Fort Smith community says goodbye to ‘Santa MacClaus’

Fort Smith community says goodbye to ‘Santa MacClaus’
Christmas carols that carry on the Fort Smith evening air in December will be a tribute Santa MacClaus, as Duncan MacPherson was fondly called. He died after striking his head in Arizona two weeks ago. The Santa float he created will honour his memory.Photo courtesy of Carol MacPherson

The man fondly known in Fort Smith as Santa “MacClaus” passed away at the end of November, but volunteers are ensuring his legacy will live on through the shimmering Christmas float that tours the town every December.

Duncan “Doug” MacPherson, 67, formerly of Fort Smith before retiring to Arizona for the winters, was working on a southern version of his famous float – powered with a golf cart – when he hit his head, falling into a coma from which he would not wake. Survived by his wife Carol, four children and 12 grandchildren, he died Nov. 18.

“I think when he was doing that, he felt like he was Santa, because he was bringing good tidings and cheer to everybody around town and I feel like it’s a tradition that not very many communities have,” said Mike Labine, who “apprenticed” under MacPherson and has since taken over the festive operation. “He was doing the same thing down there, it was good to know that he went doing something he loved.”

In the 1980s, MacPherson fired up his first Christmas float, using an ATV and a small trailer to pull the town mascot – a half moose, half buffalo called the “Muffaloose” – past every house.

“You can’t imagine the feeling when we stop in front of the houses and they all run to the window, or want a ride and wave and yell or the kids run over to the float and give Santa a letter,” Labine said. “It just really touches the heart.”

A carpenter for three decades, MacPherson once acknowledged in a past interview with the Journal that he was “Christmas-crazy.” Every year he fervently worked on the float, making it a little better. Upgrades included everything from expansion of the trailer bed to accommodate more decorations, to new sound systems, to an ever-increasing number of lights and generators to power the whole thing.

“The Santa float for him was, I think, an escape from day-to-day activities and it was really important that anything that was done on there was done to the best of his abilities,” Labine said. “I remember going there and helping him put lights on and he was very, for a lack of a better term, persnickity, about getting them on just right. He spent a lot of time. The care and attention that he put towards that float was unreal.”

Labine has since streamlined the operation, upgrading from incandescent bulbs to LED lights, which help him cut back to just one generator, and supplying the rotation of volunteers who dress up as the Clauses with electric heating blankets to keep warm on those -40 nights touring through town.

He was even set to display a new blow-up Muffaloose at the front of the sleigh this year, but decided against it at the last minute.

“Carol had asked if we could wait on putting the new Muffaloose in front of the sleigh and use the one that Duncan had cut out,” Labine said. “We’re going to have the sled this year with the original Muffaloose pulling and the new Muffaloose that we raised money for last year behind us, basically to learn the ropes and see how it’s done. Next year he’ll move up to the front.”

Thanks to volunteers from Lou’s Small Engines, Phoenix Auto, the corrections facility and some handy painters and welders, the float has been refurbished, complete with a new bunch of carefully placed LEDs.

MacPherson’s son Craig and his wife Kim will have the honour of playing Mr. and Mrs. Claus for the first night of the float tour on Dec. 6 and the final evening, in memory of MacClaus.

Also on Dec. 6, the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre will open its exhibition A Very Fort Smith Christmas, complete with a detailed history of MacSanta’s sleigh, compiled by one of the jolliest guys in town, Mike Keizer.

“I think it’s important that we don’t forget about the people who set up stuff that is special to our town,” Labine said.

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