Longmont has a rich history in agriculture, but many don’t realize that retail legend James Cash “J.C.” Penney got his start as a small business owner on Main Street in downtown Longmont.
James Cash “J.C.” Penney came to Denver in 1897, leaving his hometown of Hamilton, Missouri on his doctor’s advice to take advantage of the dry air. Missing the small-town charm of Hamilton, he shortly made his way north to Longmont.
When Penney arrived in Longmont, he took his life savings of $300 and bought part ownership in a butcher shop located at 331 Main Street (currently Love's Bakery). In 1898, he purchased his partner’s half of the business, and changed the name to the James C. Penney Meat Market. The market’s biggest customer was Longmont’s fanciest hotel, the Zweck Hotel, today referred to as the Imperial Hotel, located at 301 Main Street. The cook would buy all his meat from Penney’s market as long as he got his “tip” each week – a bottle of bourbon. Penney delivered one bottle and refused to deliver anymore, so the hotel took their business elsewhere, and Penney’s meat market closed within the year.
J.C. Penney’s meat market in downtown Longmont, 1898.
In December 1898, Penney went to work for Tom Callahan at his dry goods store, The Golden Rule, located at 372 Main St. (currently Instant Imprints). Penney worked hard, and Callahan took notice offering him one-third interest in a new store opening in Evanston, Wyoming. So in 1899, Penney married Longmont resident Berta Hess, and began working at the Wyoming store.
In 1902, Callahan and his partner Guy Johnson, offered Penney a partnership in a store they were opening in Kemmerer, Wyoming. Penney accepted, and in 1907 he officially bought the Kemmerer store and two others (Rock Springs and Cumberland, Wyoming) from Callahan and Johnson for $30,000. He changed the name of the stores to JCPenney, a chain of dry goods stores that became very successful.
Penney made his way back to Longmont in 1917 when he opened his 169th store at 315 Main Street (the store bounced around many downtown locations including 460 and 434 Main St.) The store remained in downtown Longmont until 1985 when it moved to the Twin Peaks Mall (which closed in 2014) and had relocated to 955 South Hover Street. That location closed in June 2017. Penney resigned as president of his company in 1917, but he remained an active member of the board of directors until he died in 1971 at the age of 95.
Penney was determined and hard-working, and he made a name for himself by being ethical and honest. When asked about his first business, he would often say, “Thank God I failed as a butcher…” Today, JCPenney has 875 store locations and 2016 sales were over $12.6 billion, landing the company at #221 on the Fortune 500 list for 2017.
“I do not believe in excuses. I believe in hard work as the prime solvent for life’s problems.” –James Cash Penney