An Aerial View of Penney Farms Today
Just south of Jacksonville, Florida, on a 1.5-square-mile patch of land, rests the town of Penney Farms. Population: 750. Median age: 76.
That is where you’ll find Richard Parker ’50 spending his retirement years, one of many retirees living at the Penney Retirement Community (PRC). “More than half the town is the retirement community,” he said.
The place offers similar benefits to many other retirement centers, with some significant value-added propositions. It’s an inclusive, not-for-profit, Christian retirement community that values self sufficiency, the dignity of work, and ecological sustainability. PRC is the largest continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in northeast Florida. (A CCRC is an organization that provides housing, personal services and healthcare in one location.)
There’s an arts-and-crafts department specializing in weaving, pottery, woodwork, and many other creative endeavors. Money earned through the sale of goods goes into a fund to help finance activities to enrich residential lifestyles.
The pitch on their website: “We take care of each other—and the earth.”
For Parker, this all sounded pretty familiar. “Berea College and PRC are very similar in beliefs, values, and structure,” the retired scientist said. PRC is entirely resident managed, and all commit to a variety of volunteer work to reduce operational costs. They do taxes, repair computers, and many necessary services that are within their expertise.
“There’s a lot of activity here, and much of it is the volunteers working at the nursing home and other assisted-living facilities,” said Parker. “They supplement the staff and actually reduce the number of employees who have to be hired.”
Parker puts in 10 to 15 hours per week working on the railroad—the extensive scale model of the railroad kept on display at the community. “A long time ago,” he said, “there was a narrow gauge railroad that came by Penney Farms and provided transportation for products and people.”
The story of Penney Farms and the Berea-esque retirement community at its center began nearly a century ago with James Cash Penney, founder of the J.C. Penney Company, and the Bereans he recruited to build an experimental farming village.
Keeping ’em Down on the Farm
In the 1920s, the future of farms was a point of major discussion in America. Previously, during World War I, agriculture had been a booming industry. But when the war ended in 1918, demand plummeted, and an agricultural depression set in. More than half a million farmers went bankrupt. Many young veterans moved to the cities, and for the first time in American history, more than 50 percent of the population identified as urban.
All of this may have concerned J.C. Penney as he sought a way to encourage the business of farming. He certainly had a soft spot for farmers, having grown up on a farm and owing much of his success to the farming communities that supported his chain of stores. The business model by which he ran his retail outlets might work in farming as well, he thought. Like J.C. Penney store managers, farmers could be set up with what they needed to conduct the business of farming—land, equipment, a house—and gain ownership of them gradually through accumulated earnings.
Penney bought 120,000 acres of Florida land and, in 1922, established Penney Farms with the intention of creating a self-sustainable farm community that harnessed technological advances and efficiencies. He sought out skilled and “respectable” farmers or newcomers looking to begin a career. Each was given a 20-acre plot.
“Mr. Penney trusted people to run their own business and establish independence,” said Parker. “He essentially gave them the keys and walked away from it. The residents were supposed to be industrialists, farming and selling their goods.”
Naturally, there were stipulations. The recruits should be married men of good moral character with families and experience. They should not be drinkers or tobacco users and, ideally, should be church-goers, Penney stipulated.
The entrepreneurial farmers and interested youngsters would be taught modern scientific farming practices at the J.C. Penney-Gwinn Institute of Applied Agriculture, open to men and women with at least two years of high school. If the modest $50 tuition was out of reach for students, they would be given work to pay for it.
The son of a preacher, Penney was also concerned about ministers who could no longer work and often struggled in retirement lacking income or pension. To his farming experiment he added PRC’s predecessor, the Memorial Home Community, which offered free rent to retired pastors, missionaries and other Christian workers, and a garden where they could grow food for themselves.
He had a sustainable farming community, an agricultural school with a work program, and a home for retired ministers. What remained were people to help him build it.
If Bereans Build It, They Will Come
Carpentry instructor Bascom Franklin ’19 recruited 113 students to spend their summer building Penney Farms at the request of a representative of J.C. Penney. Franklin, who managed the broom factory and the building of dormitories at Berea, also instructed students in the building of Penney Memorial Church, which Parker says is similar to Union Church in Berea. Though the students returned to Berea, Franklin would stay another 30 years, helping to maintain the buildings and grounds.
Francis Clark, a 1908 Berea graduate, renowned agriculturalist, dean of the agricultural school and superintendent of the Berea College forest, was hired in 1925 to oversee all farming duties, bringing with him the latest advances in farming techniques. As farm manager, he led the process of admitting “industrious, thrifty, sober, God-fearing” farmers. Later, Clark became the superintendent of the Memorial Home Community.
Another Berean instrumental in the development of the Penney Farms community was D. Walter Morton. A former college administrator, Morton became the resident agent for the Penney-Gwinn Corporation. He supervised arrivals at the farms and helped start the local church. In addition to teaching Sunday school, Morton served as the first director of the retirement community.
Among the 113 students recruited for the project was Earl G. Robbins ’32, future Berea trustee and establisher of the Earl and Sue Robbins Peace and Brotherhood Lecture Series at the College. In a letter to the daughters of J.C. Penney, Robbins outlined the impact of the Penney Farms experience. “It raised our feeling of self-worth,” he said, “and the desire to do good things in the world for others as your father had done for us.”
Paid $3 a day (“a considerable amount” at the time), the students repaired the railroad, built the church and retirement community, cleared and cultivated land, and assisted with the dairy herd. Robbins was recruited to do farm work.
In that same letter, Robbins offered thanks to both Penney and Berea College. “I lay much of the success that I have had in life to the goodness of your father, Mr. J.C. Penney, and to Berea College, which allowed me to enter school there with $2.36 of borrowed money.”
For this article, we looked for but were unable to find how J.C. Penney became acquainted with Berea College. The closest to a direct correspondence was a 1926 letter from the J.C. Penney Foundation that accompanied a $1,000 check in support of the College’s mission.
“You know what satisfaction we have in making this contribution,” it reads.
An American Dream, Modified
Unfortunately, the experimental farming village would not become quite as grand as Penney imagined. During the years of the Great Depression, Penney nearly lost his fortune and had to sell off most of the land to keep his retail business going.
But some of Penney’s little rural utopia lived on. The church remained, as did the Memorial Home Community, open to both ministers and lay persons. The price of admission depended on the size of the home they purchased. Parker moved there in 2001, after his wife, Jane, began to decline in health. She passed in 2009.
“Residing at the Penney Retirement Community lessened the pain of losing my wife,” said Parker. “Everyone provided loving support.”
The community aspect of the retirement center is what brings back thoughts of Berea for him. “I would like to see more Berea alumni here. It fits in with our life background going through Berea.”
Parker hopes to remain independent as long as possible, but if and when the day comes that he cannot, he is confident the little Berea-esque retirement community will care for him. Until then, inspired by Berea students from 80-some years ago, he’ll keep working on the railroad.