J. Putnam Henck, who built Santa's Village in the 1950s on family land near Lake Arrowhead and was the owner-operator of the elfin theme park during its final two decades, has died. He was 91.
Henck died Jan. 15 of kidney failure at his home in Skyforest, said his daughter, Pam Thompson.
The year that he was born -- 1918 -- his parents paid $10,000 for 440 acres in the San Bernardino Mountains, planning to build a resort. After his family moved to Skyforest in 1923, his father became a pioneering developer and his mother opened Lake Arrowhead's first school.
In 1953, the Henck family leased 15 acres to developer Glenn Holland, who wanted to create a North Pole-themed amusement park and hired Henck, a general contractor, to build it.
With a crew, Henck used trees cleared from the land to build fake log cabins topped with artificial snow and create giant candy canes, candles and gingerbread men.
When Santa's Village opened six weeks before Disneyland in 1955, "traffic was backed up all the way down the mountain," Henck told The Times in 2006.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, a steady stream of day-tripping motorists drove the Rim of the World Highway, seeking out the sliver of faux Arctic that featured kiddie rides, a candy kitchen, a toy shop, live reindeer and, of course, Santa.
After the original investors went bankrupt in 1978, Henck and his family took over the park. He handled the maintenance and finances while his wife, Pamela, wrote scripts for the puppet show, hired performers and became the Lollipop Lady, who handed out lollipops to park guests.