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Kmart Walnutport closing recalls company’s glory days

The announcement earlier this month that the last remaining area Kmart store (in Walnutport) will be closing came as no surprise to the retail community.

The company has been on a steep downward trajectory for decades, and its acquisition of Sears Inc. and two major recessions, including the one triggered by COVID-19, have pretty much sealed its fate.

What many of our readers may not know is that Kmart’s origins go back to the company’s patriarch, Sebastian Sperling Kresge (S.S. Kresge), who spent most of his formative years in the West End of Monroe County.

Although he was born in 1867 in Bald Mount, Lackawanna County, he grew up on the family farm in Kresgeville, an unincorporated village in Polk Township named for Kresge’s ancestors.

He was raised with strict Pennsylvania Dutch values, including the importance of hard work, thrift and faith in God.

After completing his basic schooling in a one-room schoolhouse, he attended the Polytechnic Institute in Gilbert and the Fairview Academy in Brodheadsville.

After he finished his education, he worked as a delivery person in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area, where he met and became partners with John McCrory, owner of five-and-dime stores. They opened two additional stores in Detroit and Memphis.

By 1909, Kresge had expanded to 42 stores, and his store count was second only to Woolworth’s. Although his love for Monroe County was legendary, he never opened a five-and-dime store there, but Woolworth did, in Stroudsburg.

Kresge as an entrepreneur became a multimillionaire and retired at age 50. Still, he continued involvement with the company. Known as a man of few words, Kresge said just six words at the dedication of a building on the Harvard University campus, “I never made a dime talking.”

He also famously said, “I never spend more than 30 cents for lunch,” but, despite this, he was a generous philanthropist. In 1924, he established the Kresge Foundation, which has benefitted many area organizations and other nonprofits with millions of dollars in grants.

Kresge died in 1966, just a year shy of his 100th birthday at what was then Monroe County General Hospital in East Stroudsburg. By then, Kresge stores had become Kmart with 2,486 stores globally, including 2,323 in the United States.

His estate was valued at more than $3 million with homes in Miami Beach and the 25-acre homestead known as “Green Gables” in Barrett Township, Monroe County. He is buried in the family mausoleum in the Gilbert Cemetery in Chestnuthill Township.

The company became known as Kmart in 1977, even though some of the stores were known by that name as early as 1962. I remember as a young adult sprinting to the location of the “Blue Light Special,” a bargain-priced item announced spontaneously within one of the Kmart stores and located under a flashing blue light not unlike those on top of police cars.

On Jan. 22, 2002, Kmart filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. After emerging from bankruptcy two years later, the company announced it was buying Sears for $11 billion, but the merged company would still operate stores under both well-known brands.

The company again filed for bankruptcy in 2018 but re-emerged after having been thrown a lifeline by its creditors. A year later, Kmart sold 202 of its stores to Transform Holdco and liquidated its remaining stores to partially pay off Sears Holdings creditors.

After the closing of the Walnutport store, which followed closings within the past six months of stores in Wind Gap and Wilson, both in Northampton County, it leaves just one Kmart store open in the entire region, in the Wilkes-Barre area.

To underscore the steep decline of the company, just three years ago, Kmart had six stores in our area.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com