Children growing up in the Adirondacks during the 1930s could always count on snow, wind and cold air.
Town and city kids in Schenec-tady, Albany, Saratoga Springs and other parts of upstate New York endured similar winter conditions.
But mountain youngsters had something extra in December — their own, real Santa Claus.
While most people journeyed north during summer and fall, Sam Coplon always visited in December. Sam didn’t travel light. The Brooklyn salesman brought a train loaded with toys and blankets with him.
Playing Santa Claus has often been popular with men and women who have prospered in business. Neighborhood parties often made the news in the Schennectady Gazette during the 1940s and 1950s, with guys like Tony Morrette, Bill McMichael and Johnny Marcella playing key roles.
Coplon came north every December, visiting poor mountain hamlets and churches. Parents and clergy members drove or walked — sometimes on snowshoes — to pick up presents for their children or parishioners.
On Thursday, Dec. 24, 1931, Sam made his annual trip to North Creek. He arrived on the rails and opened a freight car loaded with 12,000 toys. Roland Alston, a reporter for The Associated Press, talked to Coplon on that Christmas Eve.
“I give the stockings and blankets myself,” he said, as he packed a box of toys for a minister who had driven 120 miles to see him. “A few friends of mine, manufacturers and jobbers, give me most of the toys.”
Sam had been in the North before. It was 1911, and he had been ill for years. A combination of mountain air, mountain water and mountain hospitality restored good health. He never forgot his good fortune. And he knew the people in the Adirondacks needed help, especially during the years of the Great Depression.
Coplon had learned Adirondack farmlands were not productive. Cows were thin, so were children. During his first December project, he brought toys to just a few families. As years passed, the “Santa Claus of the Adirondacks” — as Alston described him — expanded his shopping list.
“The worst of it is,” Coplon said, “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.”
Sam Coplon of Bar Harbor, Maine, said his grandfather was born and raised in Albany. He never knew his namesake.
“He really had a heart of gold, and this is from my father and family kind of passing this on,” Coplon told the Schenectady Gazette in a 2007 interview. “He was a very generous, warm-hearted guy and did this because he was in the toy business and was able to.”
Coplon said his grandfather died in 1948 or 1949. He was in his mid-60s.
Smiles in Schenectady
In Schenectady, Tony Morrette ran the Morrette steak sandwich grill on Jefferson Street, off Erie Boulevard. On Dec. 23, 1948, he helped put smiles on the faces of 1,000 children who attended an outdoor Christmas party near his restaurant.
Santa Claus, played in robust fashion by the 275-pound Marcella, arrived in a buggy pulled by two horses.
Nobody minded the falling snow.
“The buggy was loaned by Bill McMichael,” the Gazette reported. “He had a 60-year-old sleigh all polished up on his Amsterdam Road farm, but a thaw forced him to throw an equally old buggy into the breach.”
Morette and Santa had help. About 10 women who lived in the neighborhood spent the previous night wrapping up candy, fruit and toys. Party planners didn’t seem to mind kids who walked around the grill and got back into line for a second helping of gifts. There were leftovers, and they went to sick kids at Ellis Hospital and to needy children in other parts of Schenectady.
The man in red received help from the boys in blue; a dozen police officers led by Captain Edward F. Flynn kept city traffic away from the Claus contingent.