ST. CLAIR • Lila Osterkamp walked to the barn at her Franklin County farm followed by six small children. Before going inside, she turned to the young visitors and told them she had reindeer but that they were invisible.
"If the reindeer let you see them," she whispered to the kids, "then they will visit your house on Christmas."
Sure enough, all the children could see the four reindeer, along with three miniature donkeys and 13 miniature horses. In other parts of her eight-acre farm on the bluffs overlooking the Meramec River, Osterkamp has three llamas, five fox trotter horses, four dogs, several chickens and "oodles" of cats.
Osterkamp, 67, got her first reindeer, Ruby, in 2007.
"Of course, she needed a partner," said Osterkamp. "Reindeer are herd animals. So, I got Dancer."
Now Osterkamp has two males and two females.
"We've bred the females and hope to have babies in the spring," she said. "Eventually, I'll have eight tiny reindeer that I can train to pull a sleigh."
Osterkamp said she got the reindeer because she wanted to give children something that was special.
"I love to see the wonder in their eyes," she said. "A lot of people don't believe they really exist."
Osterkamp said people started coming to the farm soon after she got the first reindeer.
"I couldn't tell you how many people came to see them this past year," she said. "We probably had 90 people here just this past weekend," she said Sunday. "It's a fun way to meet your neighbors, and it's a fun way for them to see Mrs. Claus."
Osterkamp started calling herself Mrs. Claus about 12 years ago.
"If I could, I would change my name to Lula Belle Claus," she said. "Everyone sees Santa, but never Mrs. Claus. I don't know why I love Christmas so much, but I try to hold it in my heart all year long."
After her visitors meet the reindeer and her other animals, Osterkamp takes them to an old log cabin on her property that she fixed up with Christmas ornaments and old-time decorations.
"I tell kids that it's the elves' house where they make the toys," she said. "But, I tell them they are on break."
Then she invites everyone into her home for hot cocoa and cookies. If she knows who is coming in advance, she has a stocking filled with candy waiting with their name written on the outside.
"This is a Christmas house," she said of the house her great-grandfather built in 1925. "I have to share it. I keep the Christmas tree up all year long."
During the week, Osterkamp works at a nursing home.
"I asked the psychiatrist there if I was crazy," she said laughing. "He said no, if it makes you happy, keep doing what you're doing."
Osterkamp buys her animal feed from Straatmann Feed in Labadie. For years, she has, on occasion, randomly picked out someone else's unpaid feed bill and paid it, signing her name "Mrs. Claus." Tim Maxey, a worker at the feedmill said people are really surprised when they find out their bill has been paid.
"We don't tell them her real name," Maxey said.
"I love doing it," Osterkamp said. "I don't have a lot of money, but I've got a lot of spirit. Sometimes it takes just a little thing to make people think that things are going to be OK."
Osterkamp recalled that a few years ago on a December day, she and her companion, Dale Reed, 70, dressed up like Santa and Mrs. Claus and drove a horse and buggy around Franklin County.
They drove past a rundown mobile home and a little girl waved them over.
"I found out she wasn't getting anything for Christmas," said Osterkamp. "But she wanted a video game player. I went to four Walmarts before I found one.
"Until my dying breath, I'll be Lula Belle Claus," Osterkamp said. "And I hope I go on Christmas Eve."