The collection of letters to Santa that appeared in this space last week epitomized life in the rural regions of northern New York a century ago. At Christmastime, children from families living a common, low-income existence asked Santa for the simplest of items: a pencil and notepad, candy and nuts, or clothing to keep them warm in the winter. Toys and playthings were often secondary requests if they appeared at all.
But the simple desires from long ago reflected something other than just poverty. A good number of rural folks were self-sufficient, and all family members, even young children, took part in the daily chores of life: working the fields and garden, milking cows, collecting eggs, adding logs to the fire, and so on. An early understanding of the effort behind daily sustenance was evident in children’s annual humble Christmas yearnings for pencils, books, and treats for the tummy, suggesting an appreciation for things in general, and gifts in particular.
Among those who came to the Adirondacks and developed a deep admiration for this rustic lifestyle was Samuel Coplon, who embraced the people, reciprocated their generosity, and in time became a nationally known hero of North Country Christmases, earning him the title Santa Claus of the Adirondacks.
The gist of Coplon’s story has been touched upon in the past, based largely on old newspaper articles. Unfortunately, even some of the more reputable papers published assumptions or embellishments that had been added as the story was retold each holiday season, resulting in certain “enhancements” of the facts. The basics of those versions were: after serving in the Spanish-American War, Sam moved to Warren County to regain his health; he then returned to his job in New York City as a toy salesman; and to repay his Adirondack friends for helping him recover, he began a tradition of supplying thousands of gifts each year to mountain children. A few writers said Sam’s childhood was one of financial struggle, and giving presents to so many was a small way to relieve the sufferings of those in the type of poverty he once knew.
While there are elements of truth in that description and it’s a great story, it’s not entirely accurate. His father, Morris, immigrated from Russia in 1873 and worked as a peddler. In 1877 he married Bertha Greenburg, who gave birth to our subject, Samuel Morris Coplon, in Troy, New York, in March 1879. For several years, Morris worked as a peddler, but it wasn’t enough to support a growing family: by 1884, siblings Max, Hattie, and Julia had joined Samuel.
To make ends meet, Morris moved the family to Albany’s south end and opened a retail furniture store on South Pearl Street. Daughter Anna was born two years later. In 1894, his eleventh year in business, Morris added a line of stoves to what had become a family operation. Samuel (now 15) and the younger children pitched in, allowing their father to pursue other work.
Morris had aspirations for greater success and possessed the patience to pursue them. He did so through contacts made and cultivated while working as an elevator operator in the Capitol Building for two years, and a janitor at the Albany Savings Bank for three more. He then became superintendent of the county building, worked as a poll watcher, and entered politics at the city level. A dedicated conservative Republican, Morris was by 1900 the Fourth Ward Secretary Treasurer, and a ward delegate to both the county and state party conventions.
Meanwhile, the furniture business was thriving in 1899 under the leadership of 20-year-old Samuel. He and his brother Max, 18, also became involved in politics under the guiding hand of their father, who had moved into a position of power in the city’s south end.
By that time, Morris was a member of more than a dozen lodges and civic organizations and had many important friends. In 1903, he formed the Morris Coplon Republican Association with 151 charter members, a group that the Albany Evening Journal said, “bids fair to become the most powerful and influential social and political association in the South city.” Morris was referred to as “one of the best known Jewish residents of the city’s southern section.” Samuel and Max learned the ropes from their father and handled many duties for him, particularly after he was elected Fourth Ward Alderman in 1903, which elevated their status by association. As Morris’s power grew, Sam’s involvement deepened to where he became known as Dad’s right-hand man.
But as Morris won repeat elections, opposition formed within his own party. County Treasurer William Hoyland, described by the Albany Times-Union as “the great dispenser of patronage at Republican headquarters,” fired the first shot across Coplon’s bow. In early 1908, Samuel had decided to give politics a try as a potentially more lucrative way to make a living, but when he approached Hoyland about a job, he was turned down, as was Max. This was a perceived slight against their father’s power, forcing a fight to maintain control of the ward.
Samuel, meanwhile, turned to expanding the furniture business as a means of elevating his income. In recent years, less-than-optimal health had plagued him, something he attributed to a short service stint during the Spanish-American War in 1898 (necessarily short because the war itself lasted less than three months). Seeking improvement, he had begun taking trips north into the Adirondacks to visit his best friend, Fred Ross of Garnet in Warren County. Samuel, an outgoing sort, was embraced by the locals and made many friends in nearby communities.
The frequency of his trips to the mountains increased in 1907, and the following year, shortly after being refused a political position in Albany by Hoyland, Sam made two commitments in the Adirondacks: setting up a business and purchasing a residence. When summer arrived, he opened a store at Johnsburgh Corners, offering furniture, hardware items, and household goods. For the remainder of the year, he traveled back and forth between Albany and the Johnsburgh store, which he visited nearly every month. In December, he bought a camp on Mill Creek Pond (today’s Garnet Lake), a great place to enjoy his favorite pastimes of hunting and fishing.
In early 1909 he expanded to a third location, renting Merrill Hall at Bakers Mills, and began touting all three sites in regional newspaper advertisements, with the facility on Pearl Street in Albany designated as the “Main Store.” Much of his time was spent in the Adirondacks where, besides routine business at Johnsburgh and Bakers Mills, he held special sales events and once-a-month auctions.
Part 2: the Christmas giving begins.
Photos: Sam Coplon (1931, Brooklyn Daily Eagle); ad for Coplon’s Albany store (1890, Albany Times); ad for Sam’s store at Johnsburgh Corners (1908, Warrensburgh News); ad for all three of Sam’s stores (1909, Warrensburgh News)
A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.