Traditions hold communities together, especially small communities like Olalla, where for longer than most folks can remember, Santa has had a personal mailbox at the local store known until recently as Al’s of Olalla every holiday season. And the week before Christmas, Santa has traveled along the country roads bringing joy and goodies to good little girls and boys. In the early years, Santa drove a tractor. For the past decade, he’s made his rounds in a golf cart.
Both traditions have returned this year, thanks to two local fellows determined to continue — or, in the case of the mailbox, resume — them.
Abbott Borgen, 7, and his 5-year-old brother Gannon recently mailed their letters to Santa. Charlee Glock-Jackson / Gig Harbor Now
Gregg and Claudia Olsen, who purchased the store this year and are working to reopen it as Olalla Bay Market, have installed Santa’s old red mailbox near the front door.
“It’s just one of the traditions we want to bring back,” Claudia Olsen said. “The kids of Olalla need to have the magic of the holidays, and we want to bring it to them in small ways and share happiness with them.”
Both traditions were begun way back when by Al Robbecke, owner and operator of Al’s of Olalla store. He installed a bright red mailbox in front of the store right after Thanksgiving and, as happens in small towns, word spread quickly. Soon children were filling it with letters to Santa and wish lists.
Every letter was answered by Santa and Mrs. Claus, and for a few years, Santa even conspired with parents to make sure wish list items were delivered.
When Al’s son John took over the store in 1985, he continued the mailbox tradition until he passed away in 2010. Then Santa’s mailbox went missing, and for a long time Olalla children had no place to post their Christmas letters.
Until this holiday season.
“The mailbox sort of comes with the store,” Gregg Olsen said. “The Robbeckes left a huge legacy and really big shoes to fill. They personified the idea of community spirit. Now we’re stewards of the store and of those traditions that are so special to us and to so many people in our community.”
The mailbox has been filling fast with letters. And in keeping with the custom, every kid who posts one gets a handwritten response back from Santa or Mrs. Claus.
“That’s why it’s important that kids put their return address on the envelope,” Claudia Olsen said. “Or else how will Santa know where to send a letter back to?” Letters need to be placed in the mailbox by Dec. 21 to allow time for a response, she added.
Al Robbecke was also the original Santa who drove through the countryside handing out treats. He borrowed a local tractor, donned a Santa suit, loaded up a cooler full of popsicles — he called them North Pole icicles — and, with his faithful elf (usually his daughter Rosemary) drove up and down nearly every road.
Santa and his elf. Photo courtesty of Mike Corpolongo
John Robbecke continued the Santa rides until his death. Another local fellow took his place and made the rounds on the tractor, but after a few years he quit. Then, in 2010, longtime Olalla resident Mike Corpolongo decided the tradition needed reviving.
“My kids always looked forward to seeing Santa on his tractor, back when Al and John did it,” Corpolongo said. “It was part of our holiday tradition.”
He tracked down some old route maps going back to 1996, from the short-term Santa, who also still had the old Santa suit. By then the tractor had moved to someplace in Idaho, and Olalla had grown significantly.
“The roads have gotten a lot more crowded and I didn’t want to take the risk of some kid running out into the street in front of me, so I had to come up with another way to get around the area,” Corpolongo said.
A solution soon appeared when a neighbor asked Mike to help him haul a golf cart from his parents’ home in Federal Way. On their way back, Corpolongo had an inspiration.
“I thought, ‘Hey. I can trick it out and put a bunch of lights on it and Santa can ride around Olalla in a golf cart,’” he said.
And so the golf cart became Santa’s sleigh. Corpolongo missed last year because of COVID concerns, but he’s back this year and Santa will make his journey ‘round Olalla on Dec. 18, beginning at 10 a.m on Starr Road. The route covers more than 22 miles and ends at the store around 2:45 p.m.
“It’s about a four- or five-hour run,” Corpolongo said.
Everyone who meets Santa along the way gets a North Pole icicle, just like in the old days.
Olalla Elementary School students received a flyer that show’s Santa’s route and estimated arrival times at spots along the way, so Corpolongo is hoping for a good turnout, especially after missing last year.
While Santa is doing “The Run,” local photographer Jess Luster will set up her camera in the store parking lot, with her festive red pickup truck, to take photos, by donation, of anyone who wants a memento. She’ll be there from 10:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., according to Gregg Olsen. The store is not open yet, but the Olsens are making the parking lot available.
The festivities continue after Santa arrives at the store, with hot cocoa and cookies and a special thank you to Corpolongo, who’s hanging up the reins to Santa’s sleigh — er, golf cart – after 11 years on the job.
He and Olsen are interviewing prospective Santa replacements, with some specific requirements: Santa must be an Olalla resident and familiar with the tradition.
“This has been going on for nearly 50 years, since back in the ’70s,” Corpolongo said. “Santa has to know about that and be willing to commit to continuing it for at least five or 10 years. It’s really a dedication thing.”
Santa also has to have a certain personality.
“Santa is bigger than life. He needs to be able to interact with kids and answer all kinds of wishes, even hard ones,” he said, recalling times when a child has asked to please bring back Mommy who died this year, or please make Mommy and Daddy quit fighting.
Olalla photographer Jess Luster will be at the store parking lot Saturday to take pictures by donation — with her red Christmas truck. Contributed photo
The job also requires keen sense of humor.
“I laugh a lot,” Corpolongo said. “I remember one little girl, when I asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she said, ‘I want everything you got. Just bring it!’ I nearly laughed my head off.”
And of course, Santa must have an elf — a female elf.
“You definitely can’t do it by yourself, and if some kids are kind of afraid of Santa sometimes, they always are comfortable with the girl elf,” Corpolongo said.
And, finally, the new Santa will have to provide his own transportation because the golf cart is no longer available. In fact, this year, Santa had to borrow a new golf cart — an electric model.
“I’m just hoping that it will go 20 miles on one charge,” Corpolongo said. “As long as I can get to Banfill Road up above the store, I’ll be fine, ‘cuz I can just coast down from there.”
And in another Olalla tradition that happens spontaneously on New Year’s Day, no matter the weather, dozens of people will show up for the Polar Bear Jump, leaping from the bridge near the store into icy Olalla Creek. Some jump in costume, others jump to clear their heads after a ringing in the New Year a bit too vigorously. And others just come to watch and gather ’round the big bonfire that always gets built. That’s just the Olalla Way.
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