SF Special: JC Penney’s Roots in Agriculture
In 1971, 3-year-old David Kruger traveled from his home in eastern Montana to Hettinger, North Dakota, for his baby sister’s six-month checkup. For a kid in that part of the country, going to Hettinger was “as significant, if not more so, than going to Disneyland,” he says, because it always included a stop at the JC Penney store.
After visiting other nearby towns with his family, a young Kruger realized the towns all had a few things in common. “Towns had schools, churches, a post office, and a JC Penney,” he says. His fascination with the store grew, and he wrote a letter to the JC Penney headquarters in New York City. Later, he received a package containing two books and information on the different careers available with JC Penney. That planted the seed of Kruger’s childhood dream of managing a local JC Penney store. “The stores were rural trade centers and really succeeded in ways no other store ever had,” he says.
By the time Kruger graduated from high school in 1986, many of the small-town stores in his area had closed. With his dream out of reach, Kruger went on to become an academic librarian, but his interest in JC Penney only grew. “The more I studied him as a person, the more interested I became in his agricultural background,” he says. "Almost no one knew about that aspect of his life.” (Photo top right: JC Penney poses with Foremost Valor on October 1, 1930. Purchased by Princess Mary, this was the first American-born Guernsey bull to be taken to England to sire herds there. Photo credit: Courtesy, James Cash Penney papers, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.)
Kruger set out to tell the story of Penney’s farm background through a series of articles, but once he got started, he realized he had enough material for a book. J.C. Penney: The Man, The Store, and American Agriculture was published this year and is available on Amazon.
When Kruger began writing his book, he spent a month going through Penney’s farming papers in the archives of Southern Methodist University. “I thought it would just be financial records, but I was able to read correspondence between Penney and his farming partners,” Kruger says. “Some of their descendants still run those farms.” Kruger was able to meet some of those farmers on a trip to Penney’s birthplace in Hamilton, Missouri, which is now owned by Penney’s friend, Harold Henry.
Digging Down to Penney's Roots
In 1902, a young James Cash Penney and two partners opened a dry goods store in Kemmerer, Wyoming. Because they believed in treating customers the way they’d want to be treated, they called the store Golden Rule. Over the next couple of years, two more stores were opened in other Wyoming towns. The business continued to grow, and by the time it was renamed the JC Penney Stores Company and incorporated in 1913, it included 34 stores throughout the West. The following year, the company’s headquarters was moved to New York City.
By 1916, Penney’s first wife had passed away, and he realized he had spent the bulk of his life being extremely focused on his 170 stores. He was in terrible physical shape, and a doctor told him he had to change his way of life. He was living near Central Park, so he bought some horses and started riding there every morning. Penney turned the day-to-day store business over to an associate and stayed on as chairman of the board. “He was a workaholic and wanted a better life,” Kruger says.
This change led to Penney’s purchase of Whitehaven, an 80-acre farm in upstate New York, where he began raising livestock. Kruger says Whitehaven had a "romantic, agrarian feeling.”
In his new role with the company, Penney traveled throughout the Midwest visiting his stores, talking to many farmers and ranchers along the way. He saw problems in agriculture and wanted to fix them. “He saw farms focusing on one crop and pushed for diversification,” Kruger says. “Penney was also big into conservation. He practiced sound land management, and after the Great Depression, he even bought bulldozers to construct terracing and limit erosion.”
While touring, Penney noticed his stores in Wisconsin were doing better than other locations, so he encouraged farmers around the country to get into dairy. Even within the comparatively successful dairy industry, though, Penney aimed to improve operations. “He saw problems in the condition of dairy cows,” Kruger says. “He wanted to breed Guernseys and up-build the entire breed to have nationwide impact.” Penney hired an expert to do line breeding, and traveled to the Guernsey Isle to learn more about the breed.
Penney decided the show circuit was the best place to promote better breeding, and he received many awards for his cattle in the 1920s. In fact, Princess Mary bought one of Penney's Guernseys and took it back to England to sire herds there. This was the first example of an American-born Guernsey being taken to England for breeding. Another of his cows accompanied Admiral Richard Byrd and crew to the South Pole and back.
Because Penney wanted his breeding advancements to benefit the common farmer, he endowed his Guernsey herd to the University of Missouri so it would continue long after his death.
Fortunes Lost and Gained
In an unfortunate turn of events, the JC Penney Company went public six days before the stock market crash of 1929. By 1931, Penney had lost everything and suffered a severe nervous breakdown. He spent some time recovering in the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, where he had a religious experience and realized there were better things he could still do with his life, Kruger says.
In 1933, Penney came to Iowa to visit several JC Penney stores. “It was therapeutic,” Kruger says. He visited 33 stores across the state by himself, going from town to town via train, or by hitching a ride. He gave motivational talks in the stores, and stayed in the homes of the store managers.
Penney also made trips to the Dakotas, including to the store Kruger would later visit in Hettinger. He held store meetings and would wait on customers himself. He talked to them about agricultural problems, took notes, and worked on solutions. “Penney’s message was, 'Opportunities are better now for rural America than ever before,’” Kruger says.
To honor his father, Penney purchased his family’s home farm in Hamilton, Missouri, which had become run down. He began modernizing the farm, embracing science and technology and installing grain bins and indoor plumbing. This became the base of his Angus cattle operation.
Penney then bought additional land and started a Percheron horse farm, where he bred better draft horses for farming and offered his quality studs to local farmers for breeding. Penney saw horses as the future of farming; he didn't believe tractors would take over. “He paid dearly for that,” Kruger says.
A New Era
In 1937, as the Great Depression was nearing an end, Penney bought several production farms in northwest Missouri when he had cash available, including a 1,000-acre farm. “He saw the future was in larger operations,” Kruger says. “He was progressive-minded.”
Penney ran his farms with the help of tenant farm managers. Penney paid for needed upgrades to the farms, the farmers provided labor, and they split input costs and profits. “I think he got an incredible thrill from being connected to the farmers like that,” Kruger says. “He would read Successful Farming magazine and extension bulletins, and send clippings to his farm managers.”
While there were no lawyers or contracts involved in these relationships, Penney held his managers to a high standard. They were expected to provide accurate accounting for their inputs, for example, and there was a strict no-alcohol policy. “When one farmer couldn’t reconcile his books, Penney liquidated the farm,” Kruger says. In another case, Penney sold a farm because its manager provided alcohol during a livestock sale. “He wasn’t willing to compromise his values, even if the business was lucrative,” Kruger says.
In 1938, Penney hosted an agricultural field day attended by 5,000 people, including experts from Iowa State University and the University of Missouri. A few days later, future president Harry S. Truman (then a senator) came to the farm and was given a tour by Penney.
More Ups and Downs
After 1941, Penney’s horse farm increasingly lost money, thanks to World War II’s effect on the labor force and the growing success of tractors on other farms. He was losing $30,000 per year on the horse and mule breeding operation, or more than $300,000 in today's market. By 1946, his entire horse farm had to be liquidated. "My aim in life is not to pile up a lot of money and be known as a wealthy man,” Penney said that year, “but to do the best possible job I can in agriculture and livestock, for the benefit of my fellow man.”
Penney may have been down again, but he wasn’t out. In 1947, he bought an Angus bull for $30,000, and used it to build his new Angus herd. This venture was very successful, and his customer list eventually included Al Gore Sr., actor Fred McMurray, and future President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The following year, Penney bought a farm east of his home place, which came with a herd of Herefords. He hired an expert from Texas to come in and manage it. His herd became a well-known example of Hereford line breeding, but dwarfism came into play beginning in 1952 and had a negative impact on the operation.
By 1954, a nearly 80-year-old Penney was married to his third wife, a New York City native, and had grown tired of overseeing his agricultural operations out in Missouri. He dispersed the Hereford farm and had an awful sale, losing at least $200,000 from the purchase price. To top it off, Penney wasn’t able to attend the sale in person since he was suffering from pneumonia.
This wouldn’t be the end of Penney’s association with Herefords. He kept several no-sale cows from his dispersal and started quietly breeding polled Herefords. He didn’t even tell his wife. The herd grew to around 140 head, and he sold them when he was 83. “This time, it was a respectable sale,” Kruger says.
His Greatest Reward
Penney earned the respect of the cattle industry, and it was shown to him in a very special way in 1960. Penney, in his mid-80s, was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for a store opening. He asked the store manager to drive him to the Wisconsin State Fair, which was going on at the time, so he could check out the cattle. Angus were being shown on one side of the ring, and Herefords on the other. The announcer introduced Penney to the crowd, and both sides of the arena stopped showing and gave him a standing ovation.
Two years later, Penney decided to return to the cattle business at the age of 87, overseeing yet another Angus breeding operation in New York state until his death in 1971.
“In the 95 years that James Cash Penney walked this earth, he ultimately accomplished far more than masterminding a transcontinental department store chain. Aside from his notable influence on American retail, Penney intensively involved himself in American agriculture from 1919 until his death,” Kruger writes in his book. “Throughout his long and epic life, J.C. Penney found ways to make meaningful contributions to improving agriculture and the lives of rural Americans.”