J.C. Penney Had a Farm

If you ever find yourself in Northeast Florida looking for a pleasant route for driving, we recommend State Road 16 between Green Cove Springs and Starke. There’s not much traffic, the scenery is nice, and you’ll pass through a remarkable relic of Florida history called Penney Farms. At first glance, the town bears the usual hallmarks of a North Florida village – large shade trees, wood-frame houses, and a historical marker here and there. Read one of those markers, however, and you’ll learn that Penney Farms was a planned community, developed from scratch in the 1920s by the department store tycoon J.C. Penney himself.

Aerial view of Penney Farms in Clay County (1940).

Aerial view of Penney Farms in Clay County (1940).

James Cash Penney came to prominence as a pioneer in the chain store movement in the early years of the 20th century. He opened the first J.C. Penney Store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, and by 1912 had over 30 stores, mainly operating in the West. By 1924, Penney was making over a million dollars annually, which enabled him to pursue a number of philanthropic causes.

In 1922, J.C. Penney purchased 120,000 acres of farmland in Clay County near Green Cove Springs, just east of the St. Johns River. He intended to develop a model farming community, structured similarly to the J.C. Penney department store chain. Just as the chain’s directors held stock in the company, farmers would earn interest in Penney Farms by raising crops and purchasing additional interest in the land with the proceeds of their labor.

Cattle scales used at Penney Farms (1931).

Cattle scales used at Penney Farms (1931).

So who did the farming at Penney Farms? Not just anyone. Persons interested in claiming a tract of land at the new community had to fill out an application. Many of the questions pertained to the applicant’s moral character and religious affiliations. A promotional brochure provided a list of characteristics wanted by the company. Penney Farms wanted young to middle-aged men, preferably married, “willing to take advice from others,” and affiliated with some church. The use of “intoxicants or cigarettes” was strictly prohibited. The application asked the prospective farmer to send in a photo of himself or his family if possible, as well as the names and addresses of three persons who could testify to his character.

Application to occupy a farm at Penney Farms - from a promotion brochure  dated 1927.

Application to occupy a farm at Penney Farms – from a promotion brochure dated 1927. Click to enlarge.

By 1927, Penney Farms boasted 20,000 cleared acres, 300 buildings, a general store, a post office, a garage and machine shop, a canning factory, a boarding house, a dairy farm, and 3,000 range cattle. Demonstration plots provided pecans, Satsuma oranges, persimmons, pears, grapes, peppermint, and vegetables. The J.C. Penney-Gwinn Institute of Applied Agriculture had its headquarters on the property, where it provided practical and theoretical training in agriculture and homemaking for the families living at Penney Farms.

View of a main street in Penney Farms' residential section (circa 1920s).

View of a main street in Penney Farms’ residential section (circa 1920s).

But there was more to Penney Farms than just farming. J.C. Penney chose to also make this the site for another of his philanthropic endeavors, the J.C. Penney Foundation Memorial Community. This retirement community was built especially for retired ministers and other Christian workers and their wives. The community included 22 furnished apartment buildings, along with the Penney Memorial Chapel. The community was dedicated to the memory of J.C. Penney’s parents.

View of the JC Penney Foundation's memorial community for retired ministers, Christian workers, and their wives (1958).

View of the J.C. Penney Foundation’s memorial community for retired ministers, Christian workers, and their wives (1958).

 

Penney Memorial Chapel at Penney Farms (1936).

Penney Memorial Chapel at Penney Farms (1936).

The arrival of the Great Depression slowed the development of Penney Farms considerably. Penney himself lost almost all of his personal wealth, and was forced to borrow against his life insurance policies to help his company make payroll. He sold off most of the property comprising Penney Farms, leaving only about 200 acres. He deeded this land to his foundation’s Memorial Community, which he gave to the Christian Herald Foundation to run. In 1971, it became the self-sustaining Penney Retirement Community, Inc., and in 1999 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the farmers who had relocated to the area to participate in Penney’s planned community either bought land or continued working in some capacity in the area. The town of Penney Farms is still incorporated, and as of the 2010 Census it had a population of 749.

Aerial view of the Penney Memorial Chapel and surrounding buildings (circa 1947).

Aerial view of the Penney Memorial Chapel and surrounding buildings (circa 1947).

Tags: , , , , , , ,

19 thoughts on “J.C. Penney Had a Farm

  1. A very good read. That said, I believe a more accurate location is on SR.-16 between Camp Blanding & Green Cove Springs.

    • So glad to know the history of Penney Farms. We travel through the area a lot and now we know why it’s so special. Thank you.

  2. I remember Mrs. Saunders grocery store as a little child growing up. Credit was as good as your word back then. Oh how I miss those days. And let’s not forget the Post Office….smiln….aahhhh!

  3. Thank you for this interesting and informative article. I am considering retirement at Penney Farm. I am encouraged by your article. Thanks again.\
    Joy Greenidge

  4. My family lived in Penney Farms for several years when I was a little girl. My dad worked at the retirement community and my mom worked at a nursing home there.
    I remember many trips to the post office and to the Saunders general store…they also had a butcher shop! Many happy memories!

  5. I loved living in Penney Farms. I was a foster child of James and Mytzi Saunders. Those were some of the best years of my life. It was such a peaceful and quiet place to live and the people there were so loving and kind, especially Mama Eastham.

  6. Interesting read. My family roots go back to the 1800’s in the area.
    I still enjoy the shade tree lined roads in Penny Farms. I, too, miss seeing Mr JC Penney’s home on the corner of state road 16 and county road 218.
    I did notice one error in the article. Penny Farms lies West of the St. John’s river, not east.

  7. Hi all,
    My grandfather, Robert Smith worked for Mr. Penny back in about 1926. Apparently he was asked by Mr. Penny to keep up a train that was on the property at that time. Was wondering if anyone had a picture of that train from long ago? If you have one or know where one could be obtained, please write back at the above address.
    Chris Walters

  8. Just was there visiting a client. Have been there several times. Penney Farms Retirement Community reminds of a college campus. It’s nice.

  9. As a fourth generation Floridian , I love learning new history of our beautiful Sunshine State! I have passed by Penney Farms numerous times and now know the rich history! I would like to know if Americans (since they received their civil rights as Americans 14th amendment)who happened to be black skinned, were they able to fill out an application to be a part of this Christian community? Thank you for a reply

    • Good question. Unfortunately, we do not know the policy of the J.C. Penney-Gwinn Corporation on accepting African-American’s applications. Applicants were not required to provide race on the application. However, census data tells us a little about who lived in the community. Clay County’s Penney Farms precinct included the planned community as well as the surrounding area. In the 1930 U.S. Census for Penney Farms, township, nearly all African-Americans are listed as residing in “colored quarters” or in “S.E. Penney Farms, township.” In the 1935 Florida State Census, all residents within the city limits of Penney Farms are listed as white.

  10. Are there any pictures of the inside of the mansion, I’ve been raised here in Clay County and passed the mansion a many times before they sadly had to tear it down, I always wished it could have been preserved and transformed into a presentable form of memorabilia for our delicate history yet now as I pass by all I can tell my children are the stories I have of the mansion that use to sit on that bare piece of land on the corner!!!! Ohhhhh it was a sight to see, so beautiful!!!! If anybody knows of anymore pictures I would be greatly appreciative, thank you!!!!

  11. Dad used to tell us stories of how he came down from University of Kentucky to work as quartermaster for JC Penney when the community was first being developed in the early twenties. He spoke of the heat, mosquitos, and swamps full of snakes and alligators, perhaps to make the tales more interesting.

  12. I have a potential ancestor who is listed as having died in Penney Farms in 1985 (Possibly the retirement community – born in 1894) according to the SS death index- but I cant find any information on her between 1960 (married name) and the potential death record (which is in her maiden name). Is there a particular newspaper in the area that would have run the obituaries? I am not seeing it on the Florida death index, either.

    • Hi Christine,
      Penney Farms and Clay County may have used the Jacksonville newspaper, the Times-Union to run local obituaries.
      Katrina

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments Policy