Mr. Kresge was born in 1867 in Monroe County, Pennsylvania, in humble surroundings, the son of Pennsylvania Dutch farmers who emigrated from Switzerland in the mid-1700s. After determining that farming wasn’t for him, he sought assistance from his parents to go to college, and helped finance his tuition by teaching and clerking at a local grocery store. He also maintained an active beekeeping business. While selling tinware and hardware, he met and studied retail giants of the time, including F. W. Woolworth, S. H. Knox and John McCrory. He saved $8,000 and used it to go into business with Mr. McCrory. Together, they opened two five-and-ten-cent stores: one in Memphis and one in Detroit. In 1899, he traded his half-interest in the Memphis store for full ownership of the Detroit store.
He subsequently incorporated the business into the S.S. Kresge Company. With swift expansion through the Midwest and across the nation over the next half century, the S.S. Kresge Co. would later become the iconic American department store chain, Kmart Corp.
The success of the new dime-store concept, offering household goods at reasonable prices, allowed Mr. Kresge to direct much of his profits into charitable philanthropy. In June 1924, at the age of 57 and on the occasion of his company’s 25th anniversary, he established The Kresge Foundation “for the benefit of mankind” with an initial $1.3 million gift.
Although located in the same building until 1965, The Kresge Foundation was and remains a separate entity from S.S. Kresge Co. and its successor, Kmart Corp.
Mr. Kresge chaired the first foundation board meeting and then served as treasurer until his death in 1966 at age 99. By then, he had contributed more than $60 million to the foundation. All along, he maintained a steadfast commitment to charitable giving.