The town of Kemmerer has more than doubled in size since the days when James Cash Penney walked its streets.

The town of Kemmerer has more than doubled in size since the days when James Cash Penney walked its streets.

But the flagship business that launched the Wyoming businessman onto the national retail scene lives on downtown, in a slightly newer building erected in 1929 on the corner of Main Street and JC Penney Drive.

Today, Penney is among a handful of businessmen and women honored in the inaugural class of the newly created Wyoming Business Hall of Fame. His contribution to business extends beyond the state, where his business started as one of a chain of Golden Rule stores in 1902.

How J.C. Penney started

Kemmerer legend has it that Penney came to town on a one-way ticket.

He was 26 and could not afford the train ticket twice, the town's website says, so he made a commitment to opening a business there before he set eyes on the place.

Penney started in Kemmerer an outpost of a larger retail chain called the Golden Rule stores in 1902, built upon his business partners' practice of making large-volume purchases from suppliers to offer quality merchandise at a low price. He borrowed $1,500 from a bank and invested $500 of his own from savings to do so, according to J.C. Penney archives at Southern Methodist University.

"His philosophy of the Golden Rule permeated the company for decades," Bill Schilling, president of the Wyoming Business Alliance and a co-sponsor of the Wyoming Business Hall of Fame, said. "The customer service is a hallmark value to the company."

Penney did business on a cash-only basis, unlike the other company-owned store in town, according to Kemmerer's account of the entrepreneur's story. As such, Penney was able to offer lower prices because he did not absorb the risk a line of credit introduces to a company, said former University of Wyoming Dean of the College of Business Brent Hathaway.

"In the past, often retailers would have fairly high markups and a line of credit for customers," Hathaway said. "[Penney] had a different view."

Penney would rather offer the fair price, Hathaway said, and avoid the markups that overcharged his customers.

Initially a part-owner of the Kemmerer store, Penney bought out his business partners in 1907, when three Golden Rule stores existed in Wyoming. He made partners of several of his business clerks and expanded the company to Utah and Idaho in 1908. He left Kemmerer in 1909.

By the first store's 25th anniversary in 1927, the company's new moniker, "JC Penney," was a household name around America and boasted 892 stores in the country and $151 million in sales. From 1902 to 1958, the company's well-established cash-only merchandising policies did not change, meaning the company had large cash reserves and no long-term debt.

"His philosophy of the Golden Rule permeated the company for decades," Schilling said.

His legacy was not limited to Wyoming, Schilling said.

"The evolution of the big block stores has changed the Walmarts and what have you," he said. "But an awful lot of shopping malls have as their anchor J.C. Penney's."

Hard times

Penney's fortune dwindled during the Great Depression, a little-known era of the man's well-documented life.

He lost about $40 million in the 1930s, said University of Wyoming agricultural research librarian David Kruger. Kruger is writing a book about Penney's life and agricultural interests.

Penney's retail empire had expanded exponentially in the 1920s, Kruger said, from three stores in 1907 to 175 stores in 1917 and 500 stores in 1925. By 1929, the year the stock market crashed with force in late October, Penney owned 1,400 stores across the U.S.

"In the 20s, how could you see that it was ever going to end?" Kruger said.

Penney struggled with depression during that time, Kruger said, and never fully recovered to where his fortune had been before the crash. He bought back his shares in the company, which banks had essentially repurposed after the crash, and when he died in 1971, his estate was worth about $25 million.

Penney never disconnected from Wyoming even after leaving after just a decade in the state. He kept up a subscription to the editors at the Kemmerer Gazette, according to Kruger, and came back to Wyoming on an almost yearly basis from the late 1930s until 1962, when he made his last trip to Wyoming.

One trip, made in late 1933, was especially poignant for Penney, Kruger said. Penney's corporate partners wanted him to personally open a franchise in San Francisco, Calif., but Penney was struggling personally and financially from the shock of the stock market's crash just a few years before.

Penney agreed to open the store, but only on condition that he could tour his original stores in Wyoming first.

"He needed that trip back through Wyoming," Kruger said. "[It] gave him perspective when he was struggling with the problems that he had during the Depression."

Penney's legacy today

Leslie Corbridge is store supervisor at the flagship J.C. Penney store in Kemmerer, where, locals say, tourists still stop to gawk at the humble beginnings of the nation's first transcontinental retailer.

"We get a lot of out-of-town people that are shopping because they are driving by on the road, and they see the sign of the first J.C. Penney store so they stop," Corbridge said. "People just can't believe he started here."

The business has had its bad years, she said, but it's still up and going.

"It depends on what's going on around the community, if the Jonah Field is up and going, if we're really busy," Corbridge said, referring to the Jonah natural gas field in western Wyoming, where Encana Corp. has drilled for natural gas since 1999.

By the time Penney died at age 95 in 1971, his company had grown to 1,660 stores in North America. Penney never sold his house in Kemmerer, Kruger said. He owned it until it was listed on the register of National Historic Places after his death.

The now Texas-based J.C. Penney Company still made Fortune's 500 list in 2013, though it posted a $985 million loss last year and a nearly 25 percent drop in revenues since 2011, according to Fortune's May 2013 rankings.

But the company's $13 billion in revenues in 2013 were exponentially greater than Penney's first year in business, when year-end sales did not quite reach $29,000.

That was enough to turn Penney and his partners an $8,000 profit, however, and prove the Wyoming mine-town store a success.