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Serving Medford since 1927

Mail Tribune

celebrates its 100th anniversary this year and its 75th in Medford.

The nation's largest catalog retailer has operated in three different buildings with a continuous presence since Aug. 19, 1927.

For newcomers to Southern Oregon, Penney's is viewed as a shopping mall anchor store. For those with the longest memories, Penney's arrival at 36 N. Central Ave. was the beginning of an era.

An advertisement in the Aug. 18, 1927, Mail Tribune trumpeted J.C. Penney Co. as "A Nation-Wide Institution" of which Medford would be another link "added to our large family of 885 Department Stores" in the United States.

But the majority of the department store's tenure - 1948 to 1986 - was at 106 N. Central Ave., now occupied by the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

It just so happens that Penney's anniversary comes as Meier & Frank holds a grand opening for its new home store at the Rogue Valley Mall. It also coincides with the Pear Blossom Festival. But while the annual parade quiets things down a bit, it's nothing like the days when it virtually shut down the store.

"The Pear Blossom Parade totally shut things down," said catalogue supervisor Liz Nelson. "People would just watch the parade."

Store managers were even known to dress up in pear costumes and march in the parade.

Today, the store with 125 employees is one of about 1,050 JCPenney locations nationwide, as well as Latin America. From the beginning, Penney's has mixed well with the region.

Fifteen months after the Medford store opened, the stock market crashed. James Cash Penney temporarily lost his fortune, but not for long.

Store managers such as Medford's William Bolger helped the chain survive. In 1932, the local store reported $136,012 in sales. In 1942, the year after Pearl Harbor, it reported $615,314 in sales. 1990 Medford's sales were $9.415 million. In 2000, sales topped $15 million.

"It's been a great market for Penney's," said Frank Clifton, store manager since 1998. "The assortment of merchandise matches well with the customers that live here."

J.C. Penney, born in 1875, got his start in Kemmerer, Wyo., in 1902. Then in 1914, he shifted his Golden Rule chain's headquarters from Salt Lake City to New York to take advantage of distribution, financing and fashion advantages.

He lived until 1971 and frequently appeared at his stores.

"I had several chances to be with Mr. Penney," said retired southwest regional manager Ray Houck, who now lives in Medford. "When I was working at the downtown Seattle store, I had hoped to spend some time with him. But he wanted to spend all his time greeting customers. If they didn't have a package in hand as they left, he made sure to ask why they didn't and find what they were looking for."

Years later, Houck shared dinner and conversation about ranching with the founder.

"He was still sharp as a tack," Houck recalls "He said his eyesight had failed him, but that his vision was still very good."

Vision was a trait that allowed his company to succeed when others failed.

Positioned downtown, Penney's competed against local department stores such as Miller's and Robinson's for several decades. But that began to shift after Sears expanded its presence from a catalog center to a full-fledged department store in 1959 at Medford Center.

The downtown building had been a Groceteria before it was bought in 1946 and remodeled. An article at the time reported it had sturdy enough walls to support future upward expansion beyond the main floor and mezzanine. But that never happened.

Nelson's most memorable moment, however, was during the Cabbage Patch doll craze.

"We advertised 100 of them," Nelson said. "We opened all the doors at the same time, because people were all lined up. My job was to guard the Cabbage Patch dolls, so (customers) would get one at a time - and they totally ran me over."

A little more than two decades ago, Penney announced its future home would be across Biddle Road from the airport. Nelson recalls plans on the office walls and the accompanying buzz.

"Then they pulled that sign down in 1981 and the plan totally changed," Nelson said. "We were really disappointed for a while, then in '85 they started working on the mall. I think we're a bigger asset to the community since moving to mall."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail

Serving Medford since 1927