James Cash Penney – better known as J.C. Penney – always had a passion for agriculture.
Most well-known for his department stores across the United States, Penney also had an extensive background in agriculture. He was instrumental in the development of the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Foremost Dairy Research Center, donating the money to purchase 819 acres for the Center, as well as donating a herd of prize-winning Guernsey cows.
Penney’s life will be documented in an upcoming book, authored by David D. Kruger, an MU grad and current agricultural research and instruction librarian with the University of Wyoming Libraries.
The book, J.C. Penney: The Man, the Store, and American Agriculture, will release in May and dives into Penney’s life, including his role at Foremost Dairy.
“After about 30 years of informal J.C. Penney research going back to childhood, I began writing academic articles about rural J.C. Penney stores in 2006,” Kruger said. “I officially started working on content for this book in 2010, conducting a face-to-face interview with Penney’s last surviving daughter about the agricultural aspects of her father’s life.
“I had only intended to write about two agricultural articles on J.C. Penney as a result of that meeting, but the book organically came to fruition in the process, with most of the research taking place from 2011-15 and the writing incrementally taking place from 2013 through the summer of 2016.”
Kruger visited the Foremost Dairy Research Center in 2015 and his book will explore how the Center came to be. There will be a full chapter devoted to Foremost and its origins.
“I first reached out to (Foremost superintendent) John Denbigh in January 2015 and he graciously invited me to personally come out to Foremost,” Kruger said. “John assigned one of the staff to give me a detailed personal tour of the entire facility; once the tour was completed, he and I then sat down for a lengthy discussion about the more recent history of Foremost and its current mission. Ironically, I had never set foot on Foremost during my entire time as a student at Mizzou, so I can tell you that personally seeing the facility firsthand and talking to John on-site really helped me contextualize and write the “Foremost” chapter in the book.”
The Foremost Dairy Research Center was named after Penney’s prize Guernsey – Langwater Foremost.
“In 1936, Penney formally proposed that his entire ‘Foremost Guernsey’ dairy herd and the financial value of its respective New York farm be chartered into an agricultural foundation for the next 60 years; at the expiration of the foundation’s charter in 1996, the herd and all assets of the farm would eventually be donated to the University of Missouri, primarily to ensure that Penney’s own significant agricultural research with the project could continue in perpetuity long after his death,” Kruger said. “Penney had never attended college and held no formal education beyond his high school diploma, but he regarded the University of Missouri as his unofficial alma mater (even before it awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1953) and the natural location to posthumously carry on his agricultural research after 1996.
“In 1951, however, a tragic barn fire at his New York farm, causing the horrific deaths of more than 31 purebred calves, led Penney to believe that the herd’s transfer to the University of Missouri should occur much sooner than he had earlier planned, particularly so he could have the pleasure of seeing Foremost Farm established within his lifetime. In getting this revised process started, Penney simply wrote a letter to the Mizzou Board of Curators soliciting his ideas and asking if the University would be interested in accepting the gift in 1952, 44 years ahead of schedule.”
Penney sold his New York farm and used the money to buy the land where Foremost now sits. The gift included 250 purebred Guernsey cattle as well. The land was previously privately owned by three farmers. Penney’s funding also led to new barns, equipment sheds and four modern houses.
Penney, who lived in New York, made yearly visits to the Foremost property.
“It is important to note that Penney was intimately familiar with every animal he ever donated to Foremost, and that he remembered not only their names and faces but their exact individual production records for milk as well as butterfat,” Kruger said. “In many ways, he exhibited a photographic memory for details pertaining to the entire project and, even in a suit and bow tie, would often walk through the various buildings of Foremost by himself, visiting and checking up on livestock he had known since their birth while perpetually evaluating their Missouri-born progeny.
“Penney was personally acquainted with the faculty and staff involved in Foremost, hand-picking and recommending longstanding Missouri dairyman Lawrence Rainey to manage the operation for nearly 20 years until Rainey’s eventual retirement in 1971. Even from his office at the J.C. Penney headquarters in New York City, Penney often incrementally added funding (at least an additional $500,000) for Foremost operations, occasionally requesting that no publicity be made about his generosity.”
Penney was born on a farm in Caldwell County. His family included a long line of farmers from Missouri and Kentucky. Penney was raising hogs and growing and selling melons by himself when he was a young boy.
“Upon graduating from high school in 1893, less than 10 years before opening his first J.C. Penney store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, Penney had actually hoped to acquire and operate his own farm in Missouri, but he lacked the funds to do so and the impending threat of tuberculosis subsequently forced his migration from Missouri to the arid west, where his retail career eventually took off,” Kruger said. “Although Penney’s retail career clearly overshadowed his agricultural background from 1895-1916, he began an active reconnection with agriculture after 1916 that really lasted until his death in 1971.”
Kruger was born and raised in Baker, Montana. He received a degree from Kansas State University before earning his master’s in library and information science from Mizzou in 1998.
“I had always held a lot of respect for Mizzou as a comprehensive research and land-grant university, and when I decided to pursue a career in librarianship after graduating from Kansas State University, Mizzou was a natural fit in terms of proximity and people,” Kruger said. “I felt very much at home the moment I set foot on campus and honestly hated to leave once I graduated.”“It is important to note that Penney was intimately familiar with every animal he ever donated to Foremost, and that he remembered not only their names and faces but their exact individual production records for milk as well as butterfat. In many ways, he exhibited a photographic memory for details pertaining to the entire project and, even in a suit and bow tie, would often walk through the various buildings of Foremost by himself, visiting and checking up on livestock he had known since their birth while perpetually evaluating their Missouri-born progeny.”
―David D. Kruger, MU grad and current agricultural research and instruction librarian with the University of Wyoming Libraries
Kruger has been interested in Penney and his life before he could even read or write.
“Just after my third birthday, my mother took me inside the J.C. Penney department store in the neighboring farming community of Hettinger, North Dakota,” Kruger said. “Hettinger only had a population of about 1,700 people at the time, but that J.C. Penney store was a busy Main Street centerpiece for that entire agricultural trade area, and I guess I could never get it out of my mind.
“By the time I entered kindergarten, I began to realize that many more agricultural trade centers similar to Hettinger also featured J.C. Penney department stores on their Main Streets, and my childhood fascination with these stores concurrently led to an interest in Penney himself. Ultimately, my childhood visit to that now-defunct J.C. Penney store in Hettinger was the genesis behind my academic research and writings on the J.C. Penney Company and the man behind it.”
The book will be available through the University of Oklahoma Press, as well as Amazon. For more information, contact Sandy See, publicist at the University of Oklahoma Press, at (405) 325-3200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It becomes clear, in retrospect, that Penney’s agricultural legacy in Missouri is still alive and well even today,” Kruger said. “Besides the Foremost Dairy Research Center at Mizzou, two large production farms Penney began with poor tenant farmers on a profit-sharing basis in Trenton and Chula are now owned by their children and grandchildren, with two family members, both of them Mizzou grads, bearing the name ‘James Cash’ in Penney’s honor and memory.
“The legacy of J.C. Penney’s agricultural efforts may not be readily visible to most people in Missouri today, but it’s still very much apparent and quite a fascinating sight to behold.”