The first Penney’s store changed where America shopped

April 14, 1902

On this day the doors of James Cash Penney’s first store opened in Kemmerer, Wyoming.  It would become the flagship of a retail empire that changed where small town America shopped.

 Starting out as part of the Golden Rule retail chain, Penney added three more locations in just three years.  Less than a decade later the number had jumped to 200 with more than 1,000 employees. (Above, Penney’s first store)

A genius retailer or the poster boy for  “making lemonade out of lemons”  Penney (right) faced a number of challenges.  He battled poor health as a young man and saw his dream of becoming a lawyer scuttled. When his  father, a frugal Baptist minister, died suddenly, he went to work as a clerk in his hometown of Hamilton, Missouri. 

Doctors advised, however, that a change of climate might improve his fragile health.   At 23 he headed for Colorado where his first business, a butcher shop in Longmont, (below) promptly failed.  Largely dependent on the local hotel restaurant, Penney’s Baptist background just wouldn’t allow him to give the restaurant’s chef free liquor in exchange for his patronage.  

From boss back to clerk, he took a job with the small Golden Rule chain.   After just three years he was promoted to a manager’s position at the company’s store in Evanston, Wyoming.   Three years he became a partner in the Golden Rule’s newest location in Kemmerer, tripling his $2,000 investment in the first year.  Three more stores later, Penney bought out his Golden Rule partners and the rest, as they say, is history.

Expanding quickly into Idaho and Utah, Penney took the company nationwide in 1913 and changed the name to JC Penney.  

Always a preacher’s son, Penney financed a number of philanthropic endeavors, including a Florida retirement home for Baptist ministers and a series of public service radio programs offering vocational guidance to the many listeners.   But his good deeds eventually put him in financial peril, using company stock as collateral for bank loans to fund his charities.  The stock market crash of 1929 cost him nearly all of his personal assets.    

While it took years to recover his own fortune, that “lemonade factor” kicked in during the Great Depression.  Penney’s stores not only survived but actually prospered in the ’30s with low prices and serviceable goods.  Their success vaulted Penney into national prominence.  

Despite his business success, Penney continued to suffer personal tragedies.  Widowed twice, his first wife, Berta Hess Penney, (right) died of pneumonia at 35.  Their first child, James, also succumbed to pneumonia at just 19.   His second wife Mary Hortense Kimball died in 1924 at the age 49.  

His third marriage to Caroline Autenrerch (left) lasted 45 years. Supportive of Penney’s business career, she often accompanied her famous husband on his personal appearances. 

An advocate for education, Penney helped found the University of Miami, and began the James C. Penney Foundation  in 1954. 

Still going to the office daily, he died on February 12, 1971, at 96 and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.  Caroline outlived her entrepreneurial husband by 21 years, and carrying on the family’s philanthropy.  

Penney’s penchent for vocational service may have actually helped bring along a strong competitor.  While visiting his store in Des Moines, Iowa, he helped train a new clerk on the proper way to wrap a package.  It was a lesson the young man, Sam Walton, never forgot. (Right, young Sam Walton)  

The Wal-Mart founder kept a copy of Penney’s retail motto, “Serve the public…to its ultimate satisfaction,” above his desk for the rest of his life.   Wal-Mart supplanted JC Penney as the dominant force in retail into the 21st century, now facing its own challenges from online sellers.

The original Kemmerer store today

The original JC Penney in Kemmerer, Wyoming, however, still chugs along, open six days a week, fulfilling that John Cash Penney promise; “serv[ing] the public…to its ultimate satisfaction.”  

The J. C. Penney House, 722 JC Penney Drive, Kemmerer, Wyoming, was the retailer’s home from 1904 to 1909.  Now a museum, it is on the Register of Historic Places. 

Small in size, just 25 feet wide, the well-curated site offers a history of Penney’s years in Wyoming as well as that of the Kemmerer region.  The J.C. Penney House is open 10  to 4:30, Monday through Saturday and 11 to 4 Sunday.   The Kemmerer Penney’s store is open 10 to 6 Monday through Saturday.   For more information call 307-877-3164. 

© Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.