In a tattered scrapbook tucked away in our home office, a photo of two early 20th century captains of industry serves as a reminder that success in business is never guaranteed, seldom permanent.
The yellowed newspaper clipping from 1940 features my wife’s great-grandfather, Oscar Groshell. The prominent Salt Lake City businessman, widely known as “The Cash Register Man,” was pictured conversing with James Cash Penney, an enterprising merchant whose department store in Kemmerer, Wyo., grew into a nationwide retailing empire, J.C. Penney.
Oscar got his start with the National Cash Register Co. in Salt Lake City in 1895, and later founded his own business, the Groshell Cash Register Exchange. Oscar had sold Penney his first cash register at the Kemmerer store, and the two longtime businessmen had a chance to reconnect in the Salt Lake City store where Penney marked the chain’s annual “Founders Day.”
Like many businessmen of his day, Oscar had a knack for self promotion. Early in his career, he was often pictured in the paper promoting bicycle races, a life-long passion, and his cash register business. His activities in the Masonic Lodge and the Shriners were also well documented.
In 1931, the Salt Lake Tribune published a feature about his quirky mantle clock that could forecast the weather. Oscar swore he could tell when a storm was coming on because the clock’s chime produced a strange “cracked” or “dead” sound.
“The clock looks just like any other mantelpiece clock of its type and contains no barometer,” the Tribune observed. “Just how it foretells the weather is a mystery.”
The story of the strange weather-forecasting clock even earned Oscar a mention in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not,” the illustrated newspaper feature that focused on odd news from around the world. He died in 1941 at age 81, and the business closed sometime later, although the building in downtown Salt Lake City still stands.
In the 1940 interview, J.C. Penney fit the image of a self-made man who prospered through his own grit and determination, even though the Great Depression still weighed on millions of Americans.
“Mr. Penney declared that opportunity still exists in America for a young man who is willing to work hard,” the Tribune reported. “He emphasized his faith in the future of America and the present economic system.”
It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that Mr. Penney was a good example of American exceptionalism, that magical trait that so many politicians talk about these days. For that matter, Oscar was no slouch in the business world.
Seventy-three years after that photo was published, it’s a much more challenging world for the company that J.C. Penney founded in the dusty plains of western Wyoming. Ron Johnson, the company’s chief executive, resigned recently after a disastrous attempt at turning the company around with a strategy that ignored sales and promotions and emphasized one low price. He was succeeded by former CEO Myron Ullman.
J.C. Penney isn’t the only national retailer struggling through difficult times. If the new management turns things around — and here’s one shopper who hopes they will — it will be a significant accomplishment worthy of the man whose name is on the store.