Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Kresge, Sebastian S.

Retail chain founder Sebastian Spering Kresge was born in Bald Mount, Pennsylvania on July 31, 1867. His parents, Sebastian Sr. and Catherine Kunkle Kresge were Pennsylvania Dutch farmers. Kresge’s schooling included a four-month commercial course at Eastman’s Business College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., paid for by money he earned bee keeping. Following his 1889 graduation, Kresge worked at a variety of jobs including bookkeeper and half-owner of a bakery. It was while selling hardware that he met F.W. Woolworth, the man who began the “five and dime” stores.

Influenced by Woolworth’s success, Kresge invested $8,000 he had saved into the J.G. McCrory store chain in 1897. As partners, McCrory and Kresge opened stores in Detroit and Memphis. Kresge sold his share in the Memphis store to open the first S.S. Kresge store, on Woodward Avenue in Detroit in 1899. 

His brother-in-law, Charles Wilson, became his partner and the two of them ran stores in seven different cities for seven years. In this period the downtown Detroit store was called Kresge & Wilson. By 1912, when the company was incorporated in Delaware as the S.S. Kresge Company, Sebastian Kresge owned 85 stores with sales of over $10 million. Kresge retired as president in 1925 but continued as chairman of the company. The Kmart brand was established in 1962, with the first store opening in Garden City, Michigan. Four years later Sebastian Kresge died on October 18, 1966.

Kresge was married three times: to Anna E. Harvey, with whom he had five children; with Doris (Mercer) Harden; and with Clara Katherine (Zitz) Swaine. Sebastian Kresge was known for his generosity. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the S.S. Kresge Company, he started the Kresge Foundation in 1924 to “promote the well-being of mankind.” A staunch prohibitionist, he also donated sums to the Anti-Saloon League.

Kresge was very much involved in his foundation, in an effort to “leave the world a better place than [he] found it.” By the time of his death in 1966, Kresge had given over $60 million of his money to the foundation. Today, the Kresge Foundation donates more than $160 million annually promoting economic and social change.

Numerous buildings and institutions across the state and country bear the Kresge name, including the Kresge Eye Institute at Wayne State University, the Kresge Library at Oakland University, Kresge Hall at Harvard University, and the Kresge Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts.



Booklet for opening of Kresge Exhibit Hall, 1968 - 2013.048.636

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