A Gratiot County Institution: JC Penney of Alma

1st Christmas 19181968 staff1966 JC xmas.jpgNorth State 1950s

Above: JC Penney’s first Christmas advertisement in the Alma Record, December 1918; honoring over 50 years of employee service in 1968; 1966 Christmas catalog; the old JC Penney’s store on North Center Street – it was there from the late 1920s through the late 1970s.

            It arrived in Alma during the start of one epidemic, and it appears that it could end in part as the result of another pandemic.  Many people are unaware that the JC Penney Store has been a part of Gratiot County’s history for over one hundred years.

       In February 1918, an announcement ran in the Alma Record that a new store planned to open, just as the first wave of the Influenza Epidemic moved across America. At the time, JC Penney had 196 chain stores nationwide, all of which dealt in general merchandise.  This new store in Alma first rented a room in the old Bahlke Block, which held the McKenzie Brothers cigar store.   F.S. Doud, who was the first manager,  hoped to start the business by April 1.

         However, many obstacles stood in the way of the first JC Penney store that spring. The United States was at war in Europe, and getting goods by rail was slow due to the war effort. Still, Doud went ahead with plans to open, put up new signs, and repainted the front of the store.

            In July, the first JC Penney advertisement appeared in the Alma Record, stating that the store was formerly the FW Goodes Clothing Store in the Opera House Block.   “Dry Goods, Ladies’ Ready-to-Wear Hosiery, Men’s and Boys’ Clothing, Hats, Caps, and Shoes” appeared in the ad and told customers that JC Penney would now open on August 1, 1918. In its first Christmas season, JC Penney joined other Alma businesses and shops during the Influenza Epidemic that wanted to remain open. Businesses hoped shoppers would still do their Christmas shopping, even while wearing masks and getting vaccinated at the city hall. Yet, despite these challenges, JC Penney endured.

          Three years later, JC Penney made a move to the Waters Shoe Store, later called Church’s Jewelers.  Saturday nights became especially busy for shoppers at this location, and the store remained open late. The business was so busy that shoppers entered the main street entrance and then had to go out the back door after paying for purchases because of the crowds. It soon became apparent that JC Penney needed to move again to a bigger location.

         Going into the 1920s, readers of the Alma Record found stories about JC Penney himself, either regarding how he became a successful businessman and philanthropist or about his faith and church work. By this time, Penney had become one of the most admired Christian businessmen in America. Some Gratiot County ministers even used illustrations and quotes about JC Penney’s life, faith, and success in their sermons.

           As the Alma business grew throughout the 1920s, people became acquainted with JC Penney’s sales advertisements. In January 1922, men’s felt hats cost $1.49 for a dress or everyday wear. Stylish Easter spring dresses for women in 1923 ranged from $9.90 to $29.90. In May 1925, men could obtain high-quality straw hats (with silk band and lining, flexible brim, and waterproofed) for $3.50. The store’s ad urged, “Let Us Be Your Hatter.” More announcements came at Christmas time. In 1925, talking dolls ranged from 98 cents to $4.98 apiece. Mechanical toys, tinker toys, and numerous games caused Gratiot County children to dream about what they wanted.

          In 1927, the store moved to its next location, which it occupied for almost fifty years. This larger space at 317 North State Street replaced four storefronts. For many in Gratiot County who referred to the “old” JC Penneys in Alma, it meant the store on North State Street, which was JC Penney’s home for several decades.

            During World War II, the front store windows advertised the need to raise money for a memorial for Alma’s men at war. The Alma Blue Star Mothers put signs and notices to keep the public informed of how much money was needed for a memorial. All of the information could be found in store windows and pictures of Alma men who served Gratiot County.

            By 1949, the store had fifteen to twenty full-time employees and hired as many as forty people during the holiday season. Manager George Stewart was a mainstay at the Alma store, serving there from August 1926 until his retirement in 1951. Stewart was well known in Alma through his service with the Chamber of Commerce and his involvement with the annual Alma Harvest Festival. The store went through a significant remodeling in 1951 when the basement was changed, and a new stairway was installed. Front display windows were moved forward and restyled, and the store added a new jewelry department. At that time, the Alma store was one of 53 in Michigan. In 1951, the store started accepting credit buying, and by 1956 it stayed open until 11:00 pm on Saturdays.

           JC Penney regularly advertised the change of managers, employee training dates, employee picnics, and when the store closed for emergencies.  Employees were called “associates” and often received profit-sharing bonuses. In December 1950, full-time associates received two weeks’ pay as a bonus if they had been employed for all of 1950. Mrs. Jessie Rockwell, an employee for twenty-five years, was featured in the Alma Record in September 1954 for her twenty-five years of service. She received honors and a gift at a surprise “This Is Your Life” banquet.

          If there was anything that people did not like about the Alma JC Penney on North Center Street, it was the problem of parking. With limited parking out front, customers were encouraged to park in the back lot and enter the West. In a 1968 survey, customers were asked what they did not like about the parking situation. One replied that it was the last place they wanted to park a car. Another urged JC Penney to make the parking lot bigger, while one joked that it was a place couples would hang out.

          The year 1968 was also the fiftieth anniversary of the store. An article in the Daily Record Leader featured eight employees who had a combined total of 192 years of service in the Alma store. E.E. Jach led the group with a total of 41 years of employment.

       However, there are other aspects of the Alma JC Penney store on North Center. Starting before World War II, the store often teamed up with the Strand Theatre to offer a free show to children either before the start of the school year or before Christmas. This work with the Strand happened over several decades.

        For baby boomers, the  Christmas catalog was entitled the “JC Penney Christmas Book,”  and many families received theirs through the mail. To this day, I have a fascination for Batman’s 1960’s Batmobile because it was one of the items I “circled” for Christmas. I never got one, but I clearly remember it being in a JC Penney’s Christmas catalog.

          In the 1970s, the Alma Penney’s store entered the next chapter of its history to move into the old Zody’s store on Wright Avenue.   Zody’s only stayed in business for less than four years. When the opening was available on Wright Avenue, JC Penney wanted it as this offered over 58, 202 square feet – about four times space it previously occupied on North State Street. A ribbon-cutting ceremony took place for the store in May 1977. JC Penney now employed over 120 people and remained open seven days a week. Spurgeons took over the old site.

         One of the exciting parts of the new store was its catalog department. While it probably had been accurate at the old store,  customers who placed an order in the catalog department soon got a phone call that their request was ready for pick up at the store on Wright Avenue. I once ordered  Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle signed baseballs from the Penney catalog department. For many customers by the 1990s, many exciting things could be purchased through a JC Penney catalog.

           For the last forty-three years, people have shopped at the JC Penney store on Wright Avenue. My wife recalled working during the 1986 Christmas season and how associates had to be ready for the mob of customers who came in on any day of the week for sales.  Just two years ago, the store celebrated its centennial, and a Republic Truck was out front to commemorate this event. There are no doubt many more stories about JC Penney at this location that many people in Gratiot County have.

           If JC Penney’s closing happens in Alma, it will be sad to see a business leave which has been in Gratiot County for over a century.

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

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