James Cash Penney, of Penney’s clothing store fame, came to Wyoming in 1902. The Caldwell County, Missouri native was raised by James Cash Penney, Sr. and his wife Mary Francis on a farm. The elder Penney was a Baptist minister as well.
As a devout Baptist, James Sr. instilled the virtues of the “Golden Rule” in his children. The lessons of self-reliance, self-discipline, honor, and education were a way of life from James’ birth in September 1875 and then throughout his long life.
James was the seventh child of a family of a dozen children.
James was a good student and an enterprising worker. His big chance in life came a long way from Missouri in 1902 when he opened a clothing store in isolated Kemmerer, Wyoming.
In honor of the lessons he had learned from his parents, James called the store, the “Golden Rule” the name of a store already operating since 1895 in nearby Evanston, Wyoming.
The name was a testament to his belief in doing what was right, and in caring for his customers.
Soon the Golden Rule stores began to franchise with two more stores, the first in Rock Springs, and another in Park City, Utah. Penney and his partners purchased the Evanston store and a small empire began to grow.
Fremont County was in a state of flux in 1906. The Riverton Reclamation Project opened that year with thousands of homesteaders arriving on land purchased from the tribes on the Wind River Reservation. A railroad was expanding west from Casper, destined to reach Lander. The new settlers, combined with a viable rail connection to Chicago and thousands of additional customers in the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho people created a demand for enterprising retailers.
Penney realized the potential and the first permanent Golden Rule Store in Fremont County opened in 1906 in Lander. An earlier tent store operated in Shoshoni for a few months earlier that summer, supplying incoming settlers with blankets, canvas, and clothing.
A second permanent store opened in Riverton on April 1, 1919.
The motto, “We buy and sell for cash, that’s why we sell for less.” Soon spread to four of the six incorporated communities in Fremont County. Only Hudson and Dubois, the first with its proximity to Riverton and Lander, and the second due to isolation, didn’t have a Golden Rule franchise.
Adkins and Company owned all four franchises, with their final venture into Pavillion in 1925. The Golden Rule franchise rode the wave of incoming settlers and the irrigation project taking place near Pavillion in the 1920s was all the impetus needed.
By 1927, new stores were in operation in Riverton, Pavillion, Cokeville, Lovell, Greybull, Forsyth, Montana, Edgemont, South Dakota, Lusk, Torrington, Newcastle, Thermopolis, and the dwindling Natrona County town Edgerton.
Ed Ryan managed the Pavillion store initially, but resigned a few months later. Stanley Bloom, the head clerk took over a stormy three years of the store’s existence.
The Great Depression is often given the starting point of the October 1929 New York Stock Exchange crash, but the economy in the heartland of America suffered soon after the Armistice was signed ending World War I.
Markets that grew exponentially during the war years vanished soon after. Farms, ranches and the small businesses that supported them failed, were foreclosed, or simply disappeared. The Arapaho Mercantile Store was an example of the trend. It closed in 1925 with its inventory purchased by the Adkins for the Lander Store.
Mrs. Adkins managed the store in Lander and the expanded store in Pavillion. She arranged for Willard Mills and John Sostrom of Riverton to wire the Pavillion Golden Rule for electricity on January 22, 1925. It was a bold step with delivered electricity almost a generation away. Electricity at the store was from a generator.
Mrs. Adkins made the trip across the Wind River Reservation once a week from Lander to Pavillion to take inventory and order new supplies. After three years, with the farmers in the area suffering from the slow economy they closed the store.
The store building remained vacant after the closure until Nyle Pickinpaugh purchased the building in 1934 and moved it to his farm.
The Riverton and Lander stores closed during the Great Depression as well, and the store in Shoshoni lasted only a few months in its tent form three decades earlier.
That was far from the end of the Golden Rule in Fremont County.
Sometime in the late 1940s, another Golden Rule store opened again in Shoshoni and did business until the 1960s.
The Riverton Golden Rule reopened on May 9, 1941, on Main Street near the Acme Theater.
Penney bought out his partners in 1909, and by 1912, had changed the name of many of the stores to J.C. Penney’s. It eventually became the largest clothing chain in the United States, with sales of over one billion dollars and over 1,600 franchises by 1942.
Penney’s was one of the largest employers in America at the outbreak of World War II with over 70,000 employees.
While most of the franchises bore J.C. Penney’s name, he kept a few stores under the Golden Rule moniker.
The Shoshoni Golden Rule was owned by Rosie and Helen Shuttlesworth, brother, and sister-in-law of Missouri Valley Store owner Bolly Shuttlesworth. Helen managed the store.
“Rule Larson owned the store before Helen,” Larry Shuttlesworth, Helen’s nephew, said. “He got her in the habit of every fall or springtime to go to Denver on a buying spree.”
Anyone familiar with Shoshoni knows the former location of the Yellowstone Drugstore on the southwest corner of Main and Second Street (US Highway 20/26).
Originally the imposing brick building was a bank, but later it became the Golden Rule before it was the Yellowstone Drug.
“The Golden Rule became the Yellowstone Drug,” Betty (Calvert) Besson, the daughter of Helen Calvert who worked at the store said, “The Yellowstone Drug was across the street originally in the Shawver Hotel.”
A bank doesn’t lend itself well to conversion to a clothing store, but Helen Shuttleworth was creative and found new uses for the vaults.
“They used the big walk-in vaults on the main floor for dressing rooms, “Betty said.
Above the Golden Rule was the Shoshoni Masonic Temple.
“In the drive-through lane for the Lucky 5 there was a set of stairs to the second floor for the Masonic Hall,” Betty said.”Behind the Golden Rule was a hardware store.”
Betty moved from Riverton to Shoshoni in third grade after her dad, a game warden, was reassigned to the area. She graduated from Shoshoni High School in 1968.
She recalled the A&W Restaurant and another restaurant owned by Bob Dornblaser called the Fountain that eventually became the Shoshoni bowling alley.
The Golden Rule did a good business. Betty’s mother, Helen Calvert, later married Tom Weisz and ran Tom’s Standard, a gas station and convenience store on the southwest corner of the intersection where US Highway 20/26 splits into US Highway 20 heading north, and US 26 heading west.
“I know they had some pretty nice clothes for men, women, and kids at the Golden Rule,” Betty said. “When I was in high school the ideal job was to work at the A&W as a car hop. Shoshoni was a good place to grow up.”
Ruby (Bebout) Calvert who grew up in Shoshoni, had good memories of the Golden Rule as well.
“We always called it Helen’s after Helen Shuttlesworth,” Ruby said.
Ruby recalls many of the former businesses that made Shoshoni such a vibrant little town in the 1950s and 60s.
“The Yellowstone Drug Store was across the street from the Golden Rule,” Ruby said. “They had old malt mixers, with all the toppings in canisters. Wayne Leach was the pharmacist. He kept all his supplies on wooden shelves.”
“When I went to the service in 1955, Rosie had a parrot named Duke,” Larry said. “When you walked into the store, Duke would say Rosie is a pretty boy.”
It was a simpler time in Fremont County.
“I caught the bus to Hudson when I was four years old,” Ruby said. “Mom would put me on the bus, and I’d sit behind the driver and sing to him all the way to Hudson.”
Ruby was a first cousin to the Svilar kids and would often travel to stay with her aunt and uncle in Hudson where they owned and operated Svilar’s restaurant.
“Many of the local guys got on the Continental Trailways bus in Shoshoni and went off to the service,” Larry said.
Shoshoni had three grocery stores, a movie theater, several restaurants and bars, a bus depot, and a Chevrolet garage in those days, as well as the Golden Rule, and a Gambles store owned by Syd Humphries.
“Curt Kaiser owned the garage,” Ruby said. “Scotty Gordon (parts man)and Gale Currah (bulk fuel truck driver) worked at the Shoshoni garage. I used to eat mashed potatoes at the Sage Restaurant.”
The Brownie movie theater, grocery store, and drive-in were all popular places to go, as were Gordon’s Sage Restaurant and the Derby Bar.
“Bob Dornblaser had a barber shop and laundromat,” Ruby said. “There was Varahs Grocery toward Casper, Cleves Grocery, and Brownies next to the movie theater.”
The Golden Rule left Fremont County permanently in the 1960s when the store in Riverton and the one in Shoshoni closed.
“Rosie had a bad heart, I was overseas in Korea,” Larry said. “He died in 1957. She ran the store for a while after that and then gave it up. She had a close-out sale in the early 60s.
J.C. Penney’s lived on in Riverton as a retail store, and then a few more as a catalog sales center.
In 2002, Penney’s celebrated its 100th anniversary. The company still operated 1,075 stores in every state in America, along with stores in Mexico and Puerto Rico. Their annual sales reached almost 15 billion dollars, but the Internet was the end of America’s most successful clothing franchise.
On May 15, 2020, J.C. Penney filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The COVID-19 pandemic was the last straw for the struggling company.
The Golden Rule lived up to the image its founder James Cash Penney had in mind when he opened his first store in Kemmerer early in the 20th century. Millions of school children shopped at the local Penney’s as a rite of passage each August before the fall term began.
The image of Dessie Bebout taking her three, very well-known Fremont County children, Ruby, Eli, and Nick to the Golden Rule for school clothes each August in the late 1950s and 1960s is an image of Americana at its best.
“Aunt Helen said that was a good order when you bought clothes for the whole family,” Larry said. “Dessie and Helen were good friends.”
Four clothing store franchises in one little county in the lowest populated state in America is another testament to a business model that survived two world wars, a massive depression, and the influx of new technology.
The Golden Rule, whether it was a short-lived experiment in Pavillion, a longer presence in Riverton and Lander, or an institution as it was in Shoshoni is an example of the American entrepreneur at their best.