By Steve Novotney
Tinsel was everywhere.
It was wound around the downtown’s utility poles, and it outlined most storefront window displays. Tinsel smothered the Christmas trees on display at Mendelson’s, the new bikes on sale at Becker’s Hardware, and the entire toy departments inside G.C. Murphy’s and Stone & Thomas.
And so was Santa Claus.
Stone & Thomas, Sears, and J.C. Penney’s featured sitting Santas for years in the downtown, and Reichart’s positioned the jolly old elf along Main Street to wave at passing motorists as a way to promote the furniture store’s annual, “Santa’s Fiesta Sale.”
But Wheeling’s Christmas has changed over the past four decades, and the opening of the Ohio Valley Mall near St. Clairsville, Ohio, ushered into the Upper Ohio Valley the retail industry’s “big box” era. Several stores went west to Belmont County, many closed, some fought for survival, and only a few remain today.
So, instead of St. Nick sightings on every corner of Main and Market streets, he and his elves have been plopped in the mall’s middle since 1978.
Oglebay’s annual “Festival of Lights” display altered the holiday season in the Friendly City too, attracting more than a million visitors to the resort each year since the lighting displays first appeared throughout the park in 1984.
“We believed at the time the Festival of Lights was an event that would add a season to the schedule for Oglebay and that it would bring more people back to Ohio County during the months of November and December,” recalled Randy Worls, a former longtime general manager of the resort. “Some people may believe we were copying what the people in Niagara Falls, N.Y., were doing, but the fact is no one from Oglebay visited the display in Niagara Falls until two years after we started the Festival here.
“But I can tell you this: When we wanted to go see the ‘real’ Santa Claus in Wheeling, you went to Cooey-Bentz in South Wheeling, without question,” Worls insisted. “And I know that’s where we took our two sons to see the ‘real’ Santa year after year.”
The Real Santa?
“My Christmases were unlike anyone else’s Christmases when I grew up,” said Jeff Knierim, the most recent owner of Cooey-Bentz before the store closed in 2002. “And that’s because you just knew as a child that you were getting everything on your wish list when Santa Claus would call you by your first name.
“But even finding out about Santa didn’t ruin my Cooey-Bentz Christmas because I started to realize that Cooey-Bentz was associated with so many wonderful memories that people will always have,” he said. “That’s been the most incredible part of it for me.”
Knierim, currently the Vice President of Community Engagement for West Liberty University, has heard stories about the window displays (and the newspapers that would cover them until the official unveiling), the toy train platforms, the “prize packages,” and about the REAL Santa.
“Toyland,” a 3,500-square-foot paradise-come-true for children, also is a favorite recollection. Easy Bake Ovens, Etch a Sketches, Stretch Armstrongs, Rock Em Sock Em Robots, Barbie Dolls, Tonka Trucks, G.I. Joes, and Big Wheels were a few of the most popular wishes heard by the store’s Kris Kringle.
Cooey-Bentz’s large display windows along Jacob Street featured animated creations by Rudy Wodarczek, and then by Creegan & Co. following Wodarczek’s retirement.
Even today, the recollections of adults are very clear because of the impressions made by Cooey-Bentz’s annual celebration:
Randy Baker: “There was nothing like Cooey-Bentz. Santa knew you by name, and as a kid you anticipated the paper being taken down so you could see their store windows. They had the greatest animated displays in the city.”
Penny Diane Glasscock Wetzel: “At Cooey-Bentz we always got a coloring book or Chinese Checker game, or some other nice gift and a candy cane! Their store windows were beautiful!
Jo Ann Wallace: “Cooey-Bentz, it always amazed me that he knew our names. They always had the greatest window displays, too.”
Don Cherry: “Anyone who knew anything at all about Christmas knew the only real Santa was at Cooey-Bentz. All other Santa’s paled in comparison!”
“When you walked into the store, Santa was always on the right on the platform we would build every year,” said Knierim, who purchased the business in 1990. “And after the mid-1960s, ‘Toyland’ was on the first floor near the train platforms, and everything was hand-crafted by our employees.
“The number of people who would come to see Santa was phenomenal to me because some people would drive hundreds of miles. The lines were always long and it would take, at times, more than an hour to get to sit on Santa’s lap. But they waited, and the weather didn’t seem to matter,” said the father of three. “With the popularity of Oglebay’s Festival of Lights, I like to think Cooey-Bentz was ahead of our time.”
Cooey-Bentz began offering Santa Claus in the 1920s, according to Knierim, and through the years several local men portrayed St. Nick six days per week, including Henry Conrad, Charlie Snyder, Joe and John Bishop, and John Rasakiewicz.
“I could tell you so much about that time in our lives, but it comes down to there being something very special about having Santa Claus in your family, “ said Barbara Rasakiewicz Green, one of John’s four daughters.. “My father loved everything about it because he loved children, and he loved Christmas.
“Our family treasures those memories because my father was still Santa Claus for all of the grandchildren. They all still cherish their photos sitting on Santa’s lap,” she said. “The first Christmas decoration I put on display every year is one that makes me think of that time.”
By the time Rasakiewicz was hired as Santa by the owners of Cooey-Bentz, Green, her sisters, and her brother were adults, but the Christmas season was always special at the family home in South Wheeling.
“The kids in the neighborhood always loved coming to our house because my father always had a big platform for the tree with the train, the mountains he would make, and the houses he would build for the display,” she said. “After he became Santa, I can remember him coming home, sitting in front of the Christmas tree, and telling us story after story about what he heard from the children that night.
“And I know he always tried to call the kids by their first name,” Green continued. “When he would do that, it made it more real for the children and the adults. That’s how the Cooey-Bentz Santa Claus became known as the real Santa in Wheeling. Everyone in that suit tried to do what they could to make it as special as they could.”
But then “Toyland” was removed from Cooey-Bentz in 1980, and Santa Claus and the decorated windows were discontinued in 1986.
“As far as the toys were concerned, it became harder and harder to compete in the retail industry because of the changes taking place,” Knierim explained. “We would buy six Tonka Trucks to sell, and Hill’s would buy 6,000 of them so there was a big difference in pricing.
“And once the toys went away, we could tell the children didn’t really appreciate standing in line between couches instead of in the middle of the shelves filled with toys,” he said. “We knew people were disappointed when the toys went away and once Santa was no longer here, but I think people realized the changes that were taking place.”
Very few photos exist of the train platforms, the display windows, Santa’s stage or of “Toyland,” and Knierim said that is because the longstanding tradition became a part of life.
“We all put a lot into it each year, but that was just what we did. It became normal for our family,” he said. “I guess we just didn’t think about taking any photos of it because we did it year after year for a very long time.
“I wish there was a way to make my memories into photographs because that way all the people who remember it could see what I remember from that time in my life,” he said. “The smiles on the children’s faces, the excitement of everyone who walked through the front doors, and the many trains and window displays. It was magical, for sure.”
Knierim has since donated many of the decorative artifacts to Oglebay Institute, and staff members at the Oglebay Mansion Museum often use them within their annual displays. And still today, Knierim pauses each Christmas season to recall his favorite moments.
“People bring up the Cooey-Bentz Christmas to me all the time, but their memories are a lot different than the ones I have,” he admitted. “With all of the experience I have had in the Santa business, I can tell you it was very satisfying when all of the toys were delivered or picked up by Christmas Eve. I remember leaving the store on Christmas Eve knowing all the toys were where they belonged. That was very gratifying for us.
“That meant it was another successful Christmas and everyone was happy,” Knierim added. “We knew that the people in our community were going to have a very, merry Christmas because of, in part, the efforts made by the people of the Cooey-Bentz Co. We believed in what we did, and it never felt like a job because of all the smiles.”
The Family Restaurant.
Another popular spot for the valley’s children to visit with, “the real Santa Claus,” was Elby’s Family Restaurant on National Road in Wheeling, and that was the case because the Boury brothers – George, Ellis, and Mike – were devoted to offering the family experience.
The Elby’s empire was founded with the Bourys’ first location in 1956, and the business expanded to 73 restaurants in four states, including West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. The Boury brothers initially created a restaurant supply store in downtown Wheeling, Boury Inc., and their operations expanded to appliances and electronics in the 1960s.
It was the restaurant chain, though, that led the men to legendary status.
“Christmas was a very special time at Elby’s, and that’s because of how my father and his brother felt about the holiday,” explained Gregg Boury, George’s son. “Christmas was an important tradition in our home, and it was always a family affair. That’s how my father wanted the entire Elby’s family to feel.
“It was important to the three of them to offer a good family experience at a family restaurant, and having Santa Claus there was a part of that,” the former vice president of operations said. “I know they made efforts to hire a Santa for every location, and I have memories of there being long lines to sit on Santa’s lap, and inside there would be packages and presents all over the place.”
The Elby’s restaurants were open 364 days per year with Christmas Day being the only exception to when Big Boys, Slim Jims, fried chicken, cole slaw, and onion rings were not served. Family values, Boury said, was the sole reason for the day off.
“It was never a question for them. It was a no-brainer to let all of our staff members to spend Christmas Day with their family members and friends,” he said. “They realized from the very beginning that their employees wanted to spend the day with their families just like they spent it with theirs.
“Christmas meant a lot to them, and it was a very important time with our family,” Boury continued. “That’s also why my father and uncles were so involved wirth the Wheeling Christmas Parade every year. They always had floats or balloons, and the Big Boy was always in the parade waving to the thousands of people who lined the streets of Wheeling.”
Terry Endsley, a former Elby’s general manager, recalled the good will spread by the Boury brothers.
“I know it was an important time for them, but they also realized how important Christmas was to the vast majority of our customers, too,” he said. “And they treated their employees with much more respect than what you see today.”
“The restaurant managers would always receive an extra paycheck as our Christmas bonus, and all of the employees received a Christmas bonus from them, too,” Endsley recalled. “Although we were always very busy at that time of year, it was a very happy place to work because of Santa Claus, all of the decorations inside, and because of the way the Bourys treated their employees.
“The Santa out front was referred by some people as the ‘real’ one,” he added. “But I know a lot of employees considered the Boury brothers the real Santas because of the way they were treated.”
The Boury brothers, all of whom have passed away, sold the restaurant chain in 1988 to the Elias Brothers Corp. of Pontiac, Mich. Most of the locations, however, have closed. For example, the site of the original Elby’s is now occupied by Perkins Restaurant.
“My father and his brothers were perfectionists to the point where it was a distraction for family members,” Boury said. “But I remember my father talking about how the banks were changing the way they were doing business, and how going public – selling stock – wasn’t an option because of what they feared would happen to the operation. Selling it all to Elias Brothers was their best option at the time.
“Elby’s is still widely remembered for a lot of different reasons,” he said. “The food, the service, the giant American Flags, the parking lot Christmas trees with literally thousands of lights, and because of Santa Claus always being there every single Christmas. They did what they could to make Christmas a very special time for the people who worked for them, and for the people who patronized the restaurants.”