Thursday, December 28, 2017

Santa Claus Sam’s North Creek Operations

Things appeared to be going well for Sam Coplon, the Santa Claus of the Adirondacks, but major change was in the works. Samuel had begun working as an Albany city clerk, limiting his ability to oversee the two business locations in Warren County. After spending several weeks at Johnsburgh in early 1910, he announced a going-out-of-business sale, offering all the hardware and furniture in his stores along with his horse, rig, and everything else related to operations there. By year’s end, most of the stock was gone. At Christmas time, he loaded a sleigh with toys and other gift items for delivery to homes across the area in what would become an annual tradition.

Years later, he recalled fondly the warm feelings generated by giving openly to beloved friends and neighbors, recognizing that many families, some of them quite large, struggled financially, and that even small luxuries were rarities in their lives. His remedy was to provide toys and games as Christmas gifts to show that someone cared.

In January 1911, he offered special closeout deals to folks in the Johnsburgh area before shuttering both business locations. For the remainder of the year, he made visits of several days each to the homes of friends in Johnsburgh, Bakers Mills, and Garnet, tended to his summer home, and made the gift-giving rounds again at Christmas.

Returning full-time to Albany, Sam was kept busy with the furniture store and the city clerk position. At the age of 30, he still lived with his father and other family members. Bertha Coplon had passed away several years earlier, and Morris had since remarried. Among the home’s occupants was their new son, Alfred, Samuel’s one-year-old half brother, whose care was managed in part by a single servant. Having hired help in the home confirmed that Morris continued to prosper financially.

While Samuel’s situation at home and work seemed settled, he opted for dramatic change on a path apart from his father’s in Albany. In 1912, he left the North Country for New York City and became a sales representative for a newly formed company, Riemann-Seabrey, a toy distributor that opened for business on Broadway in January 1913 with 10,000 square feet of warehouse space.

As the sole representative for several clients, Samuel familiarized himself with their products and took to the road—a daunting prospect considering that most roads back in those days were intended for horse rigs rather than cars, which were the latest advance in technology. Still, he traveled a remarkable 8,000 miles during the first year on the job, and still managed to visit friends in Warren County for a few days at a time. His lengthiest stay was during the Christmas holidays, which included several days hunting at his Mill Creek Pond camp, and delivering presents to many area children.

In 1914, at the age of 35, Samuel found the love of his life, Rebecca Moroh, an Albany girl. They were engaged in June, married a year later, and in 1916 welcomed a son, Bertram. In the years that followed, Sam, a real go-getter like his dad, explored other employment possibilities, finding work as an appraiser for the firm of Doll & Company while still representing Riemann-Seabrey, which was advertised as a “toy and hardware manufacturing firm.” While Doll & Company had nothing to do with toys, his traveling salesman job did, which dovetailed nicely with Sam’s habit of bringing Christmas gifts to children in several Warren County communities.

During the holiday season of 1919, his proclivity for playing Santa Claus received its first public attention when the Warrensburgh News noted in the Johnsburgh section: “Samuel M. Coplon, of Brooklyn, was a visitor in town for Christmas, as usual, scattering toys for children in different parts of the town.” He did the same each year, constantly expanding the effort to include more hamlets and settlements. In 1920, besides Johnsburgh, he provided gifts for all the children in Sodom and Bakers Mills.

In May 1921, his daughter Judith was born, but despite now having two children of his own, he left the family in Brooklyn as he did each holiday season, played Santa Claus for several days to a week in the Adirondacks, and returned to celebrate Christmas with them in New York City when all the work was finished.

In part because of his efforts as a salesman, Riemann-Seabrey flourished and grew, leasing the entire fourth floor of the Clarendon Building in 1925 as additional business space. Their success and Samuel’s connections with many toy manufacturers allowed him to drastically increase the number of gifts he could purchase at cost or receive as donations.  That year he added Warrensburgh to the list, sending a box of 72 toys to John Archer, Overseer of the Poor, for distribution among the needy children who otherwise were likely to receive nothing on Christmas. As usual, hundreds of other toys were sent to communities across the county, carried there by many “Santa’s Helpers” after Coplon spent nearly a week organizing, sorting, and packing gifts for delivery. He also personally handed out presents at Johnsburgh, Garnet, Sodom, and Bakers Mills.

As the list of recipients expanded annually, Samuel came up with ways to reach more and more children. He began accumulating toys throughout the year and storing them until the holiday season approached, at which time he packed them in large containers and paid the cost of shipping them to North Creek, where the store of Braley & Noxon served as his main distribution center. Following the arrival of the last packages there, Coplon traveled north to begin sorting and organizing hundreds of gifts for different villages and organizations.

Each year, Sam’s efforts at Christmas received at least passing attention in regional newspapers, but in the late 1920s, news of his charity work gained traction outside of the Adirondack region. Editors loved uplifting, heartwarming stories like his, and the media attention led to more donations of toys, clothing, and other goods. By 1928, the number of gifts provided by Sam was estimated at 2,500, handed out at 22 distribution points: Adirondack, Blue Mountain Lake, Bolton Landing, Chestertown, Horicon, Igerna, Indian Lake, Johnsburgh, Knollhurst, Long Lake, Minerva, Newcomb, North Creek, North River, Olmstedville, Pottersville, Schroon, South Schroon, Stony Creek, Thurman, Warrensburgh, and Wevertown.

So many gifts were accumulated in 1929 that Big Brook, Fort Edward, Gore, Hadley, Harrisburg, Kings, Pleasant Valley, South Corinth, and Riverside were added to the long list of communities that received an estimated 4,000 presents from Coplon’s operations.

While the dramatic expansion could have become unwieldy and chaotic, Sam maintained control with a plan that worked smoothly. As avid supporters of his Christmas operations, Braley & Noxon’s store at North Creek remained the warehouse site and primary distribution point. Communities across the region were urged to contact Sam in Brooklyn well in advance of the holidays to express their wish to participate and inform him of the number of gifts they needed. Using that information, he utilized dozens of volunteers from churches, schools, and the general public to help sort and pack the requests for pickup, or to deliver them when necessary.

It was all well organized and a known regional phenomenon, but the power of the media soon became apparent. As his story circulated further among newspapers, more donations arrived, and in late fall 1930, predictions were that the previous year’s gift total would easily be exceeded. This could have proved overwhelming, but Sam modified the system to distribute only through churches. Ministers, of which there were one or more in most towns, villages, and hamlets, answered the call, providing him with an effective web of distribution and no shortage of volunteers filled with the Christmas spirit of giving.

Next: bringing joy to thousands

Photos: ad for Riemann, Seabrey Company (1926); headlines (1929, Glens Falls Post-Star); headlines (1929, Glens Falls Post-Star)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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