Tag Archives: #northcountry

A Family of Stores

Before 23andme.com DNA kits, before genetic testing, before people poured through old census and courthouse records, our family had the best tool to connect with our ancestors—our parents, Fran and Bill Cohen.

Bill Cohen claimed he could sniff out family from ten feet or from 200 years away. According to Dad, we were related to Sir Moses Montefiore, a nineteenth century British financier and philanthropist; Stubby Kaye , American actor and comedian most famous for his role as Nicely-Nicely in Guys and Dolls; and Madeline Kunin, the former governor of Vermont. 

Dad didn’t regard fame as the only criteria to be considered mishpachah (Yiddish for a Jewish family or social unit including close and distant relatives ). If one had any Jewish connection, Dad would find some link no matter how obscure and embrace them as one of our own .

While my father connected, my mother, Frances Cohen, kept a more reliable account of our family tree. Even into her nineties, my mother could share the convoluted genealogical history of our huge family. To add to the complexity, my father’s grandfather married my mother’s great-aunt, first cousins married first cousins; and two sisters from Vermont married two brothers from Toronto.That is not only a great deal of mishpachah but a great deal of mishagas (confusion)! My brother Jay would listen for hours, jotting down rough drafts of the convoluted branches on yellow legal pads that he filed away for “later.”

Jay also spent a great deal of time talking to our parents about the chain of family run department stores that are intrinsically entwined into our family’s history.

Pearl’s Department Stores began in the early 1900s, when our maternal great-uncle Paul Osovitz, unable to continue in the New York City sweat shops because of respiratory problems, was given money by his older sister Lillian to start a business in Vermont. Initially living with his uncle Archic Perelman in Burlington, Paul peddled wares he carried on his back throughout the rural parts of Vermont and Upstate New York.He saved enough to purchase a horse and cart. As his business grew, he invited his brother Joe to join him. 

Paul and Joe opened up their first store in Alburg, Vermont. As people knew them as the “Perelman Boys,” they chose the name of “Pearl’s Department Store.” To make the moniker even more accurate, they and most of the family changed their surname to Pearl. They opened a second store in Swanton, Vermont. Joe eventually went back to New York City. Paul began building a small dynasty of over 20 stores, employing his relatives as managers and clerks. Our father, Bill Cohen, was one of those relatives, spending most of his life managing one of Uncle Paul’s stores in Keeseville, New York.

By the late 1980s, however, big box stores and highway systems like the Northway, rang the death knell for small-town family run businesses. Pearl’s closed its last store in 1988, only remembered through those that worked or shopped there and dusty records.

In 2015, my brother Jay, retired and always loving “minutia and trivia,” began researching the history of each of the stores and the families involved. He Googled the internet for news stories, advertisements, and pictures. He contacted historians in the stores’ towns. He reached out to the descendants of the relatives that managed or worked in Paul’s stores. He then expanded his research to include stores and businesses owned by mishpachah that were not connected to Pearls, including paternal relatives and my in-laws, who owned Shapiros of Schuylerville in Upstate New York.

Jay incorporated all his findings into a website he called afamilyofstores.com. “If you grew up in upstate New York (‘the North Country’) or in northern Vermont anywhere from the 1930s through the 1980s you probably remember a Pearl’s Department Store in your hometown,” Jay wrote on the site’s home page. “You went there with your mom or your friends. You bought your Wrangler jeans and your school clothes or a Christmas gift. A Pearl’s store was there before the Kmart’s, Ames, and Walmart’s and the Northway.”

The ongoing project, which Jay calls a “labor of love,” also drew on his interest in genealogy. His two sons began hounding him. “Learning about Pearl’s is fine,” they said. “But when are you going to pull out all those yellow legal pads you have stuffed in a drawer and create a family tree for posterity?” It took a pandemic to motivate Jay to dig them out.

Early in the COVID lockdown, my three siblings and I connected with our paternal first cousins through weekly Zoom sessions. As we continued to shelter in place, our group of seven expanded to include over 22 cousins, their spouses, and even their children. 

Each meeting was consumed by the question, “How are we all related?” Jay, who had screen shared his afamilyofstores.com website, offered to pull it all together. 

Using a template from ancestry.com, Mom’s notes, his website, and updated information he gathered from the Tuesday Zooms, Jay  meticulously created the framework of a family tree that will document both paternal and maternal sides of  our ever expanding family. When finished, it will include everyone from Moses Montifiore (Dad was right, as he was about Stubby Kaye and Madeline Kunin) to my nine-month old grandson, a span of over 200 years. Thanks to Jay’s efforts, we not only know our roots but also our far-flung branches.

Why don’t we all submit our DNA to one of the popular ancestry sites to learn more? Two reasons. First, our entire family history goes back to the shtetl in Eastern European. Those of us who have had tests done show us as 98% Ashkenazi (Jews with roots in Eastern Europe). No surprises there. The second reason is that—well— we have more relatives than we can handle! Jay said that he expects to connect the family tree to over 1000 people. 

And if we finally cave in, send a sample of our saliva to a testing site, and find even more? Bring them on! After all, we are Bill and Fran Cohen’s children. And we love our family…all of them. 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York in the January 7, 2020, issue.

Into the Woods—a place for contemplation and renewal

The mountains are calling, and I must go. John Muir

Across the street and behind the houses on the other side of my Upstate New York home was a wooded area. I remember it as a mountain . I am sure it would not look so imposing  if I viewed it now from my adult eyes 

On many a summer day I would take a path to the right of the Douglass’s home and head into the oaks and maples. I would sit on logs and imagine myself as Heidi or Lcittle Red Riding Hood.

This was a lone adventure. Although we were perfectly situated between the shores of Lake Champlain and Adirondack Mountains, our family never headed for the woods. 

When my parents purchased a cottage on Willsboro Bay, I replaced the trips to the woods with walks to The Point, an area about a quarter of a mile from our cottage that offered views of Lake Champlain and Burlington, Vermont. It was my get-away, my place to sit and think and deal with teenage angst.Even as a adult, I viewed The Point as one of my favorite places. I shared it with friends and, of course, Larry the first time he visited me in the summer of 1973. 

And then I finished college and married and started a family. Larry and I purchased a home with a private, wooded backyard. We biked along quiet country roads in Saratoga County. We took occasional short hikes into  the woods in Lake George or Vermont or Williamstown in the fall. But I felt that I had lost touch with the woods, with the mountains.

That all changed in 2003. Our daughter Julie moved out to Colorado after graduation  from college She took a “one-year” job as an environmental education teacher two hours west of Denver and in the middle of the Rockies. 

Julie soon fell in love with Colorado, the mountains, and Sam, not necessarily in that order. On our first visit in June 2004, she took us on easy hikes in Eagle and Summit Counties. By the following summer, Sam and she were trusting us to accompany them on longer, more challenging heights.

As our hikes became longer, so did the length and frequency of our visits to the mountains. Julie and Sam completed grad school degrees, got married, found jobs, and bought a house in Frisco, elevation 9096 or 9097 feet above sea level, depending on which tee shirt you purchased. In anticipation of the birth of our granddaughter in the summer 2015, we rented a place for several weeks, a tradition we have continued every year.

Frisco, located in Summit County, is amazing in the summer—once it stops snowing! This year a long hard winter gratefully came to an end June 21.Even my then three-year-old granddaughter had had enough. “I’m so over winter,” she said. “I am ready for summer and my birthday!”

When we arrived June 30, the still-snow topped mountains had already exploded in shades of green Our first hike was to Rainbow Lake, only a mile up an easy trail near Julie’s home. As we got more acclimated to the altitude, we hiked such colorfully named trails as Lily Pad Lake, Shrine Pass, McCulloughs’ Gulch, and Cataract Lake.  Creeks churned through meadows and fields. Columbines and wild roses and cone flowers peaked out between fallen logs and rocks on trails that led to waterfalls and lakes and vistas that took my breath away.

We often share the trails with both locals and others who have found, like us, that it doesn’t get much better than a beautiful summer’s day in the Rockies. We pack water and a snack and find a spot in the middle of the hike just to sit and take in our surroundings. 

Larry has found a pickleball league in Summit County (“We Play with an Altitude!”), and several days a week he heads out the courts. On those days, I get ready for my alone time to Rainbow Lake. 

I apply the only “make-up” I need, liberal amounts of sun screen. I put on my hiking clothes and lace up my boots, fill a small backpack with water, bug spray, dog treats and poop bags. I then pick up our granddog Neva, and we head up a trail to Rainbow Lake. Neva pauses frequently to sniff at her “pee mail” and to check out a squirrel or magpie. I savor the beauty surrounding me—the columbine growing from a dead trunk, the sunlight reflecting through the aspens, logs stretching over a small stream.

Once we get to Rainbow Lake, I let Neva off her leash and toss a stick into the lake. After a few dog paddles into the chilly water, Neva settles down next to me on my favorite rock. A beaver paddles away from its lodge and few ducks swim across the still water with its reflection of trees and mountains. A woodpecker hammers away on the bark of a pine tree. 

Images of Heidi have been replaced with images of Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Ridge Trail or Bill Bryson on the Appalachian Trail. It is my time. I am grateful to G-d for the opportunities open to me in the mountains and for the health to enjoy it. I am at peace. I am back to my Adirondack roots.

Marilyn and Neva at Rainbow Lake July 2019

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York, in the July 25, 2019, issue.