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A Small Business Holiday Story

December 24, 2010 - Ernest Hohmeyer
I am reminded of a special small business Holiday story that took place on Christmas 45 years ago. The story starts off with a family that had visited the Adirondacks for several years in the early 1960’s and came to fall in love with the area.

A Cold Reality

From a business perspective, what follows next is absolutely horrifying.

In 1964, on vacation with the in-laws in tow (horrifying in itself), they happen by pure coincidence (they would say it was fate) to come by a “For Sale” sign that stood in front of an abandoned old hotel. It was obviously not a going concern and had no cash flow history, something that a bank expects. Worse, the parents of this young family of 5 had never been entrepreneurs and what would have been a death knell today, did not even bother with a business plan.

As immigrants from war-torn Europe, they could not speak English very well and plain conversation was often difficult. For example, ordering meat from the former Swift meat market in Saranac Lake and trying to say “no more” by saying “nein, nein.” “Oh, you want nine more!” In another instance, they sent officials scurrying in all directions in the hotel parking lot when in asking for a “carbon” copy their dialect uttered “karbomb.”

Undaunted, a deal was reached and all personal belongings were sold and I mean everything, to make the financing thresholds. Four days before Christmas in 1965, the family of 5 arrived in what was then a typical day in the Adirondacks – 40 below. The young children remarked when arriving in the moving van that there was a piano stuck in the main door. Apparently the property was bought completely furnished and somewhere along the line, someone decided to ransack it and took everything, tables, chairs, furniture, you name it – except the grand piano. The door was too small and it became stuck half-way through, so they just left it there.

For this family, they had risked it all. They had sold everything they owned. There was no going back. Failure was not an option.

The First Christmas

Having been abandoned and remembering that the old Adirondack hotels did not carry modern heat, a heating system was to be installed before arrival that cold Christmas week. The excitement that the 2 teenage daughters and the one 6 year old boy felt, the fact that Santa could not be too far away in these Northern woods – after all in those days you only received two TV stations and one of them referred to itself as “WPTZ, the North Pole” – soon became a nightmare for the heating system was not complete. Installation was delayed by an unknown Adirondack holiday to these Europeans, we call it hunting season.

So, for the family of 5, the first winter was spent in one room “the lobby”, where a pot belly stove was installed for heat – and hot water. The mother used to take big pots out in the snow banks, fill them with snow and then put them on the stove to make hot water. With all funds going into the “Money Pit” that first Christmas could have been bleak. Nothing that first Christmas was bought – it was all made. The biggest celebration was cutting their own Christmas tree. There were not a lot of presents that year, but Santa still came with the pounding of boots in his homemade costume and jingling bells hung together with wire clips. For the 6 year old boy, the best present was made by his introduction to the “Adirondackers” who in this case were the installers of the heating system. They took several small wooden thread spools and with a cunning use of soap, rubber bands and spent match sticks, were able to turn them into small army “tanks” that could spin across the floor.

The Adirondack Gift

For that family, the first Christmas was about a dream: about owning your own business in “God’s country”. It was about being scared and uncertain but coming together as a family to persevere. It was about giving and appreciating and taking nothing for granted. About not looking back because you could not afford to. It was about an unerring belief that if you worked hard and tried to do the right thing, you could be successful. And that if you gave, others would give back. But in the Adirondacks people sense this and possess a human quality that is unmatched. Our unique Adirondack humanity is our greatest gift.

With little money and facing the daunting legal, rehabilitation and operational hurdles, many came to this family’s “rescue”. Red Plumadore on legal issues; the butcher at the then local A&P who took the time to show how to cut meat and the Callahan family that gave basic lessons on maintenance. How about 3 generations of Moody’s that are still helping 45 years later, or the helping hands from “competitors” but who also were family run local businesses from the Schroeder’s to the Wikoff’s. It was not a stupendous marketing plan but a local women’s club who came out on opening night 6 months later and despite 2 crying teenage girls who had never waited tables before, gave it rave reviews and helped to spread the word.

More importantly though, this family became part of the Adirondack fabric that woven together is truly special. Those “Adirondacker’s” had the true qualities of entrepreneurs: hardworking, honest and independent. They were inspired to give and to share with others the inspiration they received from these mountains, who cared more about this land than anyone from outside could ever dare to dream. This is what my parents and the Adirondacks taught me 45 years ago.

The Real Challenge

Being in business is not always glorious or romantic. I remember my father bringing several money bags from then Marine Midland Bank as he readied for opening night brimming with optimism about his start-up entrepreneurial venture. When he died 35 years later, I found them in their original condition victim to the reality of a seasonal economy and continued investment into the “old girl.”

A Legacy

I don’t know how he took all these chances that he did, first coming to a new land and then the challenging business environment of the Adirondacks. He was just so firm in his convictions about hard work and doing the right thing and that no matter what, this area and this country would always bounce back. His brutal honesty and other “old timers” would make me cringe sometimes but you always knew where you stood – a human art lost somewhat in today’s faceless, anonymous world of e-mails.

Perhaps I and others have become too lost in business plans, trends, and too introverted and isolated in dealing with e-mail and web sites that we forget it’s really about passion, clarity in vision, purpose – and human contact. Perhaps we have become so enamored with acquiring more that we are too afraid to risk, becoming sterile and forgetting the personal growth that comes from overcoming challenges and re-inventing your business, and yourself. Perhaps this is why my father would never rest believing that entrepreneurship was such a great way to grow as a person and as a way to give as part of a larger community. I miss him, but know that the Adirondack fabric we became part of continues the strong Adirondack entrepreneurial legacy he was proud to be a part of.

On his last Christmas card he wrote to me:

Always have the courage to reach for something greater But be compassionate and appreciate the simple things. Bring peace to yourself through a higher sense of purpose. Hold the course through rough seas Accept the challenge of the unknown and Strive to leave the world a better place Than you found it.

 
 

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