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J.C. Penney: The Man, The Store and American Agriculture

By David Delbert Kruger

2017 / University of Oklahoma Press / 351 pages

$29.95

In thousands of High Plains communities from the 1920s to early 2000s, a J.C. Penney department store was as common as Main Street itself. Yet, while J.C. Penney shoppers were buying Big Mac overalls, Plain Pockets jeans and Towncraft shirts, few of them knew about the merchant’s other passion—agriculture.

Many biographies of J.C. Penney have been written, but none have focused so thoroughly on the retail magnate’s many agricultural pursuits as “J.C. Penney: The Man, The Store and American Agriculture.” Author David Delbert Kruger’s thorough research paints an impressive picture of Penney’s extraordinary efforts to improve the lot of animal agriculturists.

James Cash Penney was born on a farm near Hamilton, Missouri, in 1875.

His college-educated father farmed and served as a Baptist minister in town on Sundays. The farm’s meager income was vital to the Penney family, as Baptist clergies did not pay their ministers. 

For young J.C. Penney, Saturdays, holidays and summers were spent on the farm to not only engage in agricultural pursuits, but to spend time with his father. Kruger writes that Penney recalled, as an old man, “childhood memories of walking hand in hand with his father…conversations invariably mixing agriculture and Christian morality, as well as a Protestant work ethic strongly rooted in honesty, self-reliance, thrift and doing right by others.” 

Penney developed a tremendous work ethic as a youth, but his own health suffered after his father’s death at a young age. Despite a desire to attend college, he was compelled to support his family and found work locally at a retail store. At a doctor’s advice, he eventually moved to Colorado where he became employed at a dry goods store called “The Golden Rule.” As the name suggests, proprietors treated every customer with honesty, respect and dignity. Penney impressed store owners Thomas Callahan and Guy Johnson enough that they allowed him to open his own store in Evanston, Wyoming. By 1907, the Golden Rule ownership dissolved their partnership and Penney acquired all three Golden Rule stores. Thus, the J.C. Penney franchise was born.

 

Launching an icon

Penney opened stores in rural communities at a time when much of the population was employed on the farm. Stores promised good quality clothing and supplies, at affordable prices. Treated with the honesty and respect that Penney preached to every employee, customers responded. By 1928, J.C. Penney had 1,000 stores throughout the nation, with sales totaling $190 million (equivalent to more than $2 billion today).  

Kruger’s book focuses almost solely on Penney’s agricultural interests. After establishing J.C. Penney corporate headquarters in New York City—and living in an apartment for a few years thereafter—a restless Penney found acreage north of the city on which he tended to a plethora of horses, cattle, sheep, poultry and Berkshire hogs. It was his first involvement in agriculture in more than a decade, and “…brought Penney considerable pleasure and nostalgic memories of his rural childhood,” Kruger writes.

Penney recognized that his store customers made a living off the land. The productivity of dairy cattle in rural America, for instance, was much lower than dairy cows in Europe. In 1921, he began buying the best Guernsey sires and dams from around the world, bringing them to his Emmadine Farm in New York. From 1927 to the farm’s dispersal in 1953, Penney eagerly shared his knowledge with other dairy farmers, and sold progeny from his Foremost Guernsey herd in an effort to boost profits of the people who were his primary store customers.

Building the herds

Kruger pays close attention to Penney’s foray into Angus and Hereford breed development. He invested heavily in farmland in his native Missouri, specifically attempting to buy back the land his father had once owned. On this property, he replicated his investment in the dairy industry by buying some of the top Angus, equine and mule genetics in the world. His first Field Day to showcase this high-quality stock was in 1938; subsequent events were attended by thousands of farmers. He duplicated the effort with Hereford genetics, too. It is hard to estimate how many farmers Penney reached in his years of agriculture, but his goal of improving genetics and the prosperity of his customers never wavered. 

Penney’s efforts were not always successful. Despite the retailer’s good intentions, he had his share of critics. He invested heavily in an agricultural community in Florida, essentially losing millions of dollars in the process. During the Great Depression, Penney lost an estimated $40 million of personal wealth (although that was quickly rebuilt). And Penney also had his share of personal tragedy. His first two wives died at a young age; two of his sons became alcoholics. He married a third time to Caroline and she outlived Penney, who died in 1971 at age 95 from complications of a broken hip.

Kudos to author Kruger on his meticulous research and writing. You won’t gain a great deal of insight into Penney’s retail history, but other books have covered that material.  J.C. Penney: The Man, The Store and American Agriculture focuses on how his efforts improved American agriculture. It does that superbly.

Bill Spiegel can be reached at bspiegel@hpj.com or 785-587-7796.

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