Welcome to this month’s edition of History & Heritage. Our purpose is to acquaint you with our mission to preserve the town’s rich history, highlight the legacy of those who have gone before and show how our past has shaped our present. We are a non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.
We are located at 421 Summer Street. Our winter hours are Monday through Wednesday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. thanks to a wonderful staff of volunteers. Please mark your calendars for Victorian Holidays on December 8th from 1 – 4. Refreshments, crafts, music of the harp, quilt raffle and exhibits in both the house and barn. We will even take the chill off in the barn!
This is your establishment and we encourage your support in making this historic home a wonderful place for exhibiting, preserving and collecting St. Johnsbury’s history. Check out our web site at www.stjhistory.org and our Facebook page. Our mailing address is 421 Summer Street, St. Johnsbury, Vt., 05819 and phone number is 802-424-1090.
There is something about the holidays that holds a special place for home, traditions and familiarity. If I go back in my youth and shopping “downtown,” there are probably only two places that remain Caplan’s and Gauthier’s and of those two only Caplan’s remains in the same family. The floors still creak, Johnson Woolen Mills clothing is still offered for sale, Gary Ely is still there and if one is up early enough – you might catch a glimpse of owner Dave Caplan.
Caplan’s had its beginnings on Eastern Avenue across from the old Post Office. Al Caplan came from Tupper Lake, New York to work with cousins Ruby and Mickey Caplan in their Army Surplus Store. In 1922 Al, with help from his folks, bought the inventory and established Caplan’s. Eastern Avenue did not draw costumers the way store- filled Railroad Street did but Al had to wait eleven years until he was able to rent space in the Costa Block on Railroad Street. Caplan’s Army Store resided at this site until 1946 when fire destroyed the building including a new addition they never got to move into. The present site was purchased and an old plumbing business was torn down to make way for the “new” Caplan’s.
Al’s son Dave entered the business in 1946. He remembers on his 13th birthday, he received an English bike and a note that said he could work in the stock room three days a week. Al would hire Gary Ely on August 23, 1953 and that is where you will still find him! Gary describes Al as, “aggressive, honest and upright.” Business wise, the fire in the Costa block was tragic but he suffered two tragic personal losses. In 1933, his wife Elsie died following the birth of their second son David. His first son Myron joined the Marines and was killed on Iwo Jima in World War II at the age of eighteen. Al worked in the business until 1970 but still advised David who took the helm! That advice was still offered into his nineties when he passed away in 1995.
Dave’s tenure saw the introduction of outdoor recreation equipment such as archery equipment, camping gear, hiking gear and canoes as well as the already established line of boots, work shoes and clothes. World War I and II Army surplus was not so readily available and this forced the focus to change a bit. An interesting bit of trivia is the Johnson Woolen Mill account that continues today and started in 1925!
Caplan’s has reached the age of 96 years in business, how does it do that in this day and age? Back when Caplan’s celebrated their 75th anniversary, Gary attributed the success to “honesty, loyal customers, good service and good value.” To these sentiments Dave added, “consistent hours of operation, competitive pricing and an appreciation for our customers.” As they near their 100th anniversary, Dave is well aware of the effect of the internet and the fact that there are three Wal Marts within driving distance. Let us hope that the reasons given at the 75th for their success will persevere despite today’s competition. I for one think that traditions are a good thing and that includes shopping. We at St. Johnsbury History & Heritage wish you all the best of the season.