Santa on The River to celebrate 60 years with ceremony

Published 12:44 pm Monday, November 14, 2022

NILES — One of Niles’ most storied traditions will soon be celebrating a milestone.

Santa on the River Committee is gearing up to host its Santa on The River Celebration from 5 to 6 p.m. Sunday, November 27th on the Corewell Health Niles Hospital riverside parking lot. 

The event will feature hot cocoa, a photo booth and live music by members of the Michiana Chamber Orchestra. In addition, the Niles Service League will be hosting a canned food drive.

For the past six decades, Mike Peters and Larry Pickles along with their families and local volunteers, have braved wind, snow, sleet and rain to launch the familiar festive barge carrying Santa’s sleigh, prancing reindeer and the big man himself for all Niles area residents to enjoy.

Peters’ father, Roy Peters, who owned and operated East Main Gardens before passing it on to Mike, first started the tradition in 1962. Roy intended to brighten the spirits of children in the Pawating Hospital. At the time, the children’s wing faced east looking out onto the river. Patients in that wing only had to glance out the window to see Santa and his sleigh glowing on the river. Roy was aided by Pete Williams of Williams Lumber, Hank Hanson and City Manager Willie Huss, who helped to bring the Niles River Santa into reality.

Today, the hospital is called Corewell Health Niles Hospital and while the children’s wing has since moved, patients still get joy from seeing Santa and his sleigh.

A limited-edition commemorative 60th Anniversary Niles ornament will be available for purchase at the event. In addition, a special documentary chronicling Santa on the River’s 60th year history is in the works. The Niles History Center staff will be at the event to collect stories.

There will also be refreshments and glazed donuts on hand, at the request of Peters.

“There was a lady that always brought hot chocolate, coffee for the guys, and she’d bring glazed donuts and I probably ate 10 of them,” Peters said. “Every time you’d see me I always had a glazed donut in my mouth. I thought it would be cool to get some glazed donuts for this.”

While Peters and Pickles have volunteered regularly, Peters said the community of Niles, including volunteers and small businesses, have helped to keep the tradition alive.

“The volunteers come together every year to make it possible,” added event organizer Judy Truesdell. “It’s a gift to the City of Niles and it’s just a beautiful thing.”

Truesdell knows the positive impact Santa on The River can have on the community. Truesdell’s daughter, Meg, would peer out the window of her home on Market Street as a youth to see the Niles River Santa faithfully bobbing on the St. Joseph River. At night when Santa and his sleigh were illuminated by Christmas lights, Meg would give one last glance out the window and wish Santa a good night.

“I just felt that something needed to happen for this community to show their appreciation for this heroic volunteer effort by all of these people,” she said. “It’s worth recognizing.”

Now Peters’ own children are getting involved in helping to put Santa out on the river each year. He believes the tradition will be upheld for many years to come.

“It’s amazing some of the stories I hear from parents now that were kids back then when their parents and grandparents took them down there,” he said. “About three or four generations have seen Santa on the river. It means a lot.”