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January 2019 Edition of History & Heritage – PS to Caplan’s Story

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 stop in and check out the WWI exhibit as well as our newly acquired painting of the Rev. Sumner Clapp who was the first minister at the South Congregational Church as well as father to Frances who married Franklin Fairbanks.

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 and our Facebook page. Our mailing address is 421 Summer Street, St. Johnsbury, Vt., 05819 and phone number is 802 – 424 – 1090.

P.S. to Caplan’s Story

Every once in a while after writing a story, more information may come to light and I think, oh I wish I had known that when I wrote the piece. This time, much more information surfaced that warranted a P. S. to last month’s story. I went into Caplan’s to return the pictures I had borrowed from Dave Caplan for the story and I went downstairs into the storage area to find Gary Ely. There he was, bending over a pair of pants that he was shortening with an old Singer sewing machine with a hot iron at the ready! I became even more impressed when he told me that his record was 49 pairs of pants in one day. Furthermore there is no charge for this service and all can be accomplished in the same day. I think we would be safe in betting that this is a service that Amazon and Walmart do not offer.

“Buck” Corriveau was the employee that taught Gary the art of shortening pants. Dave Caplan tells us that his dad, Al, hired Corriveau because he could speak French. Caplan’s customers included many French folks. Gary had attended the Trade School and had used tailoring as his trade during shop time. Gary has managed to go through four flat irons and is on his third sewing machine with his tailoring skills at Caplan’s. When Gary’s brother Richard left in 1953, Gary came into the business the same year. Only once, in 1962, was he tempted to leave Caplan’s. He was offered a job at Millar’s Plumbing & Heating as the stock room manager. His pay was $1.10 at Caplan’s and they were offering $1.25. Caplan’s countered the offer and kept him on! In 1970, he was bumped up to manager.

Another person hired for his French speaking abilities was Norm Veilleau of Bible Hill. Norm has the distinction of having worked for both Gauthier’s and Caplan’s. When employed at Gauthier’s there was an hour long lunch break during which he hung out occasionally at Caplan’s. During one of those occasions in 1959, Dave Caplan asked him if he spoke French. Having replied in the affirmative, he was offered ten cents more an hour than his dollar an hour at his other job. Norm reported back to Al Gauthier the offer made at Caplan’s  to which Al said “you better take it.” Norm admitted that reply did nothing for his ego! Norm remembers that,” if you sold a pair of pants, you got to shorten them.”  As you might guess, it was Gary that showed Norm how to do it. Even tempered is how Norm describes Gary which hasn’t changed in all these years. He also remembers another talent of Gary’s was that of making up the window displays – “he had a real knack for that.” He said that Tony Russo, Concord Candy Kitchen, made up all the signage for the store windows and when he needed to be paid, he would come in and say to Al, “ I need some coupons today” – a coupon referred to a dollar.

In Norm’s three and a half years at Caplan’s before he was lost to Goldberg’s and then to his lifelong love of “tinkering,” repair and maintenance of vehicles, his memories of Caplan’s included: there was always a Christmas bonus; sometimes you might be sent to the Caplan camp at Joes Pond to do a job. There was an elevated portion of the store in the back that Norm referred to as the “crow’s nest” and Al could look down on the whole store – “you had better be working,” recalls Norm. Another accommodation that Caplan’s provided was plenty of cash so that folks from Fairbanks, the railroad and or Purina could cash checks there. This service provided traffic coming into the store said Norm.

The survival of the store has many reasons says Gary: service, generational friendships, personal touch and yes “ the smell of the store – the oil from the floors and the leather from the boots.” Longevity runs in the veins of the store with Roger’s years at 40; Brenda at 17 and John at 15. I thought I would never find another Francis Walker record – he was the head of the foundry at Fairbanks for over sixty years. Gary has topped that and admits that “there is no other place he would rather be.”  As for retirement, Gary has no plans and would just as soon drop there.

In those aisles, on those worn stairs and from that “crow’s nest”, I am sure that there are many more stories and memories – thanks to Al and Dave Caplan who have committed to lifetimes of business to St. Johnsbury.

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