The G.C. Murphy Co.

Last week we explored the beginnings of the J.G. McCrory 5 & 10 store.  This week is a branch off from that story, with the focus being on the Murphy Company and John Sephus Mack.

Our story begins with George Clinton Murphy.  Mr. Murphy was born in 1868 in Indiana County, first working for his cousin – John G. McCrory.  After working for McCrory at the Jamestown, New York Store, Murphy went out on his own opening 5 & 10 cent stores.  The first 5 & 10 cent store was opened in the McKeesport area around 1900 and was built into a chain of 14 stores, which Murphy sold to Woolworth in 1904, promising that he would not open any more 5 & 10 cent stores.  However, that promise did not include opening 5, 10 and 25 cent stores; so in 1906 Murphy went back into business under G.C. Murphy Co.

Tragedy struck in April 1909, when Murphy suffered a burst appendix and died.  At the time of his death,, he had a chain of 12 variety stores doing $210,000 in sales.  His will directed that his investments – including the 388 shares of the G.C. Murphy Co. – be sold to provide yearly annuities for his family, but a public auction found no takers.  In the hands of court-appointed receivers, the company foundered.  

So enter, John G. McCrory (owner of J.G. McCrory 5 & 10 stores) and John Sephus Mack.  John was born on March 9, 1880 and served as the president of the Murphy Company.  He was the son of John M. Mack, a farmer, and Sarah Ellen Murphy, and educated in the Indiana County public schools and attended business college in Johnstown.  Mack’s career began as a stock room clerk at the McCrory Store in Johnstown (which was owned by his cousin John G. McCrory) with a weekly salary of $5.  Mack worked his way through the McCrory Company, becoming general manager in 1908.  When McCrory learned of the sale of G.C. Murphy Co. he sent Mack to McKeesport to see if Murphy’s company was worth saving.

John Sephus Mack

Mack reported back that he believed G.C. Murphy Co. should be acquired as soon as possible.  McCrory responded: “Young man, I make the decisions around here.”  Mack and Walter C. Shaw resigned from McCrory and put together their savings purchased G.C. Murphy Co. out of McKeesport, PA in 1911.  This purchase caused a rift between Mack and McCrory, and McCrory refused to speak to Mack for many years.

Mack became president and chairman of the board in 1912, and turned the failing company around and began to expand it.  The Murphy Company thrived during the Great Depression, and from 1929 to 1934 sales increased from $15.7 million to $28 million.  By 1934, there were 181 Murphy Co. stores in eleven states and Washington, D.C.

Mack and Shaw made a really good team, with Mack being known as “the architect” and Shaw “the engineer.”  The Murphy store policies also set them apart, such as the “price ceiling.”  The Murphy stores contained a second floor which featured all goods priced 25 cents to a dollar, while down below was the normal 5-to-10 cent price point.  After many years of moving back-and-forth on this policy, the company moved everything to the main floor.

Another point where Murphy seemed to succeed was establishing their stores in the industrial towns of Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, while their competition tended to establish coverage in the major markets like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.  Despite the Great Depression, Murphy pulled through, with an average per store sales and profits being much higher than Woolworth’s.

When Mack passed away in 1940, the chairmanship passed to his cousin Edgar Mack.  Upon Edgar’s death in 1946, the job went to Walter Shaw, Mack’s original partner in the business.  In 1951, G.C. Murphy acquired the Morris 5 & 10 cent Stores, a Bluffton, Indiana-based chain of 71 stores.  Leadership changed again in 1953, when Jim Mack, son of John Seph Mack, took over.  After 1970, G.C. Murphy Co. shifted its emphasis away from its variety stores and toward the new Murphy’s Marts, modeled after Kmart.  By April 1985, Rocky Hill of the Connecticut-based Ames Department Stores bought out Murphy’s shares and Murphys was no longer.

John Sephus Mack is a well-known name in Indiana County, with the J.S. Mack Community Park.  He became a philanthropist and community booster.  He donated the Ralph Gibson McGill Library to Westminster College in New Wilmington, PA.  He bought local homes in disrepair and fixed them to rent out.  He set up a fund for the upkeep of the local cemetery.  In 1935, he established the Mack Memorial Trust Fund to Indiana Hospital as a memorial to his parents.  He directed that the income from the fund, which amounted to more than $300,000 in 1939, be devoted to the payment of hospitalization for needy residents of Brush Valley Township.  He further stipulated that the income be extended in 1941 to the remainder of Indiana County for hospitalization of the needy. 

On September 21, 1939, Mack dedicated a four-floor addition to the Indiana Hospital, which cost $115,000, and was known as the Mack Memorial Wing, also presented as a memorial to his parents.  One floor of the addition was designated for Brush Valley Township residents.  The other three floors were to be utilized as a maternity section. funded the Brush Valley Maternity Hospital, which was done in memory of his parents.  He also stocked some of his own 1700 acres with deer and buffalo.  His family farm was known as Old Home Manor.

Mack was a devout Presbyterian and decorated the main assembly room of the Murphy Company with Bible verses.  While serving on the organizing committee for a 1927 revival campaign in McKeesport, Mack met Bob Jones, Sr. the founder of Bob Jones College (now Bob Jones University).  Mack was very impressed with Jones and donated money to the college; he even told Jones to “construct your buildings and send me the bill.”  Mack received an honorary degree from the college and named the library in his honor.

Mack died on September 27, 1940 at his home in Brush Valley, and was interred at the Greenwood Cemetery in Indiana, PA.