Meet the Malmsten boys.
Karen Jackson has, and the Tekamah woman invites the public to do likewise this summer at the Burt County Museum.
“How Burt County Played a Role in the Development and Expansion of the JCPenney Company” opened in June and will be in place at the Tekamah museum through Sept. 14.
The Malmsten brothers are Carl, Roland and Victor, all born in Burt County, and Roy, who was born in Gothenburg, Nebraska.
The men became partners with James Cash Penney in the early 20th century when the Missouri native was building one of the nation’s most successful department store chains.
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Jackson, who worked for the Penney company for more than 22 years, including many as a visual merchandiser, had once built a display dedicated to a Tekamah store that closed nearly 30 years ago. Museum curator Bonnie Newell asked Jackson if she’d be willing to recreate it.
At about the same time, JCPenney announced it would be closing its Fremont store, which had been in business since 1920, nine years before the Tekamah location opened.
While going through a box of old photos and memorabilia in Fremont, Jackson found a vintage photograph taken near Gothenburg of four men in front of a sod house. During the years she worked at the Fremont store, she had compiled several retirement scrapbooks for fellow employees, but had never seen that particular picture.
“It really caught my interest because it looked like it didn’t belong,” she said. “I set it aside for three months, but it really bugged me.”
An avid genealogist, she started researching the name on the photo.
Her research opened the door to a new aspect of the company’s history.
“Those men all had connections to Burt County, and I thought they should be included,” she said. “I approached Bonnie and told her the display was going to take more than a room.”
A lot more, it turns out.
The display takes up nearly all of the two main houses on the museum campus.
While doing her research over the next several months, Jackson said she came to know the four boys through their writings.
The history is rich, Jackson said. The letters they wrote, some to Mr. Penney personally, describe what it was like opening a store in the West, many in mining towns, in the early 1900s.
“It’s history as it was happening,” she said. “It was a new lifestyle. All they knew was they were working hard and building others, but maybe they didn’t realize what the company would become.”
The Penney business model in the early days was to open a store, then use the profits from that store to open another. They’d work with Penney, the store manager and another investor as partners in the new store. Eventually, Penney became known as “The Man With a Thousand Partners.”
“Penney didn’t hire just clerks,” Jackson said. “He hired men with career potential. Men who could lead others.”
The four brothers came from humble beginnings. Their father, Lars Malmsten, was a Swedish immigrant who came to America in 1869. He soon went into the dry goods business with another Swedish immigrant, Andrew Morell, opening one of the first businesses in Oakland, Nebraska.
Lars later became involved in politics and became Burt County Clerk in 1886.
Although all four brothers profited handsomely through their association with Penney, Carl was perhaps the most successful.
Born in 1877 in Oakland, he worked at the “Mother Store,” in Kemmerer, Wyoming, before managing stores in Utah and making his way back east. As a partner in multiple stores, Carl became a millionaire. One of his partnerships led to the Fremont store opening. It operated in two downtown locations before moving to a Fremont mall in 1966.
Penney, born and raised in Hamilton, Missouri, had interest in agriculture and raised champion polled Herefords at his ranch in Florida.
Carl also had ag interests. He moved to the Fremont area in 1932 and bought a farm north of the city where he raised champion purebred hogs. Massive brick barns he had built still stand on the farm along Highway 77.
Living out the rest of his life in Nebraska — he died at age 80 in Lincoln in 1958 — Carl also became one of the area’s leading philanthropists. He donated considerable sums to what was then known as Midland Lutheran College and to the Fremont YMCA.
All four Malmsten brothers lived to be at least 80 years old. Carl, who died at age 80 in 1958, is buried in Lincoln. His brothers are buried in Colorado, Nevada and Utah.
In addition to the Malmstens, Jackson’s display will showcase the growth of the Penney company through her own personal memorabilia and news clippings. She has been in contact with sources at the Penney museum in the founder’s hometown as well as the company’s headquarters in Plano, Texas, the museum at the Wyoming store and with Joan Gosnell, the curator of Penney’s personal collections at the DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University.
In the meantime, Jackson’s research continues.
“I’m still finding stuff,” she said.
Like many who became steeped in the company’s culture, Jackson said her life of customer service was learned through JCPenney.
“James Cash Penney was a Godly man and his morals really showed through in the his business practices,” she said. “He was all about people and that’s what this display is about — people.”
Mark Jackson is editor of the Burt County Plaindealer