Earl Corder Sams was a Kansan who believed in looking for employees who shared the same Midwestern values that helped shape him.
And, he especially enjoyed bringing quality department stores to small and midsize towns that dotted his home state.
For more than four decades, Sams led the J.C. Penney Company and turned it from a small chain of mercantile stores into a national retailer with more than 1,600 hundred stores, of which 80 were located in Kansas. For much of the first half of the 20th century, those stores shaped the downtowns of small Kansas towns and helped anchor and define their business communities.
“They had an ethic, the Golden Rule was their title,” said Dudley Toevs, an area historian. Although Toevs was born in Wichita, he grew up in Hutchinson and for 30 years taught vocal music, English, history, speech and drama in Newton schools. “The Penney stores attracted shoppers to them who felt they got an honest piece of merchandise for an honest dollar. The Golden Rule was embedded in their entryway.”
For many Kansans, those stores also represented a touch of civilization.
“If you had that kind of store in your hometown, it meant you town had obviously made it,” said Jay Price, director of public history at Wichita State University. “There was a sense of quality that you could get all this great stuff. Whatever was available to shoppers in New York, you could also buy in your own hometown.”
Born in Cloud County on April 3, 1884, Sams grew up playing store, according to an article written by David Delbert Kruger, “Earl Corder Sams and the Rise of J.C. Penney” in the fall 2012 issue of Kansas History.
He graduated from Beloit High School in 1901.
By 1907, Sams was wanting to get ahead in life and contacted the Business-Men’s Clearing House in Denver, hoping the employment agency might match his skills with a merchant.
That merchant turned out to be James Cash Penney.
At that time, Penney owned two stores in Wyoming, called the Golden Rule Mercantile and hired Sams. Within a few years, Sams was partnering with Penney on Golden Rule stores throughout the western United States.
As the number of stores grew, Sams began encouraging Kansas friends to help open and manage the new stores.
Sams would later write why he liked to hire Kansans.
“There is something about the Kansas atmosphere that makes men. They are of the right sort of stuff and that is why we have so many of them working with us.”
According to Kruger, “Without the involvement of Earl Sams, it is very likely that Penney’s chain would have stopped at about fifty Golden Rule locations.”
Sams would be the one who insisted Penney change the name of the stores from Golden Rule to J.C. Penney’s.
The first J.C. Penney store in Kansas opened in Newton in 1916 at Sixth and Main. Within two years, other stores were located in Arkansas City, Atchison, Pittsburg and Salina.
And, within a few more years even more were added in cities as large as Wichita and as small as Larned, St. John, Coldwater and Lyons.
In 1917, J.C. Penney stepped down as president of his company to focus on his health. Penney remained chairman of the board, but Sams became president. That year, there were 127 J.C. Penney stores in 22 states. Within 10 years, there would be 747 stores throughout the nation. In 1928, the 1,000th store opened in Beloit.
In 1929, only three states had more J.C. Penney stores than Kansas — California, Texas and Ohio. At one time in Kansas, it was possible to find a J.C. Penney store within a 30-mile drive.
Sams remained with the J.C. Penney Co. until July 23, 1950, when he suffered a stroke and died.