By Tim Davis.
Reprinted from the North East Texas e-News, January 16, 2008
Photos courtesy of the Degolyer Library/SMU
When trying to make a lesson appeal to students, it helps if I can localize it, i.e. use local examples when possible to make a point. While I and my working students at Bonham High School study the growth of retail corporations in the late 1800s and early 1900s, among the many corporate leaders we look at is J.C. Penney. Why Penney? It allows me to localize inasmuch as Penney opened a store in Bonham, one of the earliest corporate chain stores in the city.
Why the difference in the opening dates, I thought. How could J.C. Penney records be as much as six weeks off? I posed this question to the folks at Degolyer. They stated that the March 1 date was probably a "soft opening" – a quiet, low-keyed affair that allows time to work out kinks or problems prior to a highly-publicized grand opening.
When I saw the address of Fifth and Main streets, I knew that Penney's moved into an existing structure on the west side of the square. With this in mind, I knew that paperwork between Penney's and the owner of the building had to be on file at the courthouse. Sure enough, pages 138-141 of Deed Book #202 contains the lease agreement between Penney's and the building owner, Mr. J.W. Peeler, a noted local businessman and druggist.
The agreement, dated May 22, 1928, states that the building, address 429 Main Street, was occupied at the time by the "Max Hermer ready to wear store." J. C. Penney Co. was expected to pay $175.00 a month rent. A copy of the agreement was also filed in New York City.
The J.C. Penney store continued to operate at 429 Main Street for the next fifty-two years before closing its doors on July 19, 1981.
Not that we glorify Penney or any of the other business leaders we study. On the contrary, we look at warts and all, examining primarily the fact that the corporate giants, often the recipients of many breaks and favors uniquely designed for them yet withheld from local businesses, have caused locally owned retail stores to become largely a thing of the past.
A brief look at the early retail career of James Cash Penney – yes, his middle name really was Cash – shows that he opened his first retail clothing store, then known as the Golden Rule Store, in 1902 in Kemmerer, Wyoming.
From 1902 to 1914 Penney pursued his goal of opening several Golden Rule stores, mainly in the west. Expansion to other parts of the United States soon followed.
By 1914 Penney's company was large enough to justify moving its corporate headquarters to New York City, where most of his suppliers were located.
By 1917 there were roughly 175 Golden Rule stores scattered across the U.S. That year the board of directors decided to change the name of the stores from Golden Rule to J.C. Penney.
The 1920s was the boom decade for the J.C. Penney Company. In 1920 it had roughly 200 stores; by 1930 it had close to 1400. Adding 1200 stores in one decade means opening an average of at least two stores every week. It was an expansion process that would have warmed even the heart of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton who, ironically, once worked as a clerk in a J.C. Penney store.
Even though the stock market crash and the subsequent Great Depression loomed just around the corner, in the late twenties J.C. Penney charged full steam ahead opening more stores, including the one in Bonham. Perhaps he heeded the predictions of those, among them Yale economics professor Irving Fisher, who said that the booming economy of the Roaring Twenties would last. Fisher stated in 1929 that stock prices had reached "what looks like a permanently high plateau," and that there might be "a permanent plateau of prosperity."
When reviewing J.C. Penney's life with my students, I become curious as to exactly when the J.C. Penney store in Bonham opened, and I contact the Penney folks by e-mail with that exact question. For years I have gotten no response. Imagine my surprise this year when I got a very informative reply.
The J.C. Penney papers and archives are now housed at the Degolyer Library at Southern Methodist University, perhaps to be near the J.C. Penney corporate headquarters in Plano.
Joan Gosnell, an official with the Degolyer Library, wrote that the Bonham store appears to have opened on March 1, 1929. Moreover, as if to sweeten the pot, she stated that four pictures of the Bonham store, circa late 1920s to 1930s, were also in the library's files.
With the March 1 date in mind, I immediately went to the early 1929 microfilm roll of the Bonham Daily Favorite at the Bonham Public Library. Surely, I thought, there were ads placed in the paper announcing the upcoming opening of a national chain store.
Imagine my surprise when the late February and early March editions of the Daily Favorite contained nothing in the way of ads or announcements. Assuming that perhaps the March 1 date was a little off, I kept turning the pages of microfilm, all the while getting a headache. Finally I came across an ad in the Thursday, April 18 paper urging Bonhamites to attend the grand opening of the new J.C. Penney store at the corner of Fifth and Main streets on April 19th and 20th, 1929.