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HAMILTON, Mo. Cruising the streets of this small town in J.C. Penneys 1947 Cadillac convertible was a bit like stepping into a time machine.
Hamilton, located 15 miles east of Cameron, Mo., on Route 36, is the home town of J.C. Penney.
My guide was Dean Hales, owner of Penneys Cadillac. We couldnt drive half a block without someone waving at us. Hales seems to know everyone because hes lived in Hamilton since 1938 when his dad, Leo, opened a grocery store. Its interesting to think that J.C. Penney may have driven this same car over these same roads decades ago.
After his father, Leo, died in 1960, Hales and his brother-in-law, Jim Mogg, took over the family store. They later owned the Hy Klas market, which is owned today by Moggs daughter, Vicki, and her husband, Mark Ward.
Hales, now 76 and retired from the grocery business, has always been a car enthusiast, and his eyes twinkled as he recounted tales of racing on the roads around Hamilton as a youngster. One of his more memorable races occurred when he challenged his dad and his 1950 Buick Roadmaster with a 1950 Oldsmobile. Hales beat him back to town. Another time, they raced the 25 miles to Chillicothe.
He never did get around me, Hales said, and my hands were shaking when we drove into town.
About 40 years ago, Hales heard that Penney wanted to sell a 1947 Cadillac convertible that was stored on a farm near Hamilton. After searching diligently, Hales found the car in a barn near Gilman City.
He bought the car and brought it back to Hamilton. Eventually the upholstery fell apart and he had to replace it, along with the carpet. Otherwise, the car is completely unrestored. The engine has never been overhauled, yet it starts and runs like a gem. The odometer reads 53,932 miles. One front tire is original.
After Penney died in 1971, Hales was instrumental in raising money for the construction of the J.C. Penney Museum and Memorial Library in Hamilton. The museum was dedicated in 1975.
At that time, Hales owned a gas station on Interstate 36 on the edge of Hamilton, and because so many people wanted to see Penneys Cadillac, he built a garage with large glass windows next to his station. He parked Penneys Cadillac inside as a tourist attraction, and the car has been on display for the better part of the last 25 years.
Today, Hales takes the car out of its display for special occasions and to give it some exercise. He said he will never sell the car or leave it to anyone other than his children because J.C. Penneys Cadillac is part of Hamiltons history, and there it will remain.