MATTOON — J.C. Penney Co. announced the 1920 opening of its first Mattoon store with a newspaper ad proclaiming, “Why we came to Mattoon, first of all — we came to stay.”
Flash forward to 2020, changing shopping trends and a COVID-19 pandemic have led to store closures for J.C. Penney and other major retailers.
Times are uncertain, but J.C. Penney has stayed in business in Mattoon. This department store, located since 1971 in the Cross County Mall, still serves its customers and wins parent company honors 100 years after first opening downtown. The store recently reopened after temporarily closing due to the pandemic.
General Manager Tricia Murdock said she has been blessed with a dedicated group of associates who enjoy their jobs, take ownership over their roles within the store, and strive for excellence.
Murdock said their dedication was demonstrated after J.C. Penney temporarily closed Mattoon’s store and locations nationwide as a COVID-19 public health precaution. The store was closed from mid-March to mid-June. Murdock said the associates returned to work, reopened the store, and have tried to keep operations as normal as possible amid new sanitation and social distancing measures.
“Working together as a cohesive team has brought us the operational success that we have achieved,” Murdock said, noting her store “made the cut” from J.C. Penney’s recent store closure list. “If we were not performing well, there is a chance our store would have closed. I just feel that’s such a huge accomplishment.”
Some of the store’s recent honors include Operational Excellence Store designation for 2020, the Quarterly District Credit Champion trophy for late 2019, and a Founder’s Award for 2018. Murdock said the 2020 honor signifies this store is operationally sound and a training role model for associates from other locations.
The Mattoon Public Library’s Local History Center reports that J.C. Penney was the first of the big department stores to arrive in Mattoon with the opening of its downtown location at 1504 Broadway Ave. on May 1, 1920.
Mattoon resident Donna Lanman said she began working as a sales clerk at the 1504 Broadway location in 1944 through her distributive education class at Mattoon High School. Lanman said she had not been there long when J.C. Penney moved in 1945 to 1522-1524 Broadway Ave.
Lanman said they expanded into a storefront that offered two floors and a mezzanine. After graduating from high school, she was put in charge of the infants department on the second floor.
“(Manager T.M. Nelson) made it competitive for his employees to take care of their customers and then he awarded us,” Lanman said. She added that Nelson treated top performing associates to meals at the downtown U.S. Grant Hotel when it was in its “glory days.”
Lanman’s high school classmate, Alice Nelson, joined J.C. Penney in 1957. Nelson said she started by working during the 1957 and 1958 Christmas seasons in the toy department, where children “had a ball” planning their wish lists.
During that era, Lanman said downtown was a fun place to work because of the “hustle and bustle.” She said the crowds were particularly big on weekend nights when J.C. Penney and other stores there stayed open until 9 p.m.
“People would go down there at night to sit in their cars and watch all the people go by,” Nelson said.
The J.C. Penney location in downtown Mattoon and the one on the courthouse square in Charleston both consolidated into the newly opened Cross County Mall in 1971 as the west anchor store for this shopping center.
Nelson, who had begun working full time at J.C. Penney in 1965 with a focus on alterations, said she pressed the mall location’s display drapes before it opened. There, Nelson said she was thrilled to get a room of her own that was equipped with two sewing machines and a press.
Nelson said she stayed busy early on at the mall altering suits and other garments, but this work decreased over time as clothing trends changed. She began working more on the sales floor and then in the personnel office, where she retired in 1989, but still did alterations part-time until a few years ago.
General Manager Murdock, who began working at J.C. Penney in 2011 on the sales floor, said she is proud that the Mattoon store has a low employee turnover rate and has several long term employees among its staff, which numbers approximately 32 associates normally and up to 45 during the holidays.
Those long term associates are Anna Mary Borntrager, cashier assistant, 23 years; Becky Schwartz, cashier, 15; Carolyn Poffinbarger, fine jewelry associate, and Jackie White, merchandise manager, both 13; Bill Sloan, support team associate, 10; Jean Bailey, cashier, 8; and Nick Fonseca, human resources manager, and Debbie Buller, merchandise assistant, both 6.
“I just enjoy the customers and interacting with the customers. A lot of them have been coming here for years,” Borntrager said.
At the store, Borntrager oversees the kitchenware and home furnishings department. She said an increasing number of customers are ordering their J.C. Penney products online, but many older ones still seek her out to help with orders because they know her and feel more comfortable doing this.
“We have many loyal customers who shop with us on a regular basis. We know them by name and appreciate their business,” Murdock said.
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Contact Stroud at (217) 238-6861.
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