Several days ago I wrote about a short documentary produced by the University of Hartford. After I posted to my Facebook page, a gentleman name Dan Weaver commented that he worked at Coleco on the loading docks. I reached out and he filled me in on some stories, photos, and a magazine article that he would like to share with the rest of you. So, I will let him tell you about his time at Coleco.
“I worked at Coleco in Amsterdam, NY from 1978-1983. I started out as a night watchman, then cleaned offices for awhile and then became the receiving clerk in Building 6. I was then promoted to Receiver. On the receiving dock, we unloaded parts and toys that were manufactured elsewhere for Coleco. Some of the trailers came from overseas and a customs officer had to be present when they were opened up.
After unloading the trucks, we had to count everything to make sure we weren’t getting ripped off. Then we placed move tickets on the pallets, and fork lift operators moved the goods to the appropriate warehouse. Sometimes the material was moved directly to the assembly lines, which took up most of the space in the six story building. When Coleco was booming, suppliers couldn’t always keep up with Coleco’s demand for parts. Occasionally, an assembly line was idle because the parts hadn’t arrived. Bosses would get nervous and hound us to make sure the parts got to the assembly line as soon as they arrived.
When Coleco was booming, the receiving bays would be full and tractor trailers would be lined up on Park Street waiting to get in. Truck drivers would be upset with the delay. I had to go out and calm them down. I also would have to talk drivers with a full load into letting a trailer with only a few pallets unload first so he could get going.
Sometimes we would have to allow a driver to jump the line because he had parts that the assembly lines were waiting for.
The receiving dock was hot and humid in the summer and cold in the winter. Our pens would freeze in the winter and we would have to go into the office to get another one while that one thawed out.
Many people think only of the ColecoVision, ADAM computer and Cabbage Patch Dolls when they think of Coleco, but Coleco made many other toys. They made pinball machines, hand held video games, air hockey games, miniature pool tables, tricycles, wading pools and above ground swimming pools. Coleco always made a profit from its pools and tricycles, but they sold those lines off to concentrate on the ColecoVision and ADAM computer. To this day, I can remember the advertising ditty for the Mr. Turtle Pool which went like this:
The Mr. Turtle pool.
The Mr. Turtle pool.
Just jump right in
and go for a swim
in the Mr. Turtle pool.
Coleco allowed employees to sign out toys for the weekend. I remember taking home one of their miniature arcade games, Donkey Kong, and having fun with it. When we returned on Monday, we returned the game and filled out an evaluation report on it. A few employees stole games. There were stories about employees tossing Cabbage Patch dolls out windows to accomplices below. The game cartridges for ColecoVision and ADAM were small and easy to pocket. It was much harder to steal a game system or computer. One employee didn’t steal games, but he presented a forged death certificate so he could get bereavement leave. He was caught and fired. Most of the employees, however, were honest and hardworking.
Occasionally, there were accidents. Right before I started working, a young man put his head inside a blow-mold machine, and it closed on him. After that, a few employees said the place was haunted by the “headless houseman.” On another occasion, an employee drove a forklift into the elevator. Unfortunately, the elevator was on a different floor, and the forklift operator dropped down the shaft to his death.
I remember there being trouble with the power supply for the ColecoVision and ADAM. They constantly overheated. They were made in Haiti and an engineer was sent down there to straighten things out. The engineering and planning departments were located right behind the receiving office so we got to know some of them.
The Greenbergs treated employees well. They were Jewish, while almost all of their employees were Christians. They made sure we got two days off every Christmas. One year, they gave every employee a turkey for Thanksgiving. They paid fair wages, paid for virtually all our healthcare, gave us two weeks vacation, had a tuition reimbursement program and there were opportunities for advancement. We were also unionized.
It seems to me that when Coleco sold off their profitable tricycle and pool lines, it was not a good move. Tricycles and pools may not be exciting, but there is a perennial need for both. Other toys are faddish.
Coleco was on top of the world in the late 70s and early 80s when I worked there. The place was really jumping. They were the biggest employer in the county. People came from 30 and 40 miles away to work there. Many small businesses in Amsterdam relied on Coleco. When the company folded, it left a huge hole in the city. Coleco helped fill the gap when the carpet mills moved out of Amsterdam. When Coleco went bust, there was no company to takes its place. Amsterdam has never recovered from Coleco’s bankruptcy.”
Dan collected some Coleco products since leaving the company, here are some photos.
Dan Weaver was also kind enough to scan a magazine called Mohawk Valley USA, published by the Noteworthy Corporation. I converted it to a PDF and rescanned it as a horizontal jpeg image to give you options on how you want to view it. The issue is from late 1982 and the author discusses the local history, how good the times are for Coleco and its ColecoVision console. There are some great photos of the ColecoVision assembly line in the article.
This is last part cracks me up. It’s a story from Dan that he wrote for the Amsterdam Recorder. It’s about the Cabbage Patch Kids.
“It must have been 1982 or early 1983 when a wooden crate from China arrived at the receiving dock of Coleco Industries’ Building 6 on Park Street in Amsterdam, NY. It was unusual to receive a wooden crate. Almost everything arrived in cardboard boxes which would rub against each other on the long sea voyage and deposit a layer of cardboard particles on the floors of the shipping containers.
A wooden crate meant something important was inside. Eddie Bubniak and I cut the steel bands and proceeded to take the crate apart with a crowbar. When we finally opened it, we looked at each other and laughed, and I said one of the dumbest things I’ve ever said, “Who is going to buy an ugly thing like that?”
The ugly thing, of course, was a Cabbage Patch Kid. What we held in our hands was the prototype of the mass produced version of the Cabbage Patch Doll. The Cabbage Patch Doll had until then been made by hand and sold for over $100 each. The mass produced Cabbage Patch Kid would sell for less than half that.
The Kid maintained most of the features of the Doll. Each was unique, had a name, birth certificate, adoption papers and the doll’s creator’s name, Xavier Roberts, on its rear end. An added bonus was that Coleco would send the Cabbage Patch Kid a birthday card every year.
Apparently, the doll was so ugly it was cute. Its appeal and skillful marketing created such a demand that supply could not meet it during the Christmas season of 1983. Coleco became one of Santa’s busiest workshops that year. The need for employees was so great that elves were bused in from other counties.
Coleco employees and Park Hill residents fought over parking spaces. The biggest fights, however, were among customers in retail stores. A woman in a Zayre’s store in Wilkes-Barre, PA had her leg crushed by customers scrambling for a doll. A video of the event shows the store manager wielding a baseball bat. 5000 people rioted over the Kids in a Charleston, WV department store.
Retailers who couldn’t get enough dolls offered $50 each for them, then sold them for $60. Family and friends pressured Coleco employees to get them a Cabbage Patch Kid. Coleco opened a retail store on West Main Street in Amsterdam. Everyday, a slow moving line snaked out of the door and down the street. Coleco flew the dolls to the United States in Boeing 747s to meet the demand.
According to babylandgeneral.com, by the end of 1983, Coleco had sold 3 million Cabbage Patch Kids. During that year, “The Cabbage Patch Kids Toys go on record as the most successful new doll introduction in the history of the toy industry. In December, they are featured on the cover of Newsweek.”
Coleco sold 20 million dolls for a total of $540 million in sales in 1984, up from $65 million in 1983. Coleco’s employment peaked in 1984 at an all time high of 5,000 employees, the same peak the carpet industry reached decades earlier. Amsterdam’s factories kept Botch’s Lunch, Phelp’s Lunch and the Beeline lunch in business, along with a couple of Park Hill gin mills and the “Roach Coach” that came around at lunch time.
Amsterdam was doing well in the mid 1980s, in spite of its declining population and long gone carpet mills. Its future looked bright. But all of that was about to end. Coleco’s bankruptcy in 1988, connected in part to the Cabbage Patch Kids, contributed to Amsterdam’s decline.
According to a 1988 NY Times article,“Sales of the dolls soared to a phenomenal $600 million in 1985, when Coleco’s earnings peaked at $64 million, then plunged to $250 million in 1986 as the company lost $111 million. The company lost another $105 million last year when it was too slow to adjust as Cabbage Patch sales dropped again, to $125 million.”
According to Gary Jacobson, a toy market analyst, what killed Coleco besides it losses from the Adam computer, was “Coleco finally came unhinged when it was seduced into overexpansion by the winsomely ugly Cabbage Patch dolls.” Industry analyst, Laurie Lively, opined, “The company did not wisely use the profits from the Cabbage Patch dolls to diversify.”
Coleco is gone. Although not as popular as they once were, the Cabbage Patch dolls are still being made. Time magazine lists them as one of the 100 hottest toys, and one of the top ten toy crazes, of all time.”
These days Dan can be found at his book store in Amsterdam, New York called The Book Hound. Please visit his Facebook page and give it a Like and hey, if you’re in the neighborhood, drop in the store. I’m sure he has plenty of books that will fit your taste! Thank you Dan Weaver for your time, stories, photos and scans!