Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Santa Claus Sam’s Adirondack Gift Giving

In 1930, Sam Coplon, the Santa Claus of the Adirondacks, was doing well financially but was by no means wealthy. The house he owned in Brooklyn was worth the equivalent of $230k in 2017, and served as home to his wife Rebecca, son Bertram (13), and daughter Judith (8), along with Rebecca’s mother and sister.

As he did each year, Samuel gathered a huge collection of Christmas gifts that winter and personally bore the cost of shipping them to North Creek. In previous seasons, this constituted upwards of 30 large crates or containers, a number that would soon increase. His employer and several of their clients donated toys and games at Sam’s behest, adding to the joy of children in the Adirondacks.

In early December 1930, it was announced that the toy total would surpass 5,000 for the first time, and would be heavily supplemented by gifts of clothing and other items to both children and adults. One of the first deliveries consisted of 36 Christmas stockings and about 150 toys to the American Legion in Warrensburgh for their annual party, and for the Ladies Auxiliary to distribute to needy families.

As donations continued to roll in, the expected toy total was raised to 7,000 and the list of destinations was expanded to include Argyle, Glens Falls, Greenfield Center, Hague, Indian Lake, Loch Muller, Luzerne, Moriah, Porters Corners, The Glen, and St. Regis Falls.

After four days of intense activity, Sam prepared to head home to Brooklyn. Much joy remained in his wake, for the final numbers were truly eye-opening. From headquarters in North Creek, gifts had been carted to about 40 secondary dispensing points for delivery to folks in more than 100 villages and hamlets (the Buffalo News put the figure at 184). The estimated final toy count of 8,500 was augmented by other valued gifts: pairs of stockings (300 women’s, 200 children’s, and 150 men’s), 100 pairs of underwear, handkerchiefs (300 women’s and 150 men’s), 15 men’s suits, 150 boys’ caps, 12 overcoats, and a variety of canned goods. Hundreds of volunteers had helped his Christmas venture succeed far beyond anyone’s expectations.

In 1931, major city newspapers, including the prestigious New York Sun, carried the heartwarming story of Samuel Coplon, the Santa Claus of the Adirondacks. A number of other papers offered a condensed version of Sam’s past: “His health shattered after service in the Spanish-American War, he came to the Adirondacks to recuperate…. Gaining strength, he established a business here [Johnsburgh] and remained for several years. He came to know the mountain folk and to develop an abiding affection for them. He also became aware, as the result of contact with scores of families, that life is bitterly hard in some of the little mountain homes. With health restored, he disposed of his Adirondack business and returned to Brooklyn. It was then he started in a modest way the giving of toys and warm clothing to poor folks in the Adirondacks. Many an Adirondack home has a happy Christmas because of the kind heart and tireless energy of Sam Coplon.”

While the details were not entirely accurate, they were repeated in many newspapers and became accepted as factual. But the important components were correct: he did go north in part to recover his health, he did become very close friends with many mountain residents, and he fell in love with the idea of making Christmas special for his dear friends and many strangers as well.

It became clear as the story appeared in New York City-area newspapers that the 1931 holidays, Sam’s 22nd spent in the North Creek area, would outshine previous years. Strategies were prepared to serve communities in Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Saratoga, Warren, and Washington Counties. Special trips were planned to provide for the children of disabled veterans housed at Tupper Lake, Indian families on the St. Regis Reservation, and young folks at the Masonic Home in Utica, a huge facility whose residents included orphans of Masonic fathers.

The article in the Sun quoted Samuel on the types of gifts he was packing and what drove him to do it year after year, whether alone or aided by hundreds of helpers. “The toys are good, substantial toys such as any parent might give his children. In addition, I have accumulated during the last few years a certain amount of warm clothing, sweaters, stockings, and underwear, and some overcoats for special cases I happen to hear of.

“Nobody really quite realizes the life which these mountain people live, and this year their position is a very difficult one [in the depths of the Great Depression]. I will say that they usually have plenty to eat, however. But that is all they do have. All the things that are bought with money are luxuries which they never see. And a toy or even a pair of stockings to one of these children means something that it never can mean to a city child. Even a new tablet and pencil for school is something to get excited about, you know.”

As he told Roland Alston of the Schenectady Gazette, “I give the stockings and blankets myself. A few friends of mine, manufacturers and jobbers, give me most of the toys.” About the recipients, he said, “The worst of it is, these people won’t ever tell you how much they need things, not even on Christmas. They’re too decent. You have to find out about them yourself.”

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle recounted the roots of Sam’s Adirondack holiday sojourns: “That first year, Mr. Coplon gathered a few toys together and took them to a Christian minister at Bakers Mills for distribution at the Christmas season. Christmas isn’t a part of Mr. Coplon’s faith, but the spirit that moved him was not inspired by theology.” It was, in fact, based on love and empathy for his fellow man.

Though seldom mentioned, the subject of theology in relation to Coplon’s work was of real significance, for only a small percentage of Jews dared celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday. In 1993, a study by Professor Arnold Eisen of Stanford found that among modern households in which all members were Jewish, 82 percent had never put up a Christmas tree. Many adherents of the Jewish faith held that joining in Christmas traditions was blasphemous, but more than a half-century earlier, Samuel Coplon, from a prominent Jewish family in Albany, had the courage to follow his heart and perform acts of great kindness. What an irony  —but an absolutely wonderful, universally admired irony — that a Jewish man should become known as the Santa Claus of the Adirondacks. Even Jewish newspapers of the day joined in praising his work.

A week before Christmas 1931 — courtesy of many generous individuals, a dozen toy and hardware factories, and two dozen jobbers — Sam was busy packing the last of 45 very large crates for shipment by rail car to North Creek. By the time Santa’s big day arrived, a huge network of volunteers and more than 90 churches had distributed tons of clothing and upwards of 12,000 toys to needy children across the region.

Next, the conclusion: a Santa Claus to remember.

Photos: headlines (1930, Glens Falls Post-Star); headlines (1930, Glens Falls Post-Star); headlines (1931, Warrensburgh News); headlines (1931, Rome Daily Sentinel)

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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.

3 Responses

  1. Steve Cooperdock says:

    Wonderful story. I can’t wait for part 2.

  2. Sue Winnie says:

    The last link doesn’t work

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