In photos: The Merriam Insurance Agency was headquartered at a number of locations in Schenectady. Here it is seen at the corner of North Ferry and State Street in an undated photo. Inset: Brian Merriam's great-grandfather, Charles E. Merriam.
When Charles E. Merriam decided to start up yet another family business 125 years ago, he didn't have a very good track record.
"My great grandfather and his brother started a hardware business that failed because of a depression in 1890 that in some ways was worse than the crash in 1929," said Brian Merriam, the great grandson of the founder and currently president of Merriam Insurance Company on Broadway in downtown Schenectady. "Then he accepted a job in Albany to be a manager of a wagon company, and then this new-fangled thing called an automobile comes along to put him out of business again."
By the time Charles E. Merriam, a Waverly, New York native, had moved to Schenectady in 1895, he had come up with another idea,.
"He was oh for two, so he decided that one thing everybody was going to need was insurance," said Merriam. "So, with my grandfather, he started a new company selling insurance in the old Barney Building on State Street."
This time things clicked. With father and son, Charles Willis Merriam, working together, the company prospered. They rented office space in the Barney Building, and then moved to another building at 423 State Street near where Proctors is today. In 1969, and now under the direction of Brian's father, Charles W. Merriam Jr., the company moved headquarters to 202 State Street in the Kindl Building. It later moved to the corner of Union Street and Park Place before relocating to its current location at 376 Broadway in 2004.
Charles W. Merriam Sr., the founder's son and Brian's grandfather, not only succeeded on the business front, but was also busy in the political arena. He served eight, one-year terms in the New York State Assembly and also was on the Schenectady County Board of Supervisors and the City Council.
Charles W. Merriam Jr., Brian's father, joined the company soon after serving in World War II. Now 95 and living in Burnt Hills, he is a former town of Ballston justice, and was also a very civic minded individual, serving as president of the Schenectady YMCA and as a board member of various charitable organizations, including the City Mission, the Human Society and the Visiting Nurse Service Association.
During the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Brian Merriam has been working mostly at the office while three-quarters of his staff are working from home.
"This agency has survived two world wars, two great depressions, 22 presidents, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, the polio epidemic of 1935-1955, the Asian flu of 1957, H1NI, Ebola, and disco in the '80s," said Merriam. "I refuse to sit in my house just because I can. I continue to wear a suit and tie so that I stay sharp in my office chair for the Zoom and GoToMeetings that I continue to arrange.
"I stopped at Denny's the other morning and left a cash donation for the servers who used to wait on me," he added. "I know they are in bad shape compared to me and my staff. Without tips the minimum wage is pretty low."
Merriam, who recently turned 60, isn't sure whether or not he will be the last member of the family to run the company. He currently has no plans to retire anytime soon.
"Neither of my two children have any interest in succeeding me, so I might be the end of the line," said Merriam. "I do have a nephew and some nieces with the same last name, but they're down in Georgia and they haven't shown any interest in the family business, at least not yet."