HAMILTON, Mo.--If there is a penny for every one of Dean Hales hometown thoughts, then he is a rich man.
Hales is all things J.C. Penney in Hamilton (pop. 1,800) about 65 miles north of Kansas City.
He started the J.C. Penney Memorial Library-Museum here and once ran his Hy Klas food store next door to a J.C. Penney's at 215 N. Davis on the main drag of Hamilton.
Department store legend J.C. Penney was born in 1875 on a farm outside of Hamilton. His one-bedroom wood frame birthplace has been relocated to downtown, within walking distance from the museum. Penney moved to Denver, Colo. in 1897 to work in a dry goods store.
Hales also owns Penney's 1947 Cadillac Convertible......
.....He bought the car from Penney, although he won't disclose the sale price. The convertible is kept in Hales' garage. He only drives it in area parades.
"We took it to Kansas City when they opened a new store there about a year ago," he said during a recent conversation in his garage. "We have a Penney High School. So I took 15 cheerleaders from the high school. They had 'Penney' written across their chest. We opened that store."
Hales, 80, led a short driving tour through town in which he has lived for 73 years in his Chevrolet Tahoe. I fiddled with the seat belt until he said, "You don't need a seat belt in Hamilton." Hales then nodded towards a small white church and said, "I got married here (Sacred Heart Catholic Church) 60 years ago," then he looked across the street and said, "J.C. Penney's brother lived in this house that I own."
Hales was the last person to buy something at the Penney Store in Hamilton before it closed in 1985.
"I bought a pair of socks and a handkerchief," he said. "I gave them $20. I've kept the items and the change. It was a sick feeing. We hated to lose that store. The town wasn't big enough. They wanted to go to big stores. I tried to talk them into leaving it here because it was his hometown. Corporate wouldn't do it. All the towns along Highway 36 (from St. Joseph east to Hannibal, Mo.) had Penney stores: Chillicothe, Hamilton, Cameron, Brookfield. But not any more."
In 1956, America's first interstate (I-70) connected St. Louis, Mo. with Kansas City, Mo. Hamilton is along Highway 36 and became really small change. The old highway is now being resurrected as part of the new I-110 that connects Kansas City with Chicago.
The Penney museum has the first pair of shoes from the International Shoe Factory which Penney brought to Hamilton in 1947. That factory closed in 1997, a victim of outsourcing. There's also the original promotional silverware Penney sold during the company's 25th anniversary in 1927.
"At their 100th anniversary they had a diamond ring with a 100 diamonds in it," he said. "I bought one of them." The ring is in Hales' personal collection. Inside the museum you can also have your picture taken behind Penney's New York City office desk (circa 1926).
These photos make me smile.
Penney made his name by being the first "Cash and Carry" department store. "He started out (April 14, 1902) in the mining town of Kimmmer, Wyoming," Hales explained. "He was against liquor and smoking. He ran a cash store. People said he'd never make it. Well, he could sell cheaper. When Penney's finally put in credit cards he was the only one on the board who opposed it."
Penney's was one of the last big companies to hold out against credit.
Pennney came from a line of Baptist preachers from Kentucky.
His retail company operated under the motto: "Honor, Confidence, Service and Cooperation." Can you imagine a company going public with that today?
Penney built his company around "six searching principles" that he believed "essential to success." A few of them are:
1. I Believe That Preparation Wins. As a rule we achieve what we prepare for.
2. I Believe That Hard Work Wins. Growth is never by mere chance; the success we build will be the achievement of our united efforts.
4. I Believe That Confidence in Men Wins. Do not throw away common sense but believe in yourself and trust your fellows.
Penney also had a farm outside of Hamilton and Hales knows all about that, too. Penney established a purebred Aberdeen Angus.
"They raised horses first, then big Black Angus," he said. "They started around 1940 and quit around 1955. The main building of the National 4-H Center in Washington, D.C. is the Penney Building. He was a big friend of (President) Hoover's."
Back at the museum Hales pointed to a photo of Hoover and said, "Hoover and his wife stayed in Penney's house in Miami. When Hoover went to Washington, the Penneys always stayed in the White House. Remember when Clinton was in the White House and people were staying in the (first-floor, oval shaped) Blue Room and everybody was raising hell?. Penney was in there 30 years before that and nobody said a word."
Hales pride in his hometown goes beyond Penney.
The second most famous person from Hamilton is the wonderfully named Baseball Hall of Famer Zack Wheat, who was born May 23, 1888 in Hamilton. The left fielder hit .317 over a 19-year-playing career. He was once described as "165 pounds of scrap iron, rawhide and guts."
I like that.
"He played for the Dodgers," Hales said. "I met him at the last baseball game in the old (Municipal) stadium in Kansas City. They brought back the old timers."
The old timer stopped and asked, "You're not writing this story about me are you?"
In a way, yes. The rich memories of Dean Hales keeps this small town alive.