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Gust Gilbertson and J.C. Penney

(Combination of manuscripts by descendants Joanna E. Prunty and
Diana Ruzicka, lightly edited, combined with Skagit River Journal research)

      Gust Gilbertson (also spelled Gus) became one of the most influential early retailers and businessmen in Sedro-Woolley through his participation in three important businesses: The J.C. Penney store, which he opened in 1915, the Hardwood Products Mill on the original Woolley family mill site, and the Gateway Hotel.
      Gustav W. Gilbertson was born April 21, 1878, in Fluberg, Presteggijdd, Norway, to Gulbrand C. Haugstad and Sophie Petrovilla Olsdater. He came to the United States with his parents by the 1890s and they initially settled in Wisconsin. He was a tailor by trade and he dreamed of someday managing or owning a clothing store. Always looking for more experience, Gust traveled for several years, working and studying the retail trade of the dry goods business. While in Vancouver, Canada, he realized, however, that working in a variety store wasn't to his liking. After a year of selling yardage, needles, pins, pots, pans, etc. he started moving towards the clothing lines. Soon he traveled to Spokane, Washington, where he fitted ladies in their high top shoes and gentlemen in leather, beaver felt or genuine kangaroo shoes, which were sometimes styled with laces to the ankle.
      The 1900 census of Bernard Precinct, Spokane, Washington, listed Gust Gilbertson born April 1878, age 22, a clerk born in Norway with both parents born in Norway and he could read, write and speak English. Gustav Gilbertson married Julia Balholm in Spokane on Nov. 12, 1903, at Our Savior Norwegian Lutheran Church. Their witnesses were John Ntysturu and Annie Balholm (sister of the bride). Gust was 25 years old and a clerk. Julia was 19 years old and a dressmaker.

This biography is linked directly with the profile of J.C. Penney. Gust Gilbertson came to Sedro-Woolley in 1915 to open store number 83 in the J.C. Penney chain.

      In 1910, Gust and Julia moved to Butte, Montana, and on February. 16, their first child, Gladys Olivia Gilbertson, was born. The records of the Clerk & Recorder of Butte, Montana record two births to Gustav Gilbertson and Julia Balholm that day. The first is a female with initial "J" and the second a female with no first name listed. At the time of Gladys's birth, Gust was a clerk in a shoe store (the birth certificate lists his profession as salesman) and Julia also worked as a clerk. That same year on July 24, Gust's mother, Sophie Petrovilla Gilbertson died in LaCrosse, Wisconsin from apoplexy. On Oct. 6, 1911, Gust's father, Gilbert C. Gilbertson (Americanized on death certificate), died in Holland, Wisconsin, from old age. Within a year after Gladys's birth, the family moved to Murray, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake, where Gladys's brother, Clifford was born on Oct. 30, 1912. He weighed 1 pound when born and the family story is that his parents used a shoe box for his crib. Although we have no evidence, Gust possibly met his future boss and mentor in Salt Lake City during that period.

John Cash Penney hires Gus
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      The year 1913 was pivotal for Gust as he met and went to work for a future giant of the clothing industry, John Cash Penney. The young Gilbertson family moved to Cumberland, Wyoming, where Penney managed the Golden Rule store, starting in 1902, briefly as part of a partnership in four stores. Kemmerer was a coal-mining town and Penney recalled later for a biographer that he chose the town because of the miners and ranchers were honest and hardworking: "When you looked in their eyes, they were all there without making up starched fronts."
      The Gilbertson family memory is that Penney changed the store's name in 1913 because a misunderstanding developed between this store and another "Golden Rule" which both claimed the same name. According to that story, the dispute was brought to court and then settled when Penney changed the name to J.C. Penney. According to Penney's official 75th Anniversary history, however, he changed the name because "Golden Rule was not distinctive enough." Ironically, when the partnership opened store number one in Kemmerer on April 14, 1902, the firm's official name was Johnson, Callahan and Penney. In 1907, Penney bought out his partners and began opening stores in other mountain states. In 1909, Penney moved his headquarters to Salt Lake City to be nearer to banks and railroads.
      While there was certainly distinction in managing Penney's original location, Gust was also watched closely for the same reason. The new J.C. Penney Co. became a multi-state corporation that year with 36 stores, J.C. Penney Company, with headquarters in Utah. The Penney Idea, a set of seven guiding principles for the company, formulated became Gust's rules of business for the next two decades. Julia clerked in the store and sewed for customers. Gust managed the Golden Rule store.
      The location was actually the second one for the store. The original was a woodframe building with a facade and was located between a laundry and a boarding house. The store that Gust managed dated from 1908, after Penney bought out his partners, and was located next door to the Kemmerer Opera House on one side and a saloon on the other. A nearby saloon was operated by Lyman "Lime" Huggins, who was known as "Preacher Lime." One sign over Lime's bar read, "Don't buy a drink before seeing that your baby has shoes." A customer reckoned that he liked Lime's saloon because he could sin and repent at the same time and "get the whole thing over at once."

(Kemmerer Penney's store)
      This photo shows the Golden Rule store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, where Gust was hired to manage in 1913. J.C. Penney had already prospered enough that he had moved from the original woodframe building across town. The sign over the door of the store says, "One Price." Even the Opera House was apparently a saloon in reality, as were all the other buildings on the block except for the Golden Rule.

      When he incorporated his company, Penney also established a profit sharing plan for all his employees, whom he considered associates. Gust was called the "first man," who were like managers in other stores. After a store showed a certain percentage of profit, the first man had the opportunity to become the manager of a new store. In 1914, Gust moved over to Cumberland, Wyoming, and managed Penney's original second store. Gladys's recollections began as a five-year-old in Cumberland at this dry goods store.
      Cumberland was a small mining town where the miners and their families came to town late to shop. The store hours were, therefore, very long, being from seven a.m. till midnight, seven days a week. The store was built on a hillside with steps leading up to a large porch, under which Gladys spent many hours playing dolls with children of the customers who had. come to shop. Gladys's first memories were from that time and she recalled that they lived in a room in back of the small one room store. The only heat for the store was the old-fashioned pot belly stove. Gust soon learned that Penney insisted that employees must never be idle. There was always stock to be counted, shelves dusted and if necessary to keep busy, the floor could be swept.

Gust manages Sedro-Woolley J.C. Penney store and opens two more
(Family photo)
Julia, Gust and the children, circa 1915 when they moved to Sedro-Woolley

      As the business in Cumberland continued to prosper, Gust's reward from the rapidly growing company was the opportunity to open a new store in Washington state or California. In 1915, the year after World War I broke out, the family moved to Sedro-Woolley and established Penney store number 83. and Gust also opened J.C. Penney Company stores in Mount Vernon and Port Angeles because managers had the ability to expand store chains in those days. If one store was making enough money to put out a new store, the manager of that store would establish the new store. The manager then received stock in the new store and one percent of its income.
      Gilbertson opened the J.C. Penney store in Sedro-Woolley on 813 Metcalf Street, where R&E Engineering stands today. Gladys went to school in the Irving and Franklin buildings on Central Street for the first through fifth grades. She recalled that the Penney store was located one block from their house, but we have not triangulated the home location yet. She also recalled that the Dray Company Livery Barn that hauled freight and stored wagons was behind the store (could have been the second location).
      Managers had the option of stocking their stores according to the unique needs of their communities. Because Sedro-Woolley was a farming and logging town, items such as overalls for 50 cents, logging boots for $2.50 and heavy flannel shirts for 50 cents to $1.00 were popular. Yardage goods were also popular and sold as low as five cents a yard and up. Just as back in Cumberland, the trend in those days was for the women to come into town with the men in the evening after work so the store hours were long. After working on the farm all day, the women would do the shopping while the men visited the local tavern. The hours in Sedro-Woolley were five days a week, 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. and Saturdays until midnight. Gladys and Clifford. were often put to bed under the counter where the cash box was kept. Julia did all the alterations on the men's suits and coats.
      Penney's employees conducted the annual inventory on the weekend after Christmas and Julia prepared hot chili and crackers for thems. On New Years Day she also prepared an elaborate banquet for all employees and their families and Gust serve Ludafisk and Lefsa, according to old Norwegian customs, and Julia also cooked a large turkey along with the traditional American dishes.
      The Northern Pacific and the Great Northern railroads ran through the town. Flat cars were brought through with different equipment used during the war. Gust purchased the first Maxwell automobile in Sedro-Woolley in 1917. One Sunday while going on a picnic, Gust put the car in reverse and accidently went down an embankment into a cow pasture. He also purchased the first Atwater-Kent battery-powered radio in Sedro Woolley in 1920.
      In 1919, Gilbertson moved the store across the street to 806, now the home of Skagit Surveyors. The retail space was larger and featured a low balcony over the rear of the store. By then Gust had a bookkeeper who also served as the cashier. Instead of having the cash box under the counter, a new system was installed. The sales slip and. money was placed in a container called the "carriage cup." The cup was sent along a wire to the cashier upstairs in the balcony. The carriage cup then returned the change to the clerk. The cashier was centered on the balcony so that she could keep an eye on the front door. If she noticed anyone trying to shop lift, she had. a special button to push, alerting the clerks. In the new location he also had two clerks in material; one in notions, one in hosiery, bras and. corsets, and one in the men's departments, which included men's wear and shoes for both men and. women. In addition he had a clerk in ladies ready to wear and an assistant manager.
      By 1924 the clerks were earning eighty dollars a month. The merchandise these clerks sold was ordered and shipped from the New York City main office, arriving in Sedro-Woolley by train. Many manager conventions were held in New York and Gust learned better means of promoting merchandise there. Gust returned and. held one of the first fashion shows to display the latest styles. His first show was held at the local Dream theatre which provided a stage. The following year he decided to hold the show right in his store. The models walked down the steps from the balcony and branched off on a ramp he had built to go right over the top of some of the counters. This method of advertising brought many large crowds in the evenings and increased sales.
      In the 1920 Federal Census, G. Gilbertson, 41, was enumerated on 533 Ferry Street. His wife, Julia, was 37, born in South Dakota and whose father was born in Norway and mother in Denmark even though her mother spoke Norwegian. Their children were Gladis [actually Gladys), a daughter age 9, born in Montana, and Clifford W., a son age 7, born in Utah).
      Julia soon endeared herself to the town. For Christmas she made boxes of food for poor families and if clothes were ever returned, she adjusted them for the less fortunate children in Sedro-Woolley. She taught Sunday school and worked in the J.C. Penney store with Gus. The town had an annual Chautauqua a block from the store that provided a cultural outlet for adults and amusement for kids of Gladys's age.. When Gladys was 8 to 10, the family rented three of their upstairs rooms out to teachers and Gladys was responsible for cutting kindling and bringing coal up to the rooms. She was raised in a strict Norwegian manner and was never allowed to leave the house after dinner and she was never allowed to talk at dinner.

Julia Gilbertson dies and Gust remarries
(Gust's parents)
Gust's Norwegian parents

      Family funerals dominated the early 1920s for the Gilbertsons. Julia's father died in 1922 at Rockford, Washington and her mother followed the next spring. Then the greatest blow to the family occurred when Julia died on Sept. 3, 1923, at age 39, after 20 years of marriage, Julia Gilbertson died in 1923 at the age of 39 in Sedro-Woolley following an operation from which she never fully recovered. Gladys was only 13 years old and for unknown reasons, Julia on her death bed asked her sister, Annie Balholm, to make sure Gladys never married. Joanna E. Prunty, Gladys daughter, speculates that Gladys' distrust for doctors and the medical profession stemmed from her mother's death.
      Gust married three years later in 1926 to Cleo Hazel Innis Humble. She was widowed just after World War I and had two children: Roberta, age 4 and James, age 2. Cleo Gilbertson was the first president of the Auxiliary of the American Legion in Sedro-Woolley, Washington from 1928-30. Soon after her mother's death, Gladys's maternal aunt, Anna Cushing, and her husband, George Cushing, sold their ranch and moved into the Gilbertson's ten-room home (6 bedrooms, dining room, music room, parlor and kitchen). Meanwhile, Gladys continued to get up at 5 a.m. every morning and filled the coal buckets to put in the upstairs rooms for the fireplaces and pot belly stoves.
      Gust's strict Norwegian child-raising soon provoked rebellion. In her freshman year in high school Gladys wanted to go to the Sunday school picnic but her father did not approve. She went anyway and enjoyed marshmallows and hot dogs with the other kids. Around 7 p.m. they all piled into a Model-T and started home. Unfortunately her father came along in his Maxwell and took her out of the car — there were boys in the car! — and drove Gladys home. Gladys received a lecture from her father and was locked in her bedroom, but she promptly snuck out the window and climbed down the cherry tree. When she returned, coming in the back door, she was punished severely,-"to forgo all pleasures for 3 months."
      During Gladys's senior year, her father courted Mrs. Humble and left Gladys in Marysville. When they married in June 1926, Gust was 48 and Cleo was 32. For their honeymoon, Gust and Cleo went to Lake Chelan, stayed in log cabins and took boat rides on the lake while Gladys took care of her brother, Clifford, and her new step-brother and sister.
      Gust must have relented a bit because when Gladys's senior class of 1928 presented a play, "Second Childhood; A Farce in Three Acts," directed by Gertrude Calhoun, Gladys Gilbertson played the role of the mother, Mrs. Henderson, her mother. She graduated on May 20, 1928.
      After graduation, Gladys went on to nurses training at Providence Hospita in Seattle. Soon afterwards Gladys met a patient, Hilaire Huyge, who was smitten with her but she spurned his attention. They started dating in 1928. In the next year, Gust and took Gladys and her brother on a tour of Europe before the stock market crash in the United States. Cleo's father was ill and she and her children by the first marriage stayed with him while the others were gone for two months.
      Their route was by rail across Canada, then up the Saint Lawrence River, across the Atlantic to Burgon, Norway; Christeria, Oslo, Norway; .train to Londonsen Norway, Germany, France, Holland and then back to New York. When they arrived in Norway, their trunks did not so they had no and they bought clothes to go home. The trunks finally arrived three months after they returned home.
      After their return, Gladys went for a walk with Hilaire one day and he asked her to marry him. He said, "You'll have to give up nursing". During those days, students of nursing could not be married. She agreed and Gladys Hilaire Huyge were married on May 5, 1930, in Seattle by Rev. Dr. Mark A. Matthews, whose Seattle Presbyterian church was the largest in the country at the time. At first the couple lived in Seattle, where Hilaire sold Metropolitan Insurance, but the pressure-selling during the Depression angered him and Gust suggested that he needed them to manage a building he owned in Everett. While living there in 1932, Gladys gave birth to their daughter, Joanna Emma Prunty.

Gust invests in a hardwood mill
(Cleo and Gust)
Cleo (second wife) and Gust at home in Sedro-Woolley

      After managing the Penney's store for 17 years, Gust had become one of the stalwart businessmen in town and an opportunity presented itself during the early years of the Depression that he could not pass up. The Cory Mill was on the site of P.A. Woolley's original sawmill in a wedge of land to the north of town next to the criss-crossed railroad tracks. When it went bankrupt in 1927, Sig Broe and an investors group bought the firm but by 1932 they were also going broke.
      Gust jumped at the chance to take over the mill and he invested $25,000 in new machinery and kilns to mill alder and maple lumber and soon added birch & cottonwood. Hilaire and Gladys traveled to Europe in 1931 to visit his mother and relatives in Belgium and afterwards they settled in Sedro-Woolley where Hilaire became a salesman for Gust's new Hardwood Products mill. He turned out to be a natural because he had a gift for making cabinets. He not only furnished their home but designed cabinets and furniture for people all over town.
      By 1939, the Sedro-Woolley Courier-Times reported that the payroll for the mill, including loggers, totaled $15,000 per month, one of the biggest in the area. More than 50 men worked there at full capacity on four dry kilns, a cut-up plant, a big gluing dept for table tops, desk tops, furniture and chairs, and 75 men logged at peak times. The product was marketed as far east as Salt Lake City and Cliff Gilbertson was the log buyer, while Henry Fellows was secretary and office manager. Gust also diversified his investments even further in 1939, as he bought the Gateway Hotel and Restaurant.
      When Joanna was old enough to attend Central Grade School, Gladys and Hilaire built a new home across the street at 535 Nelson Street. Gladys helped lay the hard wood floor and Hilaire custom-made the cabinets. Since it was the first brick house in Sedro-Woolley, people drove by to see and photograph it. Children often stood outside and sang, "and he huffed and he puffed and he couldn't blow it down."
      Gust was also the new mayor in 1939 (served two terms) and another opportunity fell in his lap as he moved the Penney store for the last time, to the northeast corner of Metcalf and State streets, most recently the home of Bus Jungquist Furniture until 2008. The fortuitous move resulted after the Ludwick-Wuest store, with more than twice the retail space, failed in that location in 1938. The lots themselves at the northeast corner of State and Metcalf streets are literally located on the boundary between the old towns of Sedro and Woolley. This area was once called "The Bowery" and for the first two decades of settlement it was a "no-man's land" because the title was clouded by a dispute over ownership. Penney's was a downtown fixture at that location for nearly 44 years after that and many people still remember the amazing pneumatic tube system that whisked paperwork for purchases all over the store, a more advanced version of the earlier carriage cup. The Penney's store closed in 1983 and Bus Jungquist moved his furniture store from across Metcalf Street to the old Penney's location in the fall of 1985.

Gust becomes a widower again
(Gust's Maxwell)
Gust owned the first Maxwell auto in town

      On July 2, 1941, Cleo Humble Gilbertson died several months after being diagnosed with cancer. A few months later in the fall, Gust Gilbertson married a third time to a widow named Clara Tritt, who soon drove a wedge between the four children, now grown, and Gus. Before the war broke out that December, he sold the mill to Goodyeear-Nelson, who designated it Unit 2, in addition to their main plant southwest of town.
      In 1943 Gladys went into business for herself and opened Joanna's Art and Baby Shop in Sedro-Woolley. She and her employees made baby clothes and all types of handcrafts and also sold crafts on consignment until 1948. Cliff also opened his own business, Cliff's Sporting Goods, next to Hank's Barbershop on State Street.
      In 1954, Hilaire Huyge was diagnosed with lymphoma and was hospitalized in Seattle for radiation treatment. Gladys drove south daily to visit and returned to work as a bookkeeper in Mount Baker Hardware Store in Sedro-Woolley. Gladys drove to Seattle every day to visit Hilaire and would return to Sedro-Woolley every day to work. At the same time, Joanna met an Air Force pilot named Clarence (Chuck) Prunty and they planned to marry, but postponed the wedding due to Hilaire's illness. Hilaire died on Sept. 19, 1954 at age 51; Gladys was 44 and they had been married 24 years. Ten days later, Johnnie Sansom, Gladys's close childhood friend and schoolmate, walked Joanna down the aisle and gave her away for her wedding.
      Gust owned the Gateway Hotel building and leased out the hotel itself as well as the restaurant for $600 per month. The hotel was then still occupied, both with monthly residents and overnight guests. Then, on April 27, 1956, Gust Gilbertson died from a heart attack in Burlington. He was hospitalized, went home and died. He was 78 years old. Clifford died on 16 April 1960 and left his widow, Inez, and a daughter, Gaye. Gladys married again in 1957 to Art Rhinestein and they moved to California in 1960. She died in Medford, Oregon, on Nov. 27, 2004.

(Gust ad)

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Story posted on Feb. 25, 2009, last updated Jan. 20, 2011
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