Carolyn L. Higgins – Contributing Writer
A modern term for an enterprising businessperson with various ventures is a “serialpreneur.” Having a vision and the passion and professionalism to sustain his various pursuits is what set James “J.C.” Jacobs apart from others. As he unfolded the episodes unveiling each new business, the word fear never came across his lips. However, two words kept recurring – I knew, I knew … But, little did he know how much of an impact he would make on a town, a region and its people. The unveiling time capsule of this sharp 99-year old legend is riveting, drawing in the listener with each true episode. Successful businessman, Rotarian, father, serviceman, churchgoer, civil servant . . . the list unfolds as his daughter, councilwoman Janet Greene, sits nearby. Expressions change on her face from humor to dismay as her father recalls some information previously unknown to her. “A lot of that is familiar, but I never knew about some of his military service,” said Greene. Through the Depression to impression The Great Depression of 1929 was a little more than a decade away when Jacobs was born in 1918 in Macon County’s Iotla community near Franklin, N.C. When he entered the business world as a young high school kid, it was nearing its end. Jacobs was absorbing lessons from his parents, Eugene Lawrence Jacobs and Bessie Baldwin Jacobs, while working on their farm and helping to raise his younger brothers and sisters, Helen, Lois, Kate, Radford, and Carroll. During the “worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world” – this kind of tragedy must have made an impression. When an opportunity arose to make money, he went to work for Jack Sanders who had escaped from Russia to America and somehow found his way to Franklin. “I was in high school when a friend who worked at Sanders Clothing Store said they had an opening for a clerk and would I be interested,” said Jacobs. “I said ‘yes I would.’ I worked for him [Sanders] off and on in high school. And then when summer time vacation came, I went to work from 7 a.m. in the morning till 7 p.m. at night. You worked six days a week back then and for one dollar a day. You got $5.94 because he took out a penny for Social Security.” He worked 12-hour days that would now be subject to child labor laws, but most likely this set him up for future work ethic as a business owner. In fact, after he had graduated, Bill Holt, a soda shop owner in Highlands, came to see him with an offer. “I’d like to have you come to Highlands and work in my soda shop, and I’ll give you $15 a week and a room.” It was a good move for Jacobs because Holt was rarely there. Jacobs was a soda jerk, but he was mostly charged with running the shop now occupied by Sweetreats. Jacobs was 20 years old when a man came to the soda shop one night and invited him to the Potts Boarding House for a conversation. He realized the man had been coming into the shop and observing him. “He would come in every day and drink a coke and watch me operate,” said Jacobs. That night he told Jacobs: “I want you to come to Miami, Fla. and work in a bank.” So he went to Miami and soon realized it was Florida National Bank and Trust, a large operation with 125 people, and his job was in the bookkeeping department making $25 a week. He boarded in a house that provided three meals a day and a room for $13 a week, with $12 left over, which is about what he made on his previous job. Serving his country here and abroad After working at the bank about a year, World War II had begun and Jacobs was drafted. He wanted to be deployed from Franklin rather than Miami, so he returned and was sent to Fort Benning, Ga. “I was scheduled to be in the infantry – had my rifle, backpack and everything; and then a call came in from the Army Airbase in New Orleans, and they wanted 55 men,” said Jacobs. His name was called near the bottom of the list, so he went to New Orleans and from there to Europe. He served 22 months in Europe and North Africa taking part in integral theaters. First he was in England, and then he fought in the 1942 North African invasion, going all the way to Tunisia as part of Operation Torch (a joint effort between American and British Forces) that ultimately forced German General Erwin Rommel from Europe in March 1943, ending the African adventure and leaving 22,000 soldiers to cope with and fence in 300,000 surrendered Germans. “Then I transferred to Italy and went on to the Italian invasion and then moved over with the squadron to Sardinia (an Island in the Mediterranean Sea) where we were bombing Anzio,” said Jacobs. Having accumulated enough points to return home, his name was put into a lottery, and he was the second one drawn. Shortly thereafter he left Sardinia to return to Miami for 30 days rest and relaxation. “I felt jubilant when I first knew I was coming back to the States, because it was a mess over there,” said Jacobs. Jacobs requested a transfer to a Georgia or North Carolina Air Force base to escape the hot, double-shower days. However, because of his Military Occupational Specialty code, he performed valuable skills as a typist and office supplier and he was needed elsewhere. “They sent me out to Peyote, Texas, because I wouldn’t stay with them . . . to the worse place they could send me,” said Jacobs. “In Texas, I was in charge of troop disposal, and I had to transfer people, get them paid, and call to get them out. I transferred them all over the United States.” In 1945, a Teletype came indicating if a service person had enough points, they could be discharged. Jacobs put it on Captain Descilo’s desk along with his discharge form. He didn’t know the captain would hide it before later admitting he had seen it but needed Jacobs to stay. Jacobs’ valuable skills and abilities to run just about any operation, continued to be an asset to the military but a liability for his plans. However, Jacobs retrieved his form and had his transfer processed for Fort Bragg where he was discharged. A career decision that changed his life and his town He took an inventory of his life and experience and decided at 25 years old that four years of college would be a bit daunting. He knew what he wanted to do and decided to seek employment and then open his own business. “Well, I knew . . . you see what happens when a young boy works in a grocery store, they wind up with groceries,” said Jacobs. “If you work in the clothing store, you lean towards clothing. So that’s what I wanted to do because that was my first job, and I wanted to go back to that.” Jacobs returned to Franklin and heard the Bank of Franklin was looking for him because he had worked at the Miami bank. After dodging them for several days he had a realization. “Finally, I woke up one morning and said ‘hey dummy you can get in that bank and find out what’s going on in Franklin.’” So, he began working at the Bank of Franklin indicating from the beginning that he would not stay long, because he had other plans. True to his word, he worked six years and said he knew he needed to do something else. He had aspirations to open his own business, but since there was no credit in those days, you had to have your own money. Fortunately, Jacobs had sent money home to his mother while he was in service and had added to that fund while he worked at the bank. His mother had helped him accumulate $3,200 – a hefty sum in those days. He told his father he was going to open a ladies’ dress shop while still working at the bank. His father was leery. “He said ‘how much you gonna spend?’ I said ‘all I’ve got,’” said Jacobs. “He said, ‘no I wouldn’t do that.’” Jacobs followed his heart’s desire and opened the Twins’ Shop in August 1946, named after his twin sisters, Kate and Lois. Kate ran the store, which was behind the current Gazebo. Jacobs said it was a bad name because people thought it was only for twins. When The Frances Shop became available on Main Street, Jacobs purchased the business from Frances Higdon. He consolidated the businesses and relocated the Twins’ Shop to Main Street (where NC MountainMade is currently located). “When I left the bank, I bought an interest in the Burrell Motor Company, but I didn’t like selling automobiles so I later sold it back to him [Clint Burrell],” said Jacobs. (Burrell was the mayor at the time and Jacobs was an Alderman. Generations later, Burrell’s grandson, Adam Burrell would become Jacobs’ doctor.) Not one to be daunted, he continued to pursue his next business venture. “That’s when I opened up People’s Department Store in May 1957, after purchasing it from Joe Asher when Belk department store left.” Asher had run a dry goods business and owned the building Jacobs had been eyeing for some time. After the experience with the Twins’ Shop name, Jacobs was more methodical when naming the department store. “I looked through a catalog of names, and I kept seeing People’s Drugs, People’s this, and People’s that. So, I said maybe that’s a good name. I’ll just use it.” He kept up the businesses simultaneously without closing either of them, and the other twin, Lois, came to work at People’s. Both stores carried quality goods, but the Twins’ Shop had specialized merchandise priced a bit higher. Despite competition in town from big name stores Belk, Bowers, Cato, Blumenthal’s, J.B. Pendergrass and others – all clothing and shoe stores like People’s, Jacobs was so successful that chief clerks from the competitors wanted to work for him. However, he did not accept any competitors’ employees unless they were no longer with the company. Pendergrass was in the current Macon County Historical Museum, and present museum curator Robert Shook recalls Jacobs’ business prowess. “J.C. learned the business from men like Asher . . . and eventually bought half of Main Street,” said Shook. Competitors were confounded by Jacobs’ actions and eventual success. “Salesmen would say to me, ‘what in the world are you going to do; you’ve got so much competition?’ I said I’m going to let them do their thing and I’m going to do mine,” said Jacobs. He outsold Belk and the others and says John Belk of Belk Brothers frequented People’s to walk the aisles trying to see what he was doing. “He couldn’t figure out how in the world I was beating them. He and the Belk manager would walk my store. I didn’t say anything, I’d just let them walk, but I was outselling them.” Jacobs attributed People’s success to excellent help and his spending much time on the floor talking to people and having a good time. Some who actually quit their other employers and eventually came to People’s were: Margie Roper from Belk; Ruby Bradley from Bowers and Ila Kay Ledford from Blumenthal’s. With his people skills and the excellent sales force, he continued to outsell the other businesses. He later opened People’s stores that did good business in Highlands, Sylva and Clayton, Ga. One writer said Jacobs never wanted to turn a customer away; so he kept a hefty inventory, and the clothing was stacked so high it made the chestnut floors creak. As other businesses closed, he continued expanding People’s to meet the needs of the community and even opened a discount store called Sav-a-dollar. Penny transaction turns into a fortune Frankie Bumgarner came to Franklin to help her sister Hermie who ran Bryant’s Furniture Company and was a co-owner in Bryant’s Funeral Home. Bumgarner conducted business transaction at the bank for the companies at the time when Jacobs worked there as a teller. “She would wait to get with me,” said Jacobs. “She was working for her sister, and really I guess she caught me because she kept coming to me every time to work up her deposits. So, I started looking and I decided to go that way. I knew if I was to get married, it was about time. I was 29, and she was 22 and very pretty.” They courted about a year and were married in 1949. She would later become an integral part of People’s, working in the office. On June 4, the couple will celebrate 69 years together in a union that produced two daughters, Janet Jacobs Greene and Nancy Jacobs Paris. “The tale always was that she would come to change nickels into pennies in order to get to see him,” said Greene. “So when I was born, up and down the street, they called me ‘Penny.’” Serving his community – leaving a legacy A true leader may be determined by those he attracts and mentors. Jacobs was a magnet for others with great customer service acumen. Many who began in the late 1940s or late 1950s, remained until their retirement. For all his business success, it pales compared to Jacobs’ community service. At First Baptist Church where he was married, Jacobs has been Chairman of the Deacons, Assembly Superintendent, a Sunday School teacher, member of the Baptist Men, and completed several mission trips. In the civic realm, he has amassed numerous awards and accolades for notable work. Most esteemed is his service of more than 70 years as a Rotarian and having outlived many members from his earlier days. He served as president from 1967 to 1968, and was one of the vital leaders who helped to organize Rotary chapters in other parts of Macon County and North Carolina with legislative representation in Raleigh and Washington, D.C. Other notable service included his election as president of the Franklin Chamber of Commerce in 1951 and a proclamation as Citizen of the Year in the late 1990s. On Nov. 14, 2012, Jacobs was presented a town proclamation by then Franklin Mayor Joe Collins and also received recognition for his long-lasting ethical service to the community as proprietor of People’s Department Store. “Fellows downtown say we remember your business, and we loved your store,” said Jacobs. On May 1, 2013, having recently closed People’s at the end of 2012, Jacobs was heralded by Outdoor 76 Outfitters co-owners, Rob Gasbarro and Cory McCall, who had moved their store to the old People’s location on Main Street. At the Economic Development Commission annual banquet, the proprietors presented one of the four 2013 BizWeek Honoree awards to Jacobs, referring to him as an “entrepreneurial pioneer” . . . who has done so much for the community. Although both Jacobs were still invested behind the scenes, in the latter years only the Twins’ Shops and People’s remained in operation with daughters, Greene and Paris at the helms. The Jacobs formally retired in 2013. “I retired because I was having trouble with macular degeneration [an incurable eye disease],” said Jacobs. “I couldn’t see and I thought it was time to hang it up.” Having fought a good fight literally and in his businesses, he retired ceremoniously. Jacobs advises young people to find the desired way they want their life to go; work diligently, put in a lot of hours if necessary and stay the course. “When I opened People’s, I was working about 16 hours a day,” said Jacobs. “I had to go back at night to get things done, because my trademark was working with the people during the day, greeting them and being nice to them. And that’s why they kept coming back. You have to work both ends towards the middle.” Awards, accolades and the businesses he started are a mere representation of Jacobs’ impact. Many in Macon County and surrounding areas are thankful for his service in the military and his service in the community, setting a true model for other citizens. “There has been a tremendous amount of progress in the town,” said Jacobs. “Of course when I was in business all the business was on Main Street and now it is spread out. We have chains from all over coming in. It’s amazing if a person could see where I came from when the streets were muddy and boardwalks were in front of the stores to now. I didn’t know I’d live to be 99 years old. I’m doing fine.” His greatest contribution, he says, has been respecting people and serving them.