Southwest Wyoming is desolate country—wide, windswept, and sparsely populated. Not many towns on Highway 189 to slow you down. Meaning that you tend to pay attention when you come to one. Especially if its name rings a bell somewhere in the deep recesses of your mind.
It was July, 2011. My travel buddies and I were headed from Salt Lake City to Yellowstone National Park and had just entered the city limits of Kemmerer (population 2468). Why did that name sound so hauntingly familiar? I’d
never been to Wyoming before. Was I perhaps thinking of Mount Cammerer in the Smokies? Or of Kemmer’s General Store in Grassy Cove?
No. I was positive that I knew something significant about Kemmerer, Wyoming.
I soon discovered what it was. As we meandered through town I spotted what I didn’t even know I was looking for. J C. Penney Store Number One, affectionately known as “The Mother Store.”
“Park the car!” I said. “I have to go in.”
Twenty-seven-year-old James Cash Penney arrived in the sheep ranching and coal mining community of Kemmerer in 1902 to open a one-room general merchandise store known as The Golden Rule. He converted the wooden packing crates his dry goods arrived in to counters and shelves and moved his small family into the attic above the store. They hauled water to their humble abode from a Chinese restaurant down the street.
Unlike the competing Kemmerer Coal company store, Penney operated his business on a strict cash-and-carry basis. No scrip. No charge accounts. No deliveries. Just excellent service and quality merchandise at a fair price.
The public responded with enthusiasm. So much enthusiasm, in fact, that Penney began opening the store at seven o’clock in the morning, except for
Sundays, when he opened at nine. Closing time was whenever the last potential customer no longer walked the dusty streets of Kemmerer.
In 1907, Penney bought out his two partners and began to expand his business.
By 1913, with 34 stores in operation, he incorporated and changed the company’s name to J. C. Penney.
I know this partly because I recently pulled out and re-read my faded-and-falling-apart paperback copy of “Main Street Merchant,” written by Norman Beasley and published in 1948. It tells, in sometimes excruciating detail, the J.C. Penney story.
But mostly I know these things because I cut my teeth on them. My father, Rayburn Moore, worked for Penney’s for almost thirty years and loved to
tell the Penney story. He managed stores in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, where he opened the Penney store in Nashville’s 100 Oaks mall in 1967. He also worked as a buyer in their New York City office in the early 1960s.
Daddy was exactly what Mr. Penney had always looked for in a manager.
Enthusiastic. Fair. Friendly. Frugal. Hard-working. Honest. Industrious.
Innovative. Intelligent. Not to mention clean and tidy.
It was one of the thrills of his life—and mine, too—to meet ninety-year-old J.C. Penney himself when he visited our store in Augusta, Georgia in 1965. One of the many memories that came flooding back when I stepped into the Mother Store in Kemmerer last summer. It was all I could do not to flip open my cell phone and dial my parents’ number. “Daddy,” I would say when he answered. “You’ll never in a million years guess where I am.”
I didn’t, of course. My parents are both dead and gone, Daddy since way back in 1998. So here’s some unsolicited advice on Father’s Day. If your father is still living, go see him today. If you can’t, at least give him a call.
I wish I could call mine.
(June 17, 2012)