J.C. Penney left a legacy in his hometown

Besides its friendly people and strong sense of community, Hamilton’s biggest claim to fame was one of the world’s most famous retailers, J.C. Penney.

Besides its friendly people and strong sense of community, Hamilton’s biggest claim to fame was one of the world’s most famous retailers, J.C. Penney.

James Cash Penney was born Sept. 16, 1875, in Hamilton, started his retailing career here and went West. He eventually spread a chain of department stores across the nation along with his competitors and colleagues, Sears Kresge, Woolworth and others.

The values he learned growing up in Hamilton became the foundation of his business and personal life. He never forgot his ties to the hometown, returning often for visits. He helped the community often both financially and by instilling residents with a feeling of pride in their community.

In the past two decades, Hamiltonians have actively sought to preserve Penney’s legacy. The J.C. Penney Memorial Library and Museum was built with donations, many from former penney Co. Managers, and dedicated in 1976. It attracts several hundred visitors from all over the U.S. each year. The basement of the building serves as a community room for meetings and receptions.

In 1988 his boyhood home was saved from razing and moved to the center of Hamilton. It sits on the site of the former railroad depot and has been renovated outside. The Penney House will be refurbished inside and serve as a welcome center for visitors. It will also be the main attraction in a new park.

Penney himself was instrumental in Hamilton’s economic development. As soon as his first employer, J. M. Hale retired, Penney opened the 500th Penney’s store in his hometown. He also bought a house in town, renting all but one room of it to the manager of the store. He kept that room for his frequent visits to Hamilton.

Local residents who knew him recall that on his visits to Hamilton, he’d often work in the store, sweeping the floor, stocking displays and waiting on customers.

He purchased a farm east of town and made it an agricultural showplace during the Depression. The farm was stocked with draft horses and Angus cattle. In 1938 he sponsored a field day at the farm, attracting some 8,000 people to view and judge for themselves the fine blood lines of the animals. This was a forerunner of Hamilton’s judging days, which the local FFA chapter holds each year.

J.C. Penney donated lots of money and time to special Hamilton projects, including the first library, the shoe factory, the high school and even Highland Cemetery.

Penney donated $10,000 to build the public library on the condition that local residents raise $5,000 to purchase the site and furnishings. The building was completed in 1920, the first free public library in the country.

Penney placed lots of importance on a good education. He donated money for building the new Hamilton High School in 1951 and for a junior high addition in 1956. The school was named J.C. Penney High School in his honor.

Penney donated money for an all-weather road to Highland Cemetery. He also contributed to the American Legion Memorial Park, made a gift to the Kidder Institute College Endowment Fund and was a stockholder of the Hamilton Bank when it opened in 1938.

The famous retailer believed Hamilton should have a factory, so he went to officials of the International Shoe Company and told them if they would establish a shoe factory in Hamilton, the Penney Company and told them if they would establish a shoe factory in Hamilton, the Penney Company would purchase the complete output of children’s shoes from it. The first pair of children’s shoes produced in that factory is now on display in the Penney Museum.

To celebrate the many contributions of Penney and to keep his legacy alive in Hamilton, local organizations cooperate to stage J.C. Penney Days every second weekend in June. The celebration features a lecture series on an economic development topic, an event which is always attended by Penney’s nephew, E.R. (Bob) Penney, a generous contributor to Hamilton’s Penney legacy. Bob was instrumental in establishing a Penney trust fund to maintain the museum building.

Talent contests, music, square dancing, a pet parade, flea market and craft show and other events combine to make Penney Days an enjoyable occasion for local and out-of-town visitors alike. The event continues to grow since the first one was held in 1987.

Source: Hamilton, Missouri — Community Guide, August 1990