Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Moses Cohen, 84-Year-Old Pioneer Merchant in Old Forge Looks Back

Adirondack Empire is Founded by Poor Immigrant

Horse, cutter and small hardware stock establish Cohen in 15-building town; Now it takes time to count his holdings

"Yes, a half century brings a lot of changes" mused Moses Cohen, 84, gazing out of the wide front window of the Old Forge Hardware Store at the snow swirling through the brightly lit streets of that thriving Adirondack community.

Looking in any direction he could see buildings and business enterprises which he and his family or business associates own.  The modern super-market, the ultra-modern Old Forge Motel units dominating the tip of First Lake, restaurants, a liquor store and other business buildings.

Cohen was talking about the physical changes that had taken place in the village since he arrived in Old Forge in 1900.  But he must have been thinking, too, of the change in status of the man who came to Old Forge on that March day in just such a snowstorm as this one.

His worldly possessions then consisted of a horse and cutter, which he had bought in Utica and a meager shipment of hardware supplies scheduled to come in to Old Forge by rail.  The horse and cutter, which he would need in the business he planned to set up in Old Forge, could be brought to that isolated community only by way of Boonville, then along the Moose River bank and finally through the dense woods on an old logging road.

There was one other asset Cohen brought with him, the hard-earned knowledge of the buying habits of people who live scattered miles apart in isolated sections of the Adirondacks.  Eleven years experience as a peddler and store owner in the Bloomingdale and Saranac Lake region had taught many lessons to the immigrant who had come to this country as a 15-year old youth from Lithuania in 1899.

One bit of knowledge on which Cohen was staking his future was the certainty that dwellers in these regions would travel scores of miles to buy the hardware supplies that were essential to their way of living.

Old Forge then consisted of some 15 buildings on Main Street, and a few outlying dwellings, hotels and camps.

"You'll never make a living there," friends told him. "There aren't enough people up there in the woods to bring you the trade you need."

His father-in-law in Utica had made inquiries about the area and he echoed the opinions of the others.

Cohen was thinking of these things as he drove his cutter through the woods.  The trail was only slightly defined and he would have lost it more than once in the blinding snowstorm if it wasn't for a logging wagon proceeding ahead of him.

The next day, seeking a location for his store, he could find only one.  That was a store near the center of the village, empty except for one corner in which a Mr. Abbott, the owner, conducted the village post office.  

Abbot refused to rent the remaining part of the store.  Cohen even offered to build a separate building in which the post office could be maintained, but Abbott remained firm in his refusal.

Finally, Cohen found a friend.  At the Old Forge Hotel, then located at the lake's edge and since demolished by fire, the proprietor offered to let him an abandoned room in the rear of the building for his store.  The out-of-the-way location was not the best, but it was the only one available.  Cohen accepted the offer.

As he prepared to put the space into shape for use as a store, he was approached by a resident of the hote., William Tracy, who asked for a job.  Tracy said he could keep books and that he knew most of the residents of the area.  Cohen hired him on the spot and Tracy remained in his employ until he died many years later.

Shelves, counters and benches were built in the rear room of the hotel.  Then, with some misgivings, Cohen opened the place for business.

"Customers really swarmed in on me," he recalls. "I never saw anything like it, the first day. Camp and hotel owners were beginning to get their places in shape for summer, and they didn't want to waste the two days it would take them to go into Utica for supplies."

Six weeks later, Abbott came into the store and offered to rent his store to Cohen.

"Why didn't you rent it to me in the first place?" asked Cohen.

Abbott was honest.  "Nobody here thought you would be in business more than a few months," he said.  "But now I can see that we need you and your business around here more than you need us."

So Cohen moved into the better-located Abbott store.

But he dreamed of a building of his own.  Within a year he had begun to dicker with the Old Forge Company, holders of most of the land on which the village stood, for a parcel of land at the corner of what are now [unreadable] and Hotel Sts.

The company sold him a 150 by 75-foot lot for $500, after Cohen had promised to erect a structure costing $20,000 on the site.  A few months later, when one of the directors saw the three-story block Cohen was having erected, he told the hardware merchant he was "crazy" to erect such a building in the woods.

"If you had money for such a building why didn't you erect it in the city?" he asked.

But Cohen knew what he was doing.  The building, in which he set up separate hardware and furniture stores, became a supply center for a wide area of the Central Adirondacks.  Four apartments in the upper stories provided him with further income.

That building burned to the ground in a disastrous fire in the early morning of May 10, 1922, a fire which nearly wiped out the entire village.  Cohen rebuilt, and the new structure still continues as the location of the business which is now conducted by his son, Richard.

Business rivalry increased as others saw the opportunities which they had not recognized until Cohen had pioneered the way.  He managed to forge ahead and to outlast the competition that arose from time to time.

Today his business interests are so wide in scope that they embrace all facets of life in the village.

How many buildings does he own in whole or in part?

"To be honest, I couldn't tell you without sitting down and taking the time to count them up," he said.

In addition to the buildings mentioned earlier, his family has a major interest in the Enchanted Forest, the spectacular tourist attraction opened near Old Forge last year; the building in which the Post Office is located; and camp property along the lake shore.

One of the most recent acquisitions by his son was that of Pine Acres, the former Horace De Camp estate on Second Lake which was once the summer home of President Harrison.  Cohen used to deliver hardware and supplies to the president's estate.

When Cohen first came to this area from Bloomingdale he was married to a Utica girl, Harriet Galinsky, who died in 1903.  His present wife is the former Jane Myers of Utica.

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