What is now called JCPenney, a fixture of suburban shopping malls, started out as a small-town Main Street store that fused its founder’s interests in agriculture, retail business, religion, and philanthropy. This book—at once a biography of Missouri farm boy–turned–business icon James Cash Penney and the story of the company he started in 1902—brings to light the little-known agrarian roots of an American department store chain. David Delbert Kruger explores how the company, its stores, and their famous founder shaped rural America throughout the twentieth century. “Most of our stores,” Penney explained in 1931, “are located in agricultural regions where the tide of merchandising rises and falls with the prosperity of the farmers.” Despite the growth of cities in the early twentieth century, Penney maintained his stores’ commitment to serving the needs of farmers and small-town folk. Tracing this dedication to Penney’s rural upbringing, Kruger describes how, from one store in the sheep-ranching and mining town of Kemmerer, Wyoming, J. C. Penney Co. became a familiar chain on Main Street, USA, purveying value, providing good jobs, and marking rites of passage in many an American childhood. Kruger paints a biographical and historical picture of an American business mogul distinctly different from comparable capitalists such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, or Sam Walton. Despite his chain’s corporate structure, Penney imbued each store with a Golden Rule philosophy that demanded mutual respect between customers, employees, competitors, suppliers, and communities. By tracing that spirit to its agrarian source, and following it through the twentieth century, J. C. Penney: The Man, the Store, and American Agriculture provides a new perspective on this American cultural institution—and on its founder’s unique brand of American capitalism.
|Publisher:||University of Oklahoma Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
David Delbert Kruger is Agricultural Research and Instruction Librarian, William Robertson Coe Library, University of Wyoming, Laramie.
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The Man, the Store, and American Agriculture
By David Delbert Kruger
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
Becoming J. C. Penney
From Country Boy to Department Store Magnate
In the autumn of 1963, an eighty-eight-year-old James Cash Penney consented to an interview with a journalist in Baltimore, Maryland. The venue was convenient for both, as Penney's eldest daughter already resided in the city, and the Baltimore News-Post was hoping to write an article profiling the man behind one of America's most prominent department store chains. At the time, J. C. Penney was operating stores in seventeen hundred cities and towns from the Atlantic to the Pacific, collectively generating $1.6 billion in annual sales. No department store chain in the world had saturated more towns, and among Penney's competitors only Sears, Roebuck had higher sales figures. As Penney hung up his hat and cane and introduced himself, immaculately dressed in his customary three-piece suit and bow tie, the waiting journalist remarked that he always looked like a man who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Given that the department store magnate spoke with an eloquent brogue and had spent nearly half a century in New York City, the stereotype seemed apropos. Yet he could only chuckle at his interviewer's comment. "It was more likely a tin fork," Penney replied as he sat down, "for I grew up on a farm in Missouri and my parents were very poor."
The life of James Cash Penney originated on that same farm in question, a rural birthplace just two miles east of present-day Hamilton, Missouri. Born 16 September 1875, Penney came into the world at a time when agriculture was emerging as a viable way of life for numerous Americans. Over the course of the century in which Penney's life began, the number of farms in the United States increased from 335,000 to morethan 5.8 million, and American farms evolved from self-sufficient concerns into productive enterprises for agricultural markets. The undeniable epicenter of the nation's agricultural growth during this period was the "Middle West," where cheap land and fertile soil encouraged the region's prominent place in American agriculture both during and after the Civil War. Such land had attracted Elie Penney, Penney's grandfather, to emigrate from Kentucky to Missouri and start his own farm there in 1840. Penney's father, James Cash Penney Sr., was born on Elie Penney's farm a year later and eventually followed a similar path, acquiring his own farm seven years before Penney was born.
James Cash Penney's early life is well documented, and his remarks about his impoverished rural childhood are certainly corroborated by multiple biographical sources, not to mention Penney's autobiographical writings and his personal papers at Southern Methodist University. To be sure, Penney was indeed poor throughout his formative years, yet he was also not the offspring of unrefined hillbillies. His Missouri-born father earned a college degree by the age of seventeen and his mother, Mary Frances Paxton, came from a genteel Kentucky family. However, because of concerns over the Civil War, Penney's parents had collectively forgone a more privileged life in Kentucky for the opportunity to acquire their own four-hundred-acre farm in northwest Missouri.
Both parents remained unified in their decision to live off the land, although the farm essentially lowered their standard of living to poverty level, leaving virtually nothing in savings and little operating income, a status that would remain relatively constant throughout James Cash Penney's childhood. The lengthy period of low agricultural prices following 1875, the year Penney was born, indicated external factors beyond his father's control, and certainly an environment that negatively affected other local farmers as well. The Penney family had more than its share of struggles. Beyond economic hardships, the harsh environs and primitive medical care of nineteenth-century Caldwell County likewise took their toll on several of Penney's brothers and sisters. Although Penney was the fourth son born to his parents, and the seventh of their twelve children born from 1863 to 1890, Penney would live to see three sisters and one brother die in childhood. All told, six of Penney's eleven brothers and sisters would never make it to adulthood.
In his 1950 autobiography, James Cash Penney described his mother and father, along with their values and struggle to make a living and raise a family on their Caldwell County farm:
They had the hearts and strengths of pioneers — not just in the ordinary ways of Missouri living in the second half of the nineteenth century, but especially in the way their thinking and conduct clung to right as might. Both of them believed greatly in education. My father was graduated from Pleasant Ridge College near Weston, in Platte County, Missouri, at the age of seventeen. He wrote his oration on "Earth's Benefactors," and in what he included about the lives of Jesus Christ and Martin Luther, among others, his hearers might easily deduce a bent toward preaching the Word of God.
For both of Penney's parents, agricultural life and faith in God were inseparable. Penney's father soon augmented his farming activities by volunteering to pastor a rural church more than twelve miles away, delivering weekly sermons to its Primitive Baptist congregation. In hindsight, Penney came to see his father's agricultural activities not just as a source of income for the family's livelihood but as the sustainment of his Christian ministry. "My father was in reality a Baptist clergyman," Penney remarked in 1926, "but was compelled to find a means of livelihood aside from the ministry because the congregations which he served did not, at the time, believe in paying their ministers."
Penney deeply admired his father as both a minister and a farmer. Even after the family relocated to a house in Hamilton while his father continued to operate the farm, Penney could not resist the appeal of his father's agricultural activities throughout his childhood. "During all these years [living in town], I had been spending my Saturdays, holidays, and summer vacations on my father's farm," he reflected in 1926. "Its operations fascinated me and I returned to it always, attracted by its many activities. Indeed, if I could not get a ride from home to the farm, it was no burden to me to walk the two and a half miles." Penney's affection for the farm was as much about his father as it was about the farm itself. Even as an old man, Penney vividly recalled childhood memories of walking hand in hand with his father across the largely bluegrass pastures, their conversations invariably mixing agriculture and Christianmorality, as well as a Protestant work ethic strongly rooted in honesty, self-reliance, thrift, and doing right by others. The crux of these teachings would largely inform the eventual values of the J. C. Penney Company as well as Penney's own agricultural projects in later years.
Through the lens of modern parenting, however, the formative lessons of Penney's nineteenth-century childhood could often be considered cold and harsh, though Penney defended their outcomes as constructive and essential to the man he became. The first of these lessons came on Penney's eighth birthday, when his father told him that from that day forward, Penney would now be responsible for earning the money to buy his own clothing. Unable to work on the farm on school nights, Penney subsequently began a lucrative hog-raising operation within the city limits, raising piglets entirely on his own and reinvesting the money until he was soon taking care of a dozen shoats at a time.
As Penney generated his own income from his pig operation and any odd job he could find, he was subsequently given the liberty to make clothing purchases as he saw fit, typically in one of Hamilton's two department stores. These trips to the store were also lessons in their own right, arguably the first exposure Penney ever had to retailing and merchandising. Penney's parents did not shield their young son from potential failure, however, and Penney naturally made naive mistakes in some of his early retail purchases. The first shoes he bought on his own were the cheapest pair he could find, clumsy brogans made of black cowhide with embarrassingly ugly buckles on the instep, which Penney quickly cut off to save face at school. However, by the time he reached the age of ten, Penney had become a fairly sophisticated shopper with a clear conviction that the concept of "value" did not necessarily mean the lowest-priced item in the store.
Just as Penney's father taught him a great deal about farming, livestock, and even certain aspects of range conservation, he consistently incorporated applications of the Golden Rule into those lessons, even at the expense of Penney's agribusiness profits. When neighbors began to complain about the smell and sound of Penney's childhood hog operation, his father demanded an immediate liquidation out of respect for the neighbors' living environment. The morals to be learned in lessons like these were not always apparent to Penney in the short term, especially when the young boy had to suffer the sting of lost income in order to comply with his father's values. On one notable occasion, Penney's father even shut down a highly lucrative melon stand Penney had set up outside the entrance to the county fair, while publicly castigating him in front of his customers for "disgracing the Penneys" by bypassing concession fees and taking business away from fee-paying vendors who were operating inside the fairgrounds. "Don't ever let me see a son of mine take advantage of others for his own benefit," his father later admonished. "Think about it, Jim." As an adult, Penney admitted that while the epiphany of the melon stand lesson was not immediate, it eventually became a permanent and indelible part of his own way of life:
For a long time I thought he'd been too hard on me. I had meant no wrong. Even though he said that wasn't any excuse, I thought it should be. But what he said, what had happened, soaked in. Without my realizing the full extent for a long time, it soaked in so deep that it became ingrained in my way of doing things. Once again, in his direct, unadorned way, my father had instilled in me a point of honor which, as time went on, revealed itself to me in the form of a foundation stone of human dealing in the business world. Money is important; but the practice of the golden rule in making money — as in every other aspect of human relations — is the most substantial asset of civilized man.
Despite his father's occasional admonitions, Penney enthusiastically continued his agricultural activities on the family farm throughout the remainder of his high school years. In reality, he had made no real plans for any career outside of agriculture and admittedly failed to apply himself in school. After graduation, the farm naturally became his default option for employment. However, the two subsequent years Penney spent on the family farm actually left him feeling cynical about his own agricultural future:
By the time I had finished high school, in 1893, I had managed to save a few hundred dollars; however, not enough to go very far toward purchasing a farm and stocking it. The truth of the matter is this, that although I was but a boy, I had worked enough on my father's farm and observed enough to be convinced that there was little money in farming. In fact, I could see no money in it and then, furthermore, even when I was a boy, I had hope and ambition — and I nursed it along — to become a wealthy man.
Penney's father, despite becoming terminally ill with tuberculosis, likewise concluded that his son's true calling was in a field outside of agriculture. While he had been responsible for terminating some of Penney's most successful agricultural ventures, he had also recognized his son's flair for merchandising and marketing in the process, and he set up a retailing apprenticeship for Penney with John M. Hale, the proprietor of a local department store in Hamilton.
Within days of meeting with John Hale, tuberculosis would quickly bring the life of James Cash Penney Sr. to an early end at the age of fifty-three. Before taking his last breath, however, he lined up each of his surviving children to assess their respective futures without him. Two of Penney's older siblings had already bought their own farms and caused their father no worry. Even though Penney himself had no material prospects at the time, his father was equally at peace with his potential in life. "Jim will make it," he said softly. "I like the way he's started out." As he watched his father die, Penney had no way of knowing that he would open his first department store just seven years later.
From James Cash Penney's first ventures in agribusiness at the age of eight to the first J. C. Penney store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, his evolution from country boy to national merchant was set in motion largely by older mentors who personally took the time to answer his incessant questions about their trade, while providing positive methods and models for him to follow. Penney's first significant mentor in life was clearly his own father, who taught him not only the agrarian trades but core moral values in dealing with the public. John Hale subsequently continued that mentoring role in teaching Penney about customer service, honest merchandise sales, and the department store business. Hale's mentorship would last from the death of Penney's father in 1895 until 1897, when Penney's own risk of tuberculosis forced him to leave northwest Missouri for the drier climate of the American West. In 1898, Thomas Callahan, a chain store merchant out of Longmont, Colorado, essentially picked up where Hale had left off, further exposing Penney to the concepts of chain stores, mass merchandising, and generous employee partnerships based on the Golden Rule. By pairing Penney with Guy Johnson, Callahan's former sales clerk and most successful partner in Evanston, Wyoming, Thomas Callahan likewise positioned another mentor to continue developing Penney into the merchant he would ultimately become. Penney later added that his new wife, Berta, whom he met in Longmont and married in 1900, also played an equally indispensable role in that development:
From the moment I married, I had a real helpmeet. Many a night when she sensed that I wanted to keep on working at the store she packed my supper in a tin pail and brought it to me. Very often she supplied me with hints about how to add service and value from the woman's point of view, and I felt that, whatever position of independence I might grow to in the future, in my wife I had my first and invaluable partner.
In an age of Sears, Roebuck catalogs, mining company mercantiles, and utilitarian general stores, the Golden Rule chain of Thomas Callahan was ahead of its time at the turn of the twentieth century, expanding locations in tiny mining and agricultural communities across the American West. Ronald Kline's Consumers in the Country further lays out the historical conditions in rural America that enabled rural department stores like Callahan's Golden Rule, and ultimately J. C. Penney stores, to rise to prominence around this historical period.
While the modern department store was well in place for most of urban America by 1890, with palaces of consumption such as Macy's and Marshall Field evolving beyond utilitarian stores that simply sold necessities to their customers, emerging agrarian towns in the Midwest and West were still served largely by country or general stores, with limited selection and inventories typically provided through merchandise jobbers. Furthermore, mining companies throughout the West tended to control the entire retail scene for any community adjacent to and dependent on their operations. Tennessee Ernie Ford would woefully croon about these latter retail institutions in his song "Sixteen Tons," depicting miners hopelessly working off credit debt from the merchandise they had bought in "the company store." Credit was freely available in these existing rural stores, a perk over
Callahan's cash-and-carry philosophy, though it certainly came at a cost for rural customers, who were typically subjected to higher prices, poor customer service, and perpetual debt, all for lack of a better shopping alternative.
Callahan's philosophy of retail was essentially selling only quality merchandise on a cash basis with a comparably low merchandise markup of typically just 20 percent. Low markups meant low prices, with profits ultimately generated by the number of times Callahan could turn over his store inventories in a given year. Callahan became a major influence on Penney, not only in merchandising but in his moral opposition to credit sales as both a merchandise buyer and merchandise seller. Penney realized that buying for cash was a way for a merchant to keep prices low for his customers, while selling for cash not only reduced clerical costs but also kept his customers from going into debt.
Excerpted from J.C. Penney by David Delbert Kruger. Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations ix
Introduction: J. C. Penney and Rural America 3
1 Becoming J. C. Penney: From Country Boy to Department Store Magnate 13
2 The Country Road through New York City: A Personal Reunion with American Agriculture 27
3 Emmadine Farm, Foremost Guernseys, and the Golden Rule Purpose 36
4 Penney Farms, Florida: Magnum Opus in Agricultural Philanthropy 57
5 "God Will Take Care of You": James Cash Penney in the Great Depression 83
6 Agricultural Homecoming: Penney's Home Place Farm in Missouri 104
7 Home Place Angus: Penney, a Cowboy, and the Rise of a Cattle Breed 118
8 A Tale of Two Meserveys: Golden Rule Partnerships with the Common Farmer 164
9 Emmadine Farm Comes to Missouri: The Pride and Joy of Penney's Herefords 192
10 The Gift of the Guernseys: Foremost Farm and the University of Missouri 211
11 You Can't Take the Country out of an Old Penney 233
12 Angus Encore and Swan Songs of an Agricultural Life 249
13 J. C. Penney after James Cash Penney 264
14 Living and Dying by the Golden Rule: Lasting Impressions 283