The J. C. Penney Library and Museum

The Missouri Transportation Department has designated US Route 36 as the "The Way of American Genius." Notable innovations and innovators along the route include Samuel Clemens, Walt Disney, General John "Blackjack" Pershing, sliced bread, the Pony Express, and Hamilton's James Cash Penney.

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.

Click on photos to see a closer view...

The library and museum in Hamilton would not exist if it were not for the vision and drive of a few individuals who understood that being the birthplace of J.C. Penney was something special and deserved recognition as a place in American history. Bob Penney, J.C. Penney's nephew, recognized two Hamiltonians as the leaders in the effort. Bob Penney said of Dean Hales and Marion Ridings for the part they played in the museum project, "If it hadn't been for their insistence, this museum would never have happened." The two championed the idea for the project at various times before it was finally accepted by J.C. Penney (the company) and the Penney family. At first, Bob said he wasn't very excited, but their enthusiasm was contagious. "Hamilton owes a debt of gratitude to Marion and Dean."

The story starts before J.C. Penney's death. In 1969, Jim Mogg and Dean Hales wrote to J.C. Penney in New York offering him the use of a vacant lot owned by them in Hamilton for a memorial or museum. Penney's reply was a courteous denial, saying he didn't want any memorial built in his lifetime.


Dean Hales and Jim Mogg with Penney Cadillac
Click on photo to see a closer view...

But five years after James Cash Penney died in 1971, a memorial to him was opened in his home town. Those five years between his death and the construction of the museum were somewhat of a struggle for the originators of the idea. Dean Hales, Marion Ridings, and P. A. Frederickson attended the funeral of J.C. Penney in New York and mentioned the idea of a museum to company officials. They also approached Bob Penney, without results. According to Dean, "We let it ride for awhile." But it seemed like everyone else was doing something, including the town of Kemmerer, Wyoming, where Penney opened his first store in 1902.

Finally Dean called Miss E. Virginia Mowry, former executive secretary to J.C. Penney, and told her they'd like to build a $40,000 museum in honor of Mr. Penney. He told her the town of Hamilton would raise half of the money and wondered about the possibility of the Penney Company raising the other half. Miss Mowry arranged for Deal Hales and Marion Ridings to come to New York in April of 1974 to present their proposal. Before leaving Hamilton, they raised $20,000. A total of $6,000 was contributed by the Hamilton Development Corporation, with the remaining $15,000 donated by friends of J.C. Penney living in the area.

The trip to New York proved fruitful. The Penney Company and Mrs. J.C. Penney promised to help with the project and to work with them on preparation of the museum displays.

When the company and Mrs. Penney expressed interest, Bob Penney began to feel more enthusiasm about the project. But one thing bothered him. On a recent visit to a museum on a college campus, Bob was dismayed by the condition of the displays and by the fact that apparently no one visited the museum. He expressed this concern in a conversation with his brother, R. E. Penney of Modesto, California. His brother suggested moving the library from its old building to the museum to insure that people would always be visiting the building. Bob liked the idea and began writing to friends and associates all over the country soliciting donations for the project. His efforts were guided by the thoughts, "the more money we can raise, the nicer we’ll make it."

One weekend, Bob Penney attended funerals in Hamilton and Gallatin. It was at the traditional family dinner in the church basement that he got the idea of putting a community room in the museum. The room could be used by community organizations and individuals, insuring that the library museum would be visited frequently.

In June of 1975, an architect was employed and a building site prepared for the J.C. Penney Museum and Library. The general contract for the construction was awarded in July to the Richardson Construction Company and excavation began in September.


(Click on image for a closer view.)

The museum and library was dedicated seven months later.

(Click on images for a closer view.)
Hy-Klas Food & Family Center
Dedication Advertisement
Dedication Announcement Sunday, April 11, 1976
James Cash Penney Day in Missouri

Many people contributed funds to the project, including Mrs. J.C. Penney, the Penney Foundation, and the Penney Company, with each contributing $25,000. Honor, Confidence, Service, Cooperation, a club for retired management personnel, donated $15,000. Other contributors were Mrs. Letha Penney Ott (sister of J.C. Penney) $20,000, Mrs. Bert Nicol $7,500, and the many friends and former associates of J.C. Penney, as well as many local people.

In 1988, his boyhood home (left) 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. (Click on photo for a closer view.)

Many thanks to The Caldwell County News for the use of its archives.

 

 

 

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312 North Davis St., Hamilton, MO 
Phone: 816-583-2168
Hours:
Monday, Wednesday, Friday 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.
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