Published August 12th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
HAMILTON, Mo. — Three older men sit in a quiet hallway between a library and a museum, sharing stories about the man they call “Mr. Penney.”
Most people would refer to the man as J.C. or James Cash, but not these three, who grew up in a time where his legacy loomed large over the small Missouri town. “Mr.” is used in place of his iconic first two initials, in a way that seems to be respecting the historic story of the town’s most famous son.
That story is indicative of the American Dream. A farm boy raised in poverty, who started working at the age of 8, and would later create one of the largest retail companies in the world.
Now, nearly 150 years after he was born, The J.C. Penney Company Inc. is bankrupt, and holding on for dear life.
On August 3, Reuters reported that the company’s survival is reliant upon a deal with “retail mavens” and “distressed-debt investors.”
According to Joshua Sussberg, the Kirkland and Ellis LLP lawyer who is representing Penney, the company has not had one conversation with lenders about liquidation, a process that would result in the layoff of over 80,000 employees and the closing of all of their stores.
The company has been losing money for years, and is now facing an awful economic environment for retailers. According to Business Insider, 6,000 retail stores are slated for closure in 2020. Real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield estimated last year, before the pandemic, that there would be 12,000 store closings in 2020. That would top the record high of 9,300 in 2019.
J.C. Penney is expected to close 155 stores in 2020. It’s not the only retailer struggling during the COVID-19 crisis. With the rise of online shopping, and the paranoia of shopping in a store during a pandemic, several retailers like Gap and Macy’s have been forced to close stores.
Even the company’s historic first store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, is scheduled for auction in September, and will likely liquidate and close shortly after.
Penney was born in Hamilton on September 16, 1875. He was named after his father, James Cash Penney Sr., who was a farmer and a devout man. He was also poor, and made his son get to work early. At 8 years old, Penney began selling pigs for his first job.
The younger Penney was not incredibly successful in the agriculture business, so he shifted to working in stores at age 19 with J.M. Hales, where he made $2.97 a month.
In 1897 doctors told Penney they were worried he was being overworked, and at risk of developing tuberculosis. At that time, there were no antibiotics to treat it, so the best way to avoid getting it was moving to a drier climate. So Penny left Hamilton behind and moved to Colorado, where he worked with Guy Johnson and TM Callahan.
In 1902, the two businessmen made Penney a one-third partner, and tapped him to open up his own store in Wyoming. Five years later, Penney bought out his partners’ shares, and became full owner of what would later be known as the J.C. Penney Company.
A little over 20 years later, Penney opened up the 500th Penney store in his hometown of Hamilton. He visited the store, and the town, often. The businessman came back to Hamilton in part to keep in touch with his farm roots.
Harold R. Henry worked for Penney on his farm in Hamilton when he was 15 years old. He worked long enough to eventually buy the farm. His favorite story of Penney is one that still brings tears to his eyes.
“I was almost 16 years old, I worked on the farm all day and it was hotter than a dickins,” Henry said. “I came to the house and my mother was sitting in the living room crying.”
Her tears were the result of a visit from Mr. Penney, Henry recalled.
“The busiest man in the world came and talked to my mother for a few minutes and said: ‘I want you to know I think an awful lot of that boy of yours, Harold. And I tell you, he’s going to amount to something someday.’ That gave me a lot of encouragement,” Henry said.
“Everybody in the community was poor, nobody had anything,” Henry said. “Mr. Penney was raised poor, he understood me better than I did.”
Henry spent a lot of time working on the farm with Penney growing up. They would talk about business, family, the world and things that Henry said Penney would not disclose with other people.
“I was no threat to him, I’m a kid who lives here on his farm,” Henry said. “I’m not going to be around his family, and I’m not going to be around his corporate friends. I’m not in that world. I was in another world. That’s why he felt comfortable talking to me.”
Henry believes that if Penney were still alive, the company would not be in its current financial state.
“They’re broke, and they would have never gotten in that position if Mr. Penney had been alive,” Henry said. “Mr. Penney was always ahead of the curve. If he was still alive, I think they’d be going full blast.”
The current state of the company is sad to see for those who thought so highly of Penney. James Mogg and his family have been in the grocery business for 120 years. He knows how difficult retail can be in the modern world.
“It’s really sad for me to see the Penney company in the shape they are,” Mogg said. “But I also understand it’s the times, and Mr. Penney is dead and can’t oversee the operation. They would never have gotten in this shape because Mr. Penney would have done something. I don’t know what, but I also realize that times are different, and it’s not the world that we grew up in.”
Bob Lund worked for the J.C. Penney company for 37 years. His career with the company took him from Hamilton, to Kansas City, to Plano, Texas, to New York City, and eventually to Chicago.
Penney spoke at Hamilton High School in 1965 when Lund was still in school. Lund later interviewed with the company in 1971, just a couple of months after Penney died of a heart attack at the age of 95. He decided to forgo a Masters in Business Administration degree, and work for the J.C Penney. Company out of school.
Now, 12 years after his retirement, Lund is taking care of the J.C. Penney Museum, as well as his boyhood home.
“Working for J.C. Penney for so many years, I wanted to make sure that the history was never lost,” Lund said.
The museum was built in 1975, after Mogg and Dean Hales got approval from the family. Lund keeps a log of all of the people who visit the museum or the boyhood home. Inside are names of people from all over the world, from Washington to France.
Hamilton is a town of just over 3,250 people, and was established in 1859. The town on U.S. 36 about an hour northeast of Kansas City attracts people from around the world for their quilts. It’s most famous establishment is the Missouri Star Quilting Company.
“I got a call this week from a person that lives in Arkansas, that knew a lot about J.C. Penney and has worked for the company in Arkansas,” Lund said. “You can’t imagine the loyalty that’s out there, and the history that’s out there, from the people that worked in the company.”
The company survived the Great Depression, and now it’s heading into another uncertain economic crisis. With the current financial situation of the company, there is a worry among the three men that a world may exist where there are no more J.C. Penney stores around. Even in that world, they will fight to make sure Mr. Penney is remembered.
“You know, history is history,” Henry said. “Just because the stores close shouldn’t change the history, and the history will be the same. It’s a shame that stores are closing, but that’s also a part of the history. There is a beginning and an end to a lot of things. In fact, most things do end. So that’d be the end of the Penney Company as we know it.”
Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.