Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Sam Coplon: A Santa Claus Worth Remembering (Conclusion)

In June 1932, Sam Coplon recognized a second opportunity to cheer Adirondack children. Adding something new to his repertoire, he visited the offices of the North Creek Enterprise, which had advertised his upcoming appearance to distribute cap guns to any and all boys ages 8 to 12, and gifts for girls as well. The noisy guns, which allowed children to join Fourth of July celebrations, were made by the firm he had long represented as a salesman, Riemann, Seabrey Company (the name by then changed from a hyphen to a comma).

There were concerns that widespread economic struggles would deeply affect his Christmas program that year, for as Sam told the Warrensburgh News in early December, “It has been quite a task to put it over, as I am in the same position as many other people, and some of my good friends could not assist me this year in defraying the expenses of the undertaking.”

But he had worked at it all year long, and by the end of November had accumulated “about 10,000 toys and games, 500 pairs women’s stockings, 300 pairs children’s stockings, 200 pairs men’s socks, 500 men’s and women’s handkerchiefs, and underwear and clothing for the poorer people.”

Whether his comments were intended as a plea or not, donations of toys, shoes, writing materials, and canned goods poured in after the article was republished in many newspapers. When everything was delivered just before Christmas, the toy count had risen to 19,000. Sam himself had the pleasure of playing Santa at Bakers Mills, personally handing out 350 presents.

In 1933, he expanded on his Fourth of July gifts, handing out about a thousand toys and many gifts of clothing to adults in need. For the Christmas holiday, he enlisted the aid of Jesse Starbuck, Warren County commissioner of public welfare, to ensure that the gifts reached all needy families in the area, and moved his headquarters from North Creek to Stony Creek.

Despite the terrible economic depression, donors were more generous than ever, allowing Sam and his helpers to scatter approximately 30,000 toys and thousands of badly needed items of clothing and food across Essex, Franklin, Saratoga, St. Lawrence, Warren, and Washington Counties. Said Coplon about the annual ritual of giving, “I get a great kick in seeing that Johnny has his toy train and May her dolly. It’s a king of pastimes. I like to do it. You see, I love to sell toys, but I’d much rather give them away.”

The following Christmas season — 1934, his 25th delivering presents in the region — he returned to Stony Creek to distribute between 25,000 and 30,000 toys along with the usual items of food and clothing. While unpacking and sorting through large crates of gifts, he told a reporter, “You would not believe how hard these good people have been hit by the times. That’s why I include the clothing and food with the toys. It is not the youngsters only who miss out on Santa Claus.”

Sam began 1935 suffering from a severe case of the flu, the effects of which lingered for months. His ability to prepare all year long for the annual gift-giving was diminished, but he still sent a large shipment of cap guns north for the July Fourth celebration. In early December, he announced plans to bring between 10,000 and 15,000 toys north for the children. As happened in the past, this prompted more donations, and by Christmas his support team had dispersed clothing, food, and more than 20,000 toys and games from the new headquarters in the Pentecostal church at Bakers Mills.

The work of delivering gifts to dozens of pickup points was handled by “clergymen, welfare officers, and newspapermen” wrote Sherman Litchfield, a reporter for the Glens Falls Post-Star and a longtime supporter of Coplon’s work. Sam, 56, slowed a bit by age and illness, told him, “I hadn’t planned to do so much this year, but I just couldn’t stop. I guess I’ll be doing this thing at Christmas until I die.”

In 1936, he again collected 20,000 toys and shipped them north in 60 large cartons, accompanied by hundreds of boxes of food and clothing. Four days before Christmas, workers began deliveries across seven northern counties. As always, Sam’s intended target was the poor folks. “In the large places,” he said, “there are more than enough charitable agencies to take care of the needy. I want to get these toys into the little, out-of-the-way homes where there is seldom any aid for a barren Christmas tree.”

He may not have known it at the time, but 1936 would be the last time Sam did Christmas up north in a big way. In 1937, the usual pronouncement was issued in early December that he planned to visit the Adirondacks with loads of presents for children in five counties. However, the lack of news coverage during the ensuing weeks suggests the event was drastically curtailed compared to recent years, and that far fewer gifts were given out.

While it’s certain that he did make the trip to Bakers Mills that holiday season, little was written about what was accomplished. The North Creek News reported only that “Sam Coplon of Brooklyn arrived in town last Monday with his usual supply of toys for children of surrounding communities,” and at year’s end, the Warrensburgh News said, “A vote of thanks is extended to Samuel Coplon, of Brooklyn, known as the ‘Adirondack Santa Claus,’ for his yearly gifts of toys for the children at the Methodist church for Christmas.”

The principal issue behind the cutback was Sam’s health, which had deteriorated badly. Although he retired from the Santa Claus business at that point, he returned to the Adirondacks many times during the next four years to visit friends and spend time at his summer camp.

In retrospect, what a legacy he left behind, one of generosity, caring, and giving that began in personal, humble terms among beloved friends and neighbors, and grew to reach thousands of North Country residents. He was also very generous about sharing the credit, acknowledging and thanking volunteers publicly each year, and on several occasions, when helpers passed away, he penned letters to newspapers praising their efforts on behalf of people in need. Several times he provided to reporters a list of the companies and businessmen who donated gifts and/or money.

A rough overall total of the toys he gave away in about 27 years, based on estimates made during many of those Christmas seasons, is 150,000. The annual count was addressed regularly during the last decade or so of giving, and it is known that within the four-year span of 1933 to 1936, an estimated 100,000 toys and games were given. Add to that so much more — the untold thousands of food and clothing items, the appreciation of the recipients, the joy of so many eager volunteers who gave freely of their time — and it’s clear that Samuel Coplon’s positive impact on the lives of others was staggering. He understood that Christmas isn’t about presents — it’s about giving of yourself.

One man truly can make a difference — and he certainly did.

(Giving credit where credit is due: the appearance of that inspiring quotation [Christmas isn’t about presents — it’s about giving of yourself] was serendipitous: it came up during a rerun of an old ALF Christmas episode that was airing on television as I finished this piece.)

Photos: Samuel Coplon (1931); ad, Riemann, Seabrey Co. cap gun; headlines (1932, Saratogian); headlines (1933, Rome Daily Sentinel)

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Lawrence P. Gooley

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.

4 Responses

  1. drdirt says:

    Thank you, Mr Gooley, for another inspiring story centered on the North country.

  2. Tim Hubbard says:

    Once again Lawrence, a great retelling of an amazing North Country individual! This story really put such a fine point to what we all need to hear more of these days – that the simple act (not so simple really!) of giving is more valuable than anything we will ever receive. We should all be so lucky to have a year or two in our own lives that could rival what Coplon achieved – maybe that would be a New Year’s resolution worthy of keeping! Happy New Year! Keep them coming…

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