Ask an American of a certain age what they think of when they hear the name “J.C. Penney,” and you’ll likely be met with a description of big box stores in dying shopping malls of various cities and suburbs. And yet, this retail giant actually got its start in the remote rural town of Kemmerer, Wyoming, where its “Mother Store” still exists today.
James Cash Penney, Jr. was born outside Hamilton, Missouri, in 1875. After moving west in hopes that the weather would be good for his health, he ended up working for Thomas Callahan and Guy Johnson, who owned the Golden Rule dry goods store chain operating throughout Colorado and Wyoming. In 1902, Callahan and Johnson gave Penney seed money to open a store in Ogden, Utah. Believing that market to be too large, Penney suggested Kemmerer as an alternate location, believing he could leverage relationships he had developed working at the Golden Rule in Evanston. Callahan and Johnson eventually acquiesced, and on April 14, 1902, James Cash Penney’s first store was open. A second store, now known as the “mother store,” was opened in 1904.
James Cash Penney eventually split from the Golden Rule brand, and the chain began operating as the J.C. Penney Company. The company expanded rapidly, becoming a regional chain by the 1910s and a national brand by the 1920s. Weathering the Great Depression, the company rebounded in the 1940s and 1950s, and grew to even greater heights with the opening of its first department store in 1961. Penney eventually ceased management of his namesake company (rebranded as JCPenney), but remained involved until his death in 1971.
By the 2000s, the company had fallen on hard times, and it has frequently been at or over the edge of bankruptcy ever since. However, the mother store remains open, and it contains relics of the original store along with the discounted low-cost apparel and goods that one would expect from a JCPenney. The store operates as would any typical JCPenney store, except for the elaborate pulley system that could be used to transfer cash in tiny buckets.
In 2022, a statue of James Cash Penney was moved from the new corporate headquarters in Texas back to Triangle Park in Kemmerer. A few blocks away, also in the J.C. Penney Historic District, the J.C. Penney Historic Home and Museum is also open to visitors. This modest home tells the story of Jim Penney and his time living in Kemmerer from 1902-1909.
Know Before You Go
The JCPenney store in Kemmerer, Wyoming is a working store and free to visit during business hours. The historic home is also free to visit and usually open daily during the summer.