Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 551

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 551


This is the grave of James Cash Penney.

Born in 1875 on a farm in Caldwell County, Missouri, Penney grew up in a strict Baptist family, which in this world meant being extremely parsimonious. His father was a Baptist minister and was so strict that he required the boy to pay for all his own clothing by the time he was about 10 years old. He wanted to go to college, but his father died when he was in high school and that made any chance of that impossible. He also had bad health himself. So he moved to Longmont, Colorado and got a job as a clerk in a store called Golden Rule, which was a small western chain. He impressed the company’s owners and in 1902, they gave him a one-third share in a new store they wanted to open if he ran it. That was in Kemmerer, Wyoming, a small town near the Idaho border. He worked with Golden Rule to open two more stores. Then, in 1907, his partners broke with each other. Penney bought out his two partners and his own chain was born.

J.C. Penney expanded rapidly through the Rocky Mountain states. By 1912, there were 34 stores. It was incorporated under that famous name in 1913, when he moved his headquarters to Salt Lake City. Highly ambitious, he took the chain nationwide by the 1920s. By 1929, he had 1,400 stores and had invested heavily in Florida land speculations during the decade when that state became a haven for tourism and retirees for the first time. He had a large home there himself. He helped found the University of Miami and served on its board of trustees between 1926 and 1930. Of course, there’s a reason for mentioning 1929. The Great Depression nearly bankrupted Penney and destroyed his department store chain. He lost most of his money and started borrowing against the store’s insurance to pay his employees. Somehow this worked and the store did not go belly up. But Penney’s health went south, he gave up daily control over the company, and spent some time in a sanitarium. While there, he rediscovered his Christian roots and came out of it as a born-again evangelical, attempting to impart this to his stores, closing them on Sunday. He remained the technical chairman of the board until 1946, but had a relatively minor role in the daily running of the company during those last fifteen years. With his finances now much more stable, he engaged in a good share of rich guy philanthropy. He maintained an office that he showed up at every day until his death in 1971.

Today, J.C. Penney, which I very much remember growing up in the 1980s as a place that had a niche as a low-cost department store catering to working class families, is, like so many other department store changes, winding down the business as brick and mortar stores lose their appeal and profitability.

James Cash Penney is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York. It’s a pretty old-style grave for a guy who died in 1971, but he had two wives die young in an era when this sort of grave was more popular and I assume that at least one of them is buried with him.

If you would like this series to visit more department store founders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Thanks to those who donated to the series on Sunday. I assure you the funds will be used to see some good graves. John Wanamaker is in Philadelphia and Sam Walton is in Bentonville, Arkansas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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