Green River Star -

By Brie Blasi
Green River Historic Preservation Commission 

Happy Donkey Days!

 


Happy Donkey Days!

Each Christmas, businesses scramble to find ways to get shoppers through the doors with coupons, prizes, and special offers. In 1957, the Green River Chamber of Commerce tried a special kind of contest to help bring shoppers to the bustling shopping scene of downtown Green River. Donkey Days was a several weeks-long event where Green River stores featured “their holiday goods and favorable prices…to bring home to Green River people the variety of merchandise…to be found in these stores. It culminated just before Christmas with one lucky person taking home a donkey. That’s right: a real, live donkey.

This didn’t come out of nowhere. The donkey was immensely popular in the 1950s and early 1960s due in large part to the popularity of Francis the Talking Mule. First introduced in a 1946 novel by a former army captain, Francis began his film career in 1950. After seven films in seven years, Francis was a cultural phenomenon. The November 25th edition of the Green River Star ran a large photo of actors Donald O’Connor and Martha Hyer posing with Francis in 1955 to promote the upcoming premier of “Francis in the Navy” at the Isis Theater in downtown Green River.

The donkey has Christmas always been associated with Christmas and is usually present in manger scenes. But the donkey got a seasonal makeover, which inextricably linked the two in popular culture with the 1960 release of Lou Monte’s song “Dominick the Christmas Donkey.” Monte, an Italian-American, made several Italian-themed records from the 1950s to the 1980s. But the one that has become a cult favorite is the one about u cucciarell (the little donkey). In the song, Dominick helps Santa deliver presents to children in Italy when reindeer just can’t get the job done.

“Santa’s got a little friend 

His name is Dominick;

The cutest little donkey -

You never see him kick.

When Santa visits his paisans,

With Dominick he’ll be,

Because the reindeer cannot climb

The hills of Italy.”

Green River jumped on the Christmas donkey train a little earlier than 1960, celebrating the first and apparently only Donkey Days in 1957. It all started just after Thanksgiving when the president of the Chamber of Commerce, Fred Fricke, announced downtown businesses (including filling stations and taverns) would be issuing raffle tickets for each $1 spent. What was the grand prize? Well, a donkey of course. If you didn’t want the donkey, which was on display each Saturday to drum up customers, you could instead choose to get $50 because “there’s a guy or two around town that want that burro pretty bad.”

The reason Donkey Days was such a success may be the same reason there was only one Donkey Days. According to the Green River Star on Nov. 28, “These animals are becoming so increasingly popular with children and are becoming so scarce that the Chamber for a time thought it would be unable to find a suitable one for this award.”

Santa was already a fixture at Christmastime of course, but his “arrival” was a big event that brought many people downtown to eat and shop. In the 1950s, several stores such as American Electric, Moedl’s, Dell’s Market, Gaensslen’s Dress Shoppe, Sugar Bowl, the Green River Merc, the Teton Café, Green River Sporting Goods, Yates Furniture and Appliance, and the Tomahawk Pharmacy advertised special offers to encourage more Christmas shopping, many of which were annual events. In 1958, not long after the Carollos ran the first cable television lines in town, both Emerson Hardware and the Jaycees (who also decorated downtown each year) raffled off a television set! Although Santa was a fixture in downtown, the jenny burro (female donkey) auctioned off in 1957 rather stole the show.

This was three years before Dominick the Donkey and this burro was a girl. The paper made sure to point out that it was “not jackass days—for the prize is of the gentler sex—a jenny burro.” So, the big question was what to name her? What better way to name a raffled donkey than to have a naming contest?

They opened up the contest to school children in Green River in kindergarten through fifth grade. A name would be chosen from the nomination of both a boy and a girl. As a prize, the girl would win a “beautiful doll” and the boy would win a “fine electric train.” The winning name was Clarabelle Caroline (or Carolina Clarabelle depending on the article), which won first grader Eddie Price the train and fifth grader Patricia McKain the doll.

The big day arrived Dec. 21 at the intersection of Flaming Gorge Way and N. 1st East. Dell’s Market, the Green River Merc, Tomahawk Pharmacy, and Chief Service bordered this intersection where the newspaper said large crowds “jammed the two streets for half a block in each direction.” At 3 p.m., a little girl reached into a box filled with thousands of name tickets and declared Carol Jean Brandner the winner. She and her parents chose to keep Clarabelle Caroline rather than take the optional $50.

Donkey Days was branded a huge success but perhaps in the end proved too much trouble since no one followed in its hoof steps. But what ever happened to Carol and her new friend Clarabelle Caroline? We’d sure like to know.

Write a letter to the editor or contact the Sweetwater County Museum if you remember this pair. And happy Donkey Days!

 

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