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LONGMONT -- James Cash Penney, like a lot of folks in the 1800s, was advised to go West to improve his health. And, like some of the more fortunate folks of his time, the Missouri native founded an empire and struck fortune in the dusty streets of the American frontier. For Penney, it all started for him in Longmont.
Though his first venture on his own went -- in the words of a J.C. Penney historian -- "kaput" soon after it launched, that was less a mark of his shortcomings as a businessman than it was an upbringing that refused to allow him to cut corners to get ahead. After the initial stumble, he did what anyone who was ever a success at anything does -- he dusted himself off and got back to business.
The company that today sits at No. 215 on the Fortune 500 list was founded by a retail genius who, it could be argued, achieved that status with his keen ability to learn from others, notably one T.M. Callahan, who owned a store in downtown Longmont called The Golden Rule Dry Goods Co.
'Where it all started'
When Penney first stepped off the train from Missouri, he soon found employment at the J. Joslins Dry Goods Store in Denver. But he longed to own his own business, so when he caught word of a butcher shop in Longmont for sale, he took his life savings of $300 and -- despite no meat cutting experience --bought the Longmont Meat Market and Bakery at 331 Main St.
"We carry a full line of fresh and salt meats, and only the best," read a newspaper ad for the business. "We now have a baker of long experience, and who is thoroughly competent. Give us a trial when needing anything in our line."
One of his earliest customers was Longmont's biggest and swankiest hotel, the Zweck Hotel -- today called the Imperial, at Third Avenue and Main.
James Cash Penney opened his first retail establishment, a meat market, at 331 Main St. in Longmont in either late 1897 or early 1898. He is pictured here, second from right, and to his left is Berta Hess of Longmont, the future Mrs. Penney. A historian at J.C. Penney headquarters in Dallas noted that by Christmas of 1898, the meat market was "kaput." ( Picasa )
Author Billy Boyle quoted J.C. Penney directly in a piece Boyle wrote in 1967 for the St. Vrain Valley Historical Society. Penney described what quickly happened with his largest client.
"'Longmont's leading hotel was my best customer. I was told that the hotel's chef expected a bottle of bourbon each week, and if it was not forthcoming, he would patronize my competition. I wanted so much to be a success that I bought him a bottle the first week.
"Shortly thereafter, I had a strange feeling and asked myself how my father would feel about my using whiskey as a bribe to gain business. It was so contrary to the moral and ethical principles I heard from my parents that I resolved never again to accede to the chef's wishes. As a result, I lost both the hotel business and in turn my own butcher shop.'"
The meat market closed in a matter of months. But he learned three things from that experience, he later wrote: never compromise, never resort to expediency and never "go into anything I don't know anything about."
It wasn't long after that Penney found himself working at T.M. Callahan's Golden Rule store at 372 Main St. Callahan, an upright businessman himself, was impressed by the work ethic of the young Penney. In 1899 he sent Penney to work with Callahan's business partner, Guy Johnson, at another Golden Rule store the pair they owned in Evanston, Wyo. Johnson was equally impressed with the hard working young man.
That same year, Penney married Longmont's own Berta Hess, whom he had met upon moving here.
In 1902, Callahan and Johnson offered Penney a partnership in a store they were opening in Kemmerer, Wyo. In 1907, Penney bought the Kemmerer store and two others from his partners for $30,000. He was now officially in business for himself. And to say his chain of stores took off would be an understatement.
The Golden Rule stores that Penney owned became J.C. Penney stores. By the time he arrived back in Longmont to open a dry goods store, in 1917, it was his 169th store. That store was on the north side of the Imperial Hotel, at 315 Main, but the store bounced around to several downtown locations over the years before moving to the Twin Peaks Mall and, finally, to the former ShopKo building on Hover Street, where it is today.
An 'original entrepreneur'
Jean Flanagan started with Penney's in 1975, when it was at 460 Main. She just retired in April.
"Kemmerer, Wyoming, professes to have the mother store, but we have the birthplace," said Flanagan. "This is where it all started."
Flanagan has two scrapbooks of J.C. Penney material that her son, Scott, put together several years ago as a college project. He had grown up with his mom working at Penney's, and when he found out that Penney's retail origins were in Longmont, he wanted to find out more of the history for himself. One of the items he uncovered was a copy of the receipts of Penney's very first day in business in the Kemmerer store -- the figures written in Penney's self-devised code, so he could keep the numbers to himself.
Honoring Penney's history in Longmont is one of the goals of the second annual "Longmont Then and Now" event on Sunday, July 28, sponsored by the Longmont Downtown Development Authority.
Last year, the inaugural Then and Now celebrated the 100-year history of Longmont Power & Communications, the city-owned electrical utility.
This year, the LDDA is giving out four awards: a Legacy award to J.C. Penney; a Then award to the Thompson House Inn; a Now award to Martini's Bistro; and a Longstanding Contributor award to the ColoRODans.
"We really look at J.C. Penney as one of Longmont's original entrepreneurs," said Kimberlee McKee, executive director of the LDDA. "He thought he was going to have one business, and when that didn't go the way he wanted he didn't throw in the towel. He went to T.M. Callahan and learned the trade."
Penney died in February 1971 at the age of 95.
"I'll tell you another story -- I'm not sure if this is true," Flanagan said. "If Mr. Penney was thinking about hiring you as a store manager or something like that, he would take you out to dinner. And if you put salt on your meal without tasting it first, you were not hired, because you were making assumptions."
McKee credits Dori Spence and her Arts & Entertainment District subcommittee for coming up with the idea for the Longmont Then and Now series. Spence is an amateur historian now, but when she was working with the performance group Up With People many years ago, she had a chance to meet Penney in person while touring in the northeast in the late 1960s. Even though she had graduated from Longmont High she knew nothing of Penney's ties to Longmont.
"I met him when I was traveling with Up With People; I was at a conference," Spence said. "I was a hostess, and he said, 'Where are you from young lady?' I said, 'A small town north of Denver, but you wouldn't know it.' And he said, 'It wouldn't be Longmont would it?' "He said, 'It's a beautiful little town. I haven't been back for a while but I consider myself a Longmont boy.'"
In his book, "The Golden Rule," Penney wrote: "I have often been credited with originating the dry goods chain store. The fact is that Callahan and Johnson both had the basic idea before me."
Longmont holds dear to its heart the legacy of T.M. Callahan. The beautifully restored Callahan House, which he bought in 1896, is a gem of a spot for gatherings and special events. But you don't hear much about the legacy of J.C. Penney, part of the reason why the LDDA chose to honor him posthumously next week.
There is a plaque that hangs on 331 Main, site of his meat market, but it's faded and weatherworn, and doesn't do much to tell the story.
Plans are to replace that plaque soon, McKee said, with one that is much more informative and attractive.
"I think Longmont needs to say more about it," Flanagan said of the city's ties to the founder of the retail chain. "The Golden Rule store actually started in Longmont, and you've got the T.M. Callahan house (near) Third and Main, that beautiful house. I don't think people realize how important T.M. Callahan was to the J.C. Penney story."
Added Erik Mason, curator of research at the Longmont Museum, "He learns the trade here, he learns it from T.M. Callahan. That's the part I think Longmont could do a better job of promoting."
Next Sunday's event, he said, is a step in the right direction.
Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-684-5291 or at email@example.com.