One of the first chain stores to open in Laramie was the 1915 “ Golden Rule” store. Operated by James Cash Penney, the chain had begun in 1902 with the “mother store” in Kemmerer, Wyoming.
Expansion was rapid--Laramie’s was the 75th store to open as part of the retail tycoon’s nationwide presence. Four years later, by 1919, there were four Wyoming stores—Kemmerer, Laramie, Cokeville, and Rawlins. The total number of US stores had more than doubled to 197.
UW’s David D. Kruger has just written a book on J.C. Penney and the Penney corporation. Kruger credits Penney’s senior partner, Earl Corder Sams, with the decision to expand J.C. Penney into a nationwide chain.
“Sams was also behind the 1914 decision to re-brand Penney’s ‘Golden Rule’ stores,” writes Kruger, who says Penney himself was opposed to using his own name. Kruger adds: “Penney put the matter to vote and was obviously outvoted by Sams and every one of his store managers. Sams and Penney, however, remained a harmonious leadership team, essentially overseeing the J.C. Penney Company together from 1917 (when Penney turned over the company presidency to Sams) until Sams’s death in 1950.” Penney, long-time board chairman, died at age 95 in 1971.
J.C. Penney himself came to Laramie a few days after the grand opening of the local store in 1915. Heavy advertising in the Laramie papers in the days leading up to it generated curious crowds. The store was at 214 S. 2nd St. (current location of the Herb House).
Penney’s business model emphasized cash-only sales. “At the Golden Rule everyone is treated alike,” store ads proclaimed. There was also a policy of no special sales—“everyday is bargain day at the Golden Rule” was its advertised guarantee, with return privileges if the customer wasn’t satisfied. Penney also originated the “cash and carry” concept (no free deliveries) that prevailed in the years before the post-WWII suburban boom.
Penney had actually begun in the retail trade by working for two men who owned a few “Golden Rule” stores in Colorado and Wyoming. Penney began in their Evanston, Wyoming store in 1899. In 1902 he was sent to open a new store in Kemmerer. By 1907 J.C. Penney became sole owner of all the Golden Rule stores when his former partners dissolved their company.
The retail chain expanded but retained a commitment to small-town rural America. Even in sparsely populated Wyoming there were 27 stores at one time, “from Evanston to Edgerton,” writes Kruger.
The “Golden Rule” name was apparently not trademarked however, and there were other stores (including one in Laramie) that operated under that name with no connection to the Penney corporation. That led to the decision mentioned above to drop the “Golden Rule” name. A May 1918 ad in the Laramie Republican assured the public that it was “still abiding by the ‘square deal’ policy, but other stores imitating the Golden Role name have caused this name change in advertising.”
In 1917, the J.C. Penney store was one of 24 Laramie retail stores that signed a full page ad in the Laramie Republican urging everyone to purchase Second Liberty Loan Bonds as a means of financing US involvement in the war. The ad reminded the public that these loans to the government would be repaid with interest, far preferable than a tax to finance the war that would provide no return or interest. They also vowed to exchange bonds for merchandise at any time.
In 1928, in need of more space, the store moved a few doors down the street to 218 S. 2nd St., and then expanded to include 220 S. 2nd (Cross Country Connection today) by 1934. After the Holiday fire of 1948 leveled the 400 block of 2nd St., the Penney store opened as the first occupant of a new building in that block on the east side, between Garfield and Custer Streets, where it remained nearly 50 years until moving into a portion of the vacated ALCO discount store at 3322 E. Grand Ave. (Murdoch’s today) in October 1992. That was short-lived however; the store closed in April 2001.
So what happened to the retail giant that had over 2,000 stores in its heyday? In his book, Kruger points out: “with the closing of the Sheridan store in July 2017, only three stores are now left statewide, and the company continues to struggle with competition from online retailers such as Amazon.com. In 2013, the company actually posted a $1 billion LOSS, but is slowly recovering with innovative leadership from former Home Depot executive Marvin Ellison.”
The Penney store on 2nd St. was a favorite spot for me to shop. In the basement were scouting uniforms, fabrics by the yard, household linens and luggage while adult clothing occupied most of the main floor. Pneumatic tubes took payments to bookkeepers on the front mezzanine and delivered change and receipts—this was long before credit cards were in common use. My children probably don’t so fondly remember being dragged up to the back mezzanine to pick out school clothing. But there was one attraction—public restrooms, something unique among other Laramie retailers at the time.
By Judy Knight
Caption: Laramie’s J.C. Penney store was founded in 1915--shown here around 1953 when it had just opened in a new downtown location at 407 South 2nd St. [now offices for Metrohm Raman, a Swiss technology company]. The large lit vertical “Penney’s” sign now reads “Laramie.” Photo courtesy of DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.