J.C. Penney Homestead: A Kemmerer treasure

One of Kemmerer’s claims to fame is the original J.C. Penney store, and the J.C. Penney Homestead, which has been open to the public for nearly 35 years, highlights that rich history.

On April 14, 1902, James Cash Penney and his partners Thomas Callahan and Guy Johnson opened the one-room Golden Rule Store in Kemmerer.

The store earned $466 on its first day, a hefty sum for those days. Penney would go on to rename the store after himself and build a department store empire.

Penney died in 1971 at the age of 95. In 1978, the JC Penney Homestead was named a National Historic Landmark. Then the real renovations began to restore the home to its original state.

Workers scraped off 13 layers of paint and picked authentic antique furnishings that were true to the time period when JC Penney and his family lived in the home.

The upstairs room even has a cradle owned by the family. The back porch displays parts of shipping crates from the original store.

On June 9, 1982, the restored J.C. Penney homestead opened to the public. The city of Kemmerer celebrated with a parade through downtown.

Former Kemmerer resident and the Wyoming governor at the time Ed Herschler was part of the parade, as was  J.C. Penney’s widow, who cut the ceremonial ribbon in front of the house.

The tour guides for the J.C. Penney homestead are all volunteers, including Robin Leming, who has volunteered since 2010.

The curators provide interesting pieces of history about Penney and his legacy. For the first year, the Penney family lived in the attic above the store.

“The family used shipping crates for furniture,” Leming said. “It’s a real rags to riches story.”

Originally tour guides for the homestead — many of whom were local high school students — had to wear period costumes, even in the summer heat.

“My favorite thing is telling stories about J.C. Penney,” Leming said.

When the Depression hit, Penney refused to close his company’s soup lines or stop his philanthropic efforts, and it nearly cost him everything.

According to his writings, Penney trusted in God, got back on his feet and became a millionaire again.

The homestead curators say the site is popular with tourists who are visiting family in Kemmerer or are passing through on their way to one of Wyoming’s national parks.

“One time I had 75 visitors come in one day,” Leming said.

The homestead also has an abundance of store artifacts, like old JC Penney catalogs and employee handbooks that tell the story of another time, and show how instrumental Kemmerer was in Penney’s success.