[Author’s note: Much of the research for this story centers around a 1969 Mose Ginsberg interview conducted by Nancy Dymond. The four-hour recording of this interview is housed at the Goff – Nelson Memorial Library in Tupper Lake and the Adirondack Experience at Blue Mountain Lake.]
Standing at the corner of Cliff and Park Street in Tupper Lake is the building that housed the longest-running family-owned department store in New York State. With the recent extension of the Northern Adirondack Railroad, Tupper Lake had emerged as the largest producer and supplier of lumber in the state. That, along with its rising reputation as a tourist resort, helped grow Tupper Lake’s population to 3,000 souls by 1900.
In short, Tupper Lake was a boomtown back around the turn of the century. Mose Ginsberg, and his brother-in-law, Morris Goldberg, had founded their store in 1897 and quickly established a solid following among the region’s growing number of logging families, the guides, gardeners and carpenters from Paul Smith’s Hotel, and the influx of summer tourists.
Goldberg and Ginsberg were on a solid track to success when disaster struck. In July 1899, a massive fire consumed 169 buildings in Tupper Lake including their store and both their residences. With only $1,000 insurance on $3,000 worth of inventory, they were faced with the difficult choice of giving up or rebuilding. They did not give up. The two men purchased the lot on the corner of Cliff and Park Street and rebuilt their store. The warehouses that supplied their business extended their credit and some local people lent them money as well. Ginsberg and Goldberg were able to start on the long road to recovery.
Back up and running, Mose Ginsberg allowed customers to buy on credit as a silent thank you to those that generously helped him out in times of financial distress. He earned a reputation for kindness as he selflessly gave back to the community and strangers alike. Once, when an unknown World War II veteran came into his store, Ginsberg gave him a brand-new suit as a thank you for his service to our country.
Journey to the Adirondacks
The real story is in how Ginsberg got to Tupper Lake in the first place. Living in poverty in northern Russia, his father, a tailor, was earning $5 a week for 60 hours of work. He found a way to save enough to get to New York City and lived there for three years before he could afford to send for his wife and children. The tickets Ginsberg sent to his family only included third class passage in the crowded bowels of a cargo ship; with nothing to eat but pickled herring and dry bread for fourteen days. Getting to the ship was an ordeal in itself. Ginsberg’s mother had to bribe local officials to obtain passports before the exodus even began. The final twenty-mile portion of the trip from Riga to the coast took over two days because the superstitious buckboard driver felt the need to stop at every roadside shrine to pray and leave food to ensure his feeble horse would survive the trip.
Once in New York City, the Ginsbergs found themselves in a Lower East Side ghetto where their father was making $12 a week; still not enough to survive. Within two months, the elder Ginsberg died suddenly and 12 year-old Mose found himself trying to support his family by peddling matches, candles and ice in Hell’s Kitchen, while his sister contributed by doing seamstress work.
Relatives living in the now-defunct logging village of Buck Mountain offered the Ginsbergs an opportunity to try their luck in the Adirondacks. The overnight trip to Troy via steamer had them trying to sleep in the crowded baggage compartment; then by rail to Plattsburgh, and a very rough horse and buggy ride to Franklin Falls that was nearly as arduous as their Atlantic crossing. The plan was for Mose to apprentice in the plumbing trade with a Mr. Wagner in Lake Placid, but tragedy struck there, too. Within six months Wagner died, and with his death, Mose’s plumbing career ended too.
A start in sales
The Ginsbergs then moved to Buck Mountain, where Mose was befriended by a railroad station agent by the name of W. D. Wilson, who gave him his start as an Adirondack peddler by loaning him $25 worth of goods. Mose’s peddling pack weighed over 50 pounds and consisted of a wide variety of household items, including pins, buttons, and apple corers. He also carried laces, underwear, red-checkered tablecloths, house dresses, and men’s shirts. Setting out on foot, it took up to three weeks to complete his route that brought him past Lake Placid, Keene, Keene Valley, Jay, Wilmington, Bloomingdale, and back to Buck Mountain.
Mose avoided village centers. His clientele lived in homes and farmhouses that were separated by great distances from settlements. Some days he walked all day between households, often without encountering another traveler. Roads were poor or nonexistent; sometimes only a cowpath. Encounters with angry dogs, snakes, and even mean spirited husbands that did not want peddlers around were constant threats. In all his time as a peddler there was only one time that he was offered a ride, a story Ginsberg remembers with fondness:
“I was walking between Lake Placid and Keene. There was a team of horses in back of me. A man came up and stopped, and he said, ‘You can ride with me to Keene.’ I put my pack on the wagon and I got in. I was very happy to get a ride. That only happened once of seeing anyone to pick you up. We got through the Cascades and we heard some noise in back of us. There was a coach with six horses following us. The driver said, ‘Give us the road.’ The man that picked me up said, ‘That must be a rough crowd. I’m not gonna give them the road. Why don’t they say please?’ So, they followed us for three hours almost before we got to Keene. Then the lady said to us, ‘Will you please give us the road?’ My driver said, ‘Oh, sure I’ll give you the road.’ After they passed us he said, ‘You know who that was? Ex-President Grover Cleveland was there with that lady in that coach. Followed us for three hours.’”
Creating good will
Ginsberg recalled other occasions of kindness; the Wynn home in Jay where he always received a warm welcome, or the Cox family in Keene where Mrs. Cox would soothe Mose’s blistered feet in a warm bath with alum. These instances apparently contributed to Ginsberg’s desire later in life to treat his customers and community with heartfelt generosity.
At one point, an Australian doctor working at Sunmount Hospital, came into Ginsberg’s looking for two collar buttons. Ginsberg said, “Take four. You may lose them.” So, he took four buttons, and said, “How much is it?” “Nothing,” said Ginsberg. “What do you mean? No money for the buttons?” Ginsberg replies, “No, I got a whole boxful, but you can’t tell anybody.” Ginsberg thought that was the end of the collar buttons, but a week later, another man came into the store and said to Ginsberg, “You have created a friendship between Australia and United States. The man from Australia mentioned the collar buttons which he got in this store. Not only did he get what he wanted, but that (you) wouldn’t take his money.” The Australian talked about the collar buttons all the time he was in Tupper Lake. It was nearly six weeks.
Ginsberg said, “The reason I’m bringing this up is that it takes so little to create a friendship. Now these buttons, the most they’re worth about is a nickel a piece. Yet, it created so much — it takes very little to create good will.”
And good will he did create, over and over again. Ginsberg played a key role in the establishment of, and fundraising for, the Beth Joseph Synagogue built in 1906. He was one of the founders and chairman of the local Red Cross Chapter, president of the Tupper Lake Chamber of Commerce, and a member of the Tupper Lake Rotary Club, where he never missed a single meeting during his 30 years at the organization. Ginsberg was associated with the Mercy General Hospital from its very beginning in 1918. He raised up to $5,000 a year in donations for the hospital and served for more than 50 years as its treasurer. He hit up the Rockefellers, Whitneys, Litchfields, and many other wealthy Adirondack summer residents to support the hospital.
In 1936, while Ginsberg was on the board of directors for Saranac Lake National Bank, a clerk had illegally lent out a huge sum of money to a road developer, which created a serious financial strain, and also made each of the bank’s directors liable for $50,000. It took ten years, but Mose Ginsberg was one of only two directors that paid back the entire amount.
While Ginsberg did so much for Tupper Lake, he was more comfortable behind the scenes once he put his plans into motion. His wife, May, or his daughter, Muriel would often be the ‘face’ of the store, or even out in the community. Muriel was in charge of promotion and display and was the one that sent letters of welcome to Tupper Lake newcomers. “Mrs. G.” was the one that helped organize community benefits, visited hospitalized veterans, and worked the carnivals. She even hung curtains at the synagogue so the local Girls Scouts would feel more comfortable at their meetings.
Business ups and downs
Mose Ginsberg knew a good thing when he saw it. When his future wife, May Fellman, came to work at the store in the early years, he recalled, “After working, I’d say a couple of years, one Sunday I hired a horse and we went down for a buggy ride to Axton, which is about 10 miles. It’s an all-day trip, driving a horse 20 miles, up and back. And then right there and then, I proposed to her. And that’s the way the proposals came. The horse played quite an important part in proposals in those days. There were no cars.”
On December 30, 1911, another fire struck the Goldberg & Ginsberg store. Someone had placed a lamp next to pipes in the basement to keep them from freezing, which ignited a nearby pile of wood. The building was a complete loss. This time the business had $7,000 worth of insurance on inventory valued at $25,000. Once again, they rebuilt.
Ginsberg continued to peddle while Goldberg ran the store in Tupper Lake, but he no longer had to spend most of his days walking. Just beyond Tupper Lake, Piercefield was a thriving lumbering community with a new paper mill and it provided a large and eager clientele for Mose’s merchandise. He set up shop in the hotel there for 3 days a week. That way, Ginsberg was able to create a loyal customer base for the Tupper Lake store, a relationship that lasted decades.
In 1922, Mose Ginsberg bought out his brother-in-law and changed the store name to ‘Ginsberg’s Department Store.’ Ginsberg said, “Salesmen used to tell him that Goldberg and Ginsberg sounded like a vaudeville team and (in 1969) the name is still remembered.” Over the next several decades the business had its ups and down. They managed to survive recessions, the Great Depression, and sketchy economies during two World Wars. But interspersed throughout there were prosperous times as well. Ginsberg credits his success to his overall philosophy:
“The basics in success depends on how good you serve your neighbor or the community wherever you’re located. If you think the world owes you a living, they don’t. So, you can get that out of your head. You gotta work and do something for someone else. They in turn will do something for you…He who serves best profits most.”
In 1962, when Ginsberg was being honored for 65 years in business, he turned the tables to acknowledge everyone that helped him out along the way. He also used the opportunity to express his optimism for Tupper Lake’s future. For everything Ginsberg did for his community, he never sought out fame or acknowledgement for his contributions. Recognition, however, did come his way, often. He must have been very proud, considering his humble beginnings peddling matches for a penny a box in New York City’s Hells Kitchen.
Photos from top:
- Cliff & Park St 1940 Photo by Kathleen Bigrow, Courtesy Jim Lanthier and Tupper Lake Art Center. Cliff & Park St Today Courtesy Stephen Dori Shin, Adirondack Store & Gallery, Tupper Lake
- Mose Ginsberg: Courtesy of the Adirondack Experience.
- Beth Joseph Synagogue, Courtesy Wikipedia
- Ginsberg Parade scene circa 1940 Photo by Kathleen Bigrow, Courtesy Jim Lanthier and Tupper Lake Art Center