On May 10, 1922, the Old Forge Hardware store built by Moses Cohen burned to the ground. Three days later the fire was still burning coal, unsold construction materials, and other debris and would continue to smolder for days to come. But Moses Cohen continued to serve his customers, securing an office in the neighboring Givens Block and receiving permission from the Village of Old Forge to install his stock in the Fire Hall (today’s Nathan’s Bakery). In 1923, his rebuilt store sold everything from “paints, bath tubs and up to the best in parlor suites.” Today, the year 1922 is engraved under the Cohen name on the façade of the present store.
A year after the fire, as the construction of the present store was almost complete, the Utica Daily Press interviewed Moses Cohen in an article titled “Moses Cohen’s Story of Struggle to Top”. I thought Moses Cohen’s recalling his beginnings in Old Forge a worthy chapter to the town’s early history and how one man overcame ethnic prejudice with sound business practices.
Moses was born in Lithuania in 1872 and came to this country 17 years later, unable to speak English. At Bloomingdale, he met his brother David who had immigrated three years before. The brothers set up a shop selling remainder goods in Bloomingdale and Moses began to peddle goods from a wagon. He was taken in by Andy Stearns of Saranac Lake who let Moses store goods at his father’s house. Moses received financial assistance from Aleck Witchard, went to Lake Placid briefly and then moved to Old Forge.
According to Cohen:
“I had heard of Old Forge and knew there was no hardware or plumbing shop there. Oh yes, when in Bloomingdale I learned the tinsmith and plumbing trade. I made several trips to Paul Smith’s putting on roofs. I got there before 7 o’clock in the morning after driving 12 miles.
“Phelps Smith’s [hotel owner Paul Smith’s son] window opened on the roof and one day he looked out and said to me, ‘How is it your nationality is so prosperous?’ I then asked him, ‘How much do your drivers get?’ He replied, ‘Thirty dollars a month and board.’ I told him, ‘When I came to this country, I didn’t earn $30 in two months. Out of that $30 I have taught myself to save $15. In three or four years I had saved $400 or $500 on the road. If your men saved half what they earned they would have twice as much as I. That’s why our nationality goes ahead’.
“In 1901 I came to Old Forge to look the situation over and was much impressed with it. My father-in-law, Mr. Galinsky, looked around with me. Some people in Utica told him he should never let me start in Old Forge, that I couldn’t make a living there. I replied, ‘if a living cannot be made in Old Forge, no living can be made in the United States.’”
The reporter continued the story:
“One site in Old Forge appealed to Moses Cohen when he arrived there for the first time and that was the building now  occupied by the Barker Supply Company. Part of it was then used as the postoffice and the remainder was vacant. But Mr. Abbott, then the owner, would not lease it to Mr. Cohen. The only place he could find was in the basement of the Forge House, then run by a Mr. Briggs. [Alexander Briggs had replaced J. Gilbert Hoffman as Forge House proprietor in 1901]. Only $15 a month rental was charged for two rooms in the basement and a stall in the barn was provided for his horse. Shortly after opening a store in the basement, Mr. Cohen hired William Tracy as clerk. He proved to be a valuable man for he knew practically everyone in the region.”
Then Moses continued:
“As soon as we started in business in Old Forge, I could see by the customers we were getting I had started at the right place. Everyone was more than glad to see a business of this kind for the nearest hardware store was at Utica and the roads were not like they are now.
“After I was in business three months Mr. Abbott came to me and told me he would rent the store I had first wanted. I asked him why he had not rented it to me first and he said, ‘Cohen, there wasn’t a man in this place that thought you could make a living. I didn’t want to break up the store. Now I see you are just the man. We need you here as badly as you need us.
“I then leased [on June 11, 1901, there is a copy at the Town of Webb Historical Association] the store in the post office for five years. At the same time I started to negotiate for the purchase of the corner where my store now stands. We moved in the store next to the post office and after a year I purchased my present corner from the Old Forge Company. When I purchased the lot [in 1902] I bought 40 feet intending to set up just a hardware store. I thought it wise to build a double store for furniture as a sideline. I asked the Old Forge Company for 15 more feet for $75 on condition within a year I would erect a building that would cost not less than $10,000.”
“I had plans drawn for the new building, but I could see the building would not cost more than $10,000. I proceeded to build and when the building was nearly completed, Mr. [John] Heber of Lowville, president (1901-1906) of the Old Forge Company, came up here to have a look at it. He pulled me to one side and said, ‘Cohen, they told me about the building and said you were crazy for putting up such a magnificent building which is fit for Genesee Street in Utica; but now I know you must be crazy’. That building was completed and we started in business.
“My new store has not been built from money made in the store, for I have other investments that pay more. But I don’t want to leave Old Forge with a hole in the ground after the fire.”
When questioned about his success, Mr. Cohen said “My aim was never to see how much I could get for my products or material, but to work hard with the wholesalers to see how cheaply I could buy in order to give the benefit to my customers. This has proved so in the growth of our business. We are getting orders from city people after quoting our prices to them.”
The reporter now addressed the business rivalry in early Old Forge and Mr. Cohen’s acumen:
“Business jealousy entered largely in Mr. Cohen’s struggle for a place in the sun, and in each instance he demonstrated his own ability to forge ahead and outwit ones who would put him out of business. One name mentioned prominently by Mr. Cohen is that of Samuel Garmon, who owned the Barker Block for several years.
“Garmon, according to Mr. Cohen, tried to get another hardware store started in Old Forge. He advertised in Utica papers that his vacant store was just suited for a hardware store. Some of Mr. Cohen’s employees were interested in running such a store and upon hearing of the plan Mr. Cohen arranged it for his faithful clerk, William Tracy, to take over the store.
“To silence some rumors that Cohen himself was behind the scheme, Mr. Tracy had some shovels and hardware shipped in the vacant store in the name of William Tracy & Company. After a long lease had been obtained, the store acquired indirectly by Mr. Cohen was turned into a grocery store and run by Mr. Tracy with the backing of his employer. To take the place of Mr. Tracy as bookkeeper and clerk in the hardware store, Mr. Cohen sent for John Barker whose wife now  conducts that grocery store at Old Forge. Mrs. Barker for a time owned stock in the hardware store but later left.
“Another attempt to get opposition to Cohen’s hardware store was when [in 1911] Mr. Garmon moved the old wooden schoolhouse, the first schoolhouse in Old Forge, next to Cohen’s Block and leased it to some Syracusans who ran a hardware store there a short time. They went into bankruptcy and by buying them out, Mr. Cohen made money. [The 1922 fire had started in this building.]
“Mr. Cohen wanted to purchase the Barker Block which Garmon owned. It was worth then about $5000, but Mr. Cohen was willing to pay $6000 for it. He induced a Utica merchant to make the purchase for him and after several conferences a figure of $4500 was set. This man appeared with two certified checks, one for $4000 and the other for $500. When Mr. Garmon was told this man intended to start a store in opposition to Cohen, Garmon sold the property for $4000, without letting his tenant, Mr. Barker, know about the deal. Garmon died soon after (1913) the deal was put through.”
Moses Cohen’s words reveal much about his personality and business vision. To give good value to his customers, he worked to get the best prices from his suppliers. To obtain store space, he worked within the system against the roadblocks intended to stop him.
As a village resident who watched Moses Cohen’s initial entry into Old Forge Village behind a worn horse and wagon carrying his worldly goods once remarked, “That nag won’t have the strength to pull him out of town”. Mr. Cohen was not planning to leave.
Photos, from above: Old Forge Hardware after schoolhouse move; 1901 Forge House pasture with cows; Old Forge Hardware (courtesy Town of Webb Historical Association); current Moses Cohen 1922 Building in Old Forge.