruth Sproles would have felt special these days as well.) And the ground crew has been known to carry dog bones for the canine youngsters, as well.
Jane Covington, who sees the Santa Train from the opposite perspective as Bobbie Gullett, comes to the same conclusion. “It’s all about tradition. It’s all about seeing Santa for the first time in the season.”

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