Aug. 26--W.G. Kelly, who founded Kelly Seed & Hardware Co., was almost like a father figure to Harold Church.
By the time Church died in 2011, he had worked for, then owned, the company a total of 75 years -- working side-by-side with his late wife, Helen, for 50 of them.
Two of their three children, Nancee Vespa and Steve Church, have worked at Kelly's more than 40 years each.
"We were born into the business," Vespa says.
Their sons, cousins Nick Vespa and Matthew Church, work side-by-side with them, Nick since 1997 and Matthew since 2000.
Founding father. Husband and wife, brother and sister, cousins. Even Caterpillar Inc. defers to Kelly's lineage.
Whenever Caterpillar gets around to building the expansive new six-block campus announced last year, Kelly will be an island in the midst of the world headquarters of the world's largest earth-moving equipment company.
The family's supporters feared Caterpillar might try to force Kelly to move from its location at the corner of Hamilton Boulevard and Washington Street. The family had a lot of meetings with Caterpillar officials.
"The truth is, Cat would like this building," Nick Vespa says. "A lot of people were worried. But at the end of the day, we all felt they weren't the big, yellow bad guy. They've been a good neighbor, they said, 'You guys have been here longer than us.'"
Kelly Seed has managed to stay somewhere on the waterfront longer than most businesses.
Nancee Vespa remembers the original Peoria location, a big, three-story warehouse opened in 1926 on the block now occupied by the Peoria Riverfront Museum. The building had rope elevators, a tin ceiling and wooden floor covered with tar paper. It was central to the enterprises Kelly initially began in San Jose in 1905. Business grew during the Depression as Kelly became one of the first to deal in hybrid corn. For home gardeners and their Victory Gardens, Kelly's seed catalog was the Burpee's of its day, says Nick Vespa, displaying a 1936 catalog with Kelly's daughter on the cover.
"Kelly's shipped seed all over the country," his mother adds.
Harold Church was fresh off the farm when Kelly hired him in 1936, at $15 a week for six days' work. Twenty years later, Church bought the inventory from Kelly and moved into a building along NE Washington.
"It was a seedy, old block," Nancee Vespa recalls, home to a Harold's Club, where a young Richard Pryor performed, a poultry house and a resale store. Caterpillar wanted that block for what would become its current headquarters.
"One by one, they all sold, except my dad. In time, they offered enough to make it worthwhile to move to this corner," she says of the Hamilton and Washington location. "We moved here in the early '60s, and we've been here ever since."
Business has evolved over the years, from hardware and seed to mostly seed, tons of seed from alfalfas, clover, pasture mixes, waterway mixes and more garden seed than any other business in central Illinois. The store buys bird seed by the semi-trailer load, she says, and sells more than 15,000 pounds a week.
While Nancee Vespa taught school for 10 years before joining the family business, her brother, son and nephew stayed close to the family farming tradition, all earning degrees in agricultural-related fields.
The museum down the street may be full of historical artifacts. Harold Church's descendants live with Kelly's history. They still measure seed on the old platform scale with weights. Like the scale, the oak cabinets and orange-painted metal pans filled with seeds date back to the original store.
In all that time, through three moves and three generations, the family never thought about changing the company name.
"Kelly's was such an established, well-known name," Nancee Vespa says. "It was also in honor of Mr. Kelly, he was very good to our family, and we wanted to honor him."
Pam Adams can be reached at 686-3245 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @padamspam.
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