Kmart Founder’s Life Begins, Ends Here

By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association

During this time of year, many people search for the perfect gifts at multi-level shopping malls and the Internet.  There was a time, however, when neither mega malls nor the Internet existed, and everyone shopped at small ìmom and popî stores in downtown districts. Sebastian Spering Kresge started with a handful of such small stores called Kresge’s Five and Dime, and through profitable business practices, he went on to form the well-known retail company, K-Mart. 

Sebastian Spering Kresge was born July 31, 1867 in the West End of Monroe County to Sebastian and Catherine (Kunkle) Kresge.  He was raised on the family farm in Kresgeville, named for Kresge’s ancestors, and had a strong Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing consisting of a belief in hard work, thrift, and religion. By the age of 10, Kresge had already developed a strong sense of business. A neighbor gave Kresge a single beehive. Five years later, Kresge had turned that single hive into five active beehives and was able to raise enough money to pay for his education. Kresge’s honey also took the first place ribbon at the West End Fair five years in a row.

After completing his basic schooling at a one-room schoolhouse, S.S. Kresge continued his education by attending the Polytechnic Institute in Gilbert and the Fairview Academy in Brodheadsville.  Following his education, Kresge held many jobs, from working as a delivery boy for a Scranton grocer to selling tinware door-to-door for the W.B. Bertels Son and Company of Wilkes-Barre. One of Kresge’s clients was John McCrory, owner of six bazaars and five-and-dime stores.  A partnership grew between Kresge and McCrory, and the pair opened two additional stores in Memphis, Tennessee and Detroit, Michigan.

In 1899, Kresge sold the Memphis five-and-dime store and became sole owner of the one in Detroit.  Within ten years, Kresge had expanded his enterprises and owned 42 five-and-dime stores. At the time, the only larger retailer of five-and-dime stores was Woolworth. Throughout the Depression, Kresge stayed loyal to his customers by keeping his prices low, offering no single item in his stores that cost more than one dollar.  Kresge’s dedication to the success of his stores through hard work and long hours proved very profitable. Interestingly, Kresge never opened a five-and-dime store in Monroe County.

The S.S. Kresge Company discount stores continued to grow, and Kresge was able to retire as a multi-millionaire at the age of 50.  Despite being retired, he continued to be involved with the company he had founded.  At Kresge’s retirement, Harry Cunningham took over as the new President.  It was Cunningham who developed a new marketing strategy by studying consumer needs and expanding the Kresge Company to meet those needs. On March 1, 1962, the first K-Mart opened in suburban Detroit.

Sebastian Spering Kresge was a man of few words and strong beliefs. When asked to dedicate a building on Harvard’s campus, Kresge’s speech consisted of six words: “I never made a dime - talking.”  He then returned to his seat. Kresge was truly thrifty, although some critics referred to him as being stingy with his money. Among his famous quotes: “I never spent more than 30 cents for lunch in my life.”

Kresge, however, was very generous with his money.  In 1924, he established the Kresge Foundation Endowment Fund.  Over the years, this fund has given millions of dollars to various organizations and institutions across the United States. In 1954, Kresge’s Foundation gave locally: $250,000 to the General Hospital, now the Pocono Medical Center, for its expansion, and $250,000 to assist in the construction of the Monroe County YMCA.

Kresge got his start in business from beehives. When he died in East Stroudsburg on October 18, 1966 at 99 years of age, his business empire had expanded to 918 stores across North America. Kresge’s estate was worth $3 million, including a home in Miami Beach, Florida and the 25-acre family homestead called “Green Gables” in Barrett Township, Monroe County.

Kresge was once quoted as saying, “Bees always remind me that hard work, thrift, sobriety and earnest struggle to live an upright Christian life are the first rungs on the ladder of success.” Sebastian Spering Kresge is buried in the family mausoleum in the Gilbert Cemetery.