Businessman J.C. Penney is best remembered by most people for having founded the department store chain named after him.
Less remembered in modern times is his successful attempt at creating a new town just outside of Jacksonville.
James Cash Penney – yes, that was his real name – worked his way up from a store clerk to the owner of a chain of retail stores, which he then rapidly expanded into a retail empire. By the ‘20s, there were over 100 J.C. Penney locations, and the company was making millions. It even opened a store in downtown Jacksonville in the 1930s.
Penney, having found himself flush with cash, began investing his money. He took a particular interest in Florida real estate, purchasing land for a home in Miami and 120,000 acres of land in the middle of Clay County.
On part of that land, Penney would create a retirement community known as Memorial Home Community for ministers and missionaries in honor of his father, who was a minister and had passed away in Penney’s youth. On the rest of it, he sought to create an agricultural community.
Work began in the mid-‘20s, and by 1927 the city of Penney Farms was recognized by the state of Florida. It featured the retirement community with nearly 100 units, town essentials like a post office and general store, farmland, and a research facility for agricultural advancement.
Unfortunately for Penney, the stock market took a nosedive just a couple of years later. He ended up losing quite a bit of money, putting him in dire straits both financially and emotionally. By the early ‘30s, he had divested of the farm to aide in bankruptcy proceedings.
He was left with just 200 acres of the town under his control – specifically, the land on which Memorial Home Community was built. Penney would later turn over control of the community to a Christian nonprofit. The rest of the town continued on as a farming community.
Penney died in 1971 with his retail company’s future secured and having established several charitable ventures throughout his lifetime.
Today, the Penney Retirement Community still operates in Penney Farms, FL in Clay County, and has operated consistently since opening in 1926. It’s now open to anyone wishing to “live a faithful, purposeful life.”
Penney Farms, meanwhile, continues as a small town west of Green Cove Springs with a population of less than 1,000. Its land is used almost exclusively for one of two purposes: the retirement community, or farming.
We’d have to think that if he saw his small town today, Mr. Penney would be proud.