When Doug Oberhelman pledged in 2015 that Caterpillar would build a new headquarters in Downtown Peoria, the first thing the CEO did was to reassure the enthusiastic crowd in attendance that Kelly Seed would stay put this time.
Indeed, in one of those footnotes of Peoria history, Kelly Seed was displaced from its original Washington Street location back in 1964 by — guess who? — Caterpillar and its then-new headquarters.
While Downtown Peoria has seen its ups and downs over the years, Kelly Seed has ridden that same roller coaster but endured.
Today the business continues to flourish, dispensing bags of clover, lawn mixes, corn and just about anything associated with the cultivation of central Illinois’ incomparably rich soil — to farmers and amateur gardeners alike — from its location at the corner of Washington Street and Hamilton Boulevard.
A seed is planted, and grows
Kelly Seed’s roots date back to 1905 when W. G. Kelly opened a hardware operation in San Jose, a small town 25 miles south of Peoria. Kelly later opened what became his main store in Downtown Peoria. Harold Church, who worked at the store for 20 years — never missing a day, by the way — kept the Kelly name when he and wife Helen bought both business and inventory in 1956.
It’s been a Church-run operation ever since. Stephen Church and Nancee Vespa, Harold and Helen’s son and daughter, have worked at the store all their lives, continuing a family tradition of unwavering pertinacity. When Harold Church died at age 94 in 2011, he had logged 75 years at the store, working side by side with his wife for 50 years. Helen died in 2007 at age 91.
Today, Stephen Church oversees a business now in its 118th year. His son, Matthew Church, runs the store’s garden center while nephew Nick Vespa handles the farm side of the business. Both are already steeped in the seed trade; Nick started at the store in 1997, Matthew in 2000.
“I’ve worked at the store since I graduated from Iowa State University in 1972,” said Stephen. There have been a few changes over the last 50 years. “You didn’t have all the box stores you have now,” he said. “Every building in Downtown Peoria had its own custodial staff, who bought what was needed from local hardware stores. Now you’ve got national services who don’t buy locally.
“Losing Sears was a loss,” added Stephen, in reference to the legendary department store that left Downtown Peoria in 1998. “Your Sears customer was also a Kelly customer.”
Bringing country to the city
But being in an urban downtown hasn’t hurt the store with a rural customer base. To the contrary, it has helped.
“We are a destination place. When folks come in, they typically buy,” said Nick Vespa, adding that Kelly customers tend to be faithful, repeat visitors. “We draw from a 100-mile radius of Peoria and we’re conveniently located … one block off I-74.”
Adjustments have been made over the years to remain competitive, said Stephen Church. In 1972, “we were probably 50 to 60 percent hardware. Today, hardware makes up only 10 to 15 percent of our business. We’re more of a garden center now,” he said, adding that had Kelly Seed not made that transition, it would be out of business today, the fate of so many other local hardware stores.
Yet remnants of the past remain. Oak cabinets are still in service from the first store. Designs from old seed bags adorn the walls, a constant reminder of past harvests. Wandering through the aisles jammed with goods makes you feel as if you’re somewhere between an old five-and-dime and the corner hardware store. There’s still that sense of wonder that almost anything — from lawn ornaments to tools to vole repellent, you never know what you’ll find — is up for sale, sometimes exclusively here. And, of course, there’s seed, lots of it.
“You can’t sell from an empty wagon,” said Stephen Church, recalling the credo of his predecessor. “When farmers come in, they need it now,” added Nick Vespa.
The Kelly Seed warehouse doesn’t gather a lot of dust. “We sell a semi-load (of seed) every couple of weeks,” said Vespa.
No candy bars by the register
Farmers aren’t the only customers who expect Kelly to have what they need. Vespa notes that the store maintains a ready supply of 5,000 five-pounds bags of residential grass seed.
‘They carry what you need’
“My uncle was an engineer for Caterpillar. I worked on his house and yard while I was at school in the ‘60s. That’s when I first discovered Kelly Seed,” said Pat Sullivan, a Peoria developer and bar owner. “Over the years I’ve used them for just about everything, from garden materials to stuff you can use to prevent birds from nesting.”
Peoria construction contractor Chuck Gabbert also is a fan and loves the old-school vibe. “I’ve used those guys forever,” he said. “The uses we’ve had include seeding a job site, putting in flowers and flowering trees in the downtown or using copper sulfate to treat ponds. They carry what you need. You don’t see candy bars for sale by the register.”
It’s a store for all seasons, said Vespa, who remembers first coming in as a 5-year-old with mom Nancee. “In winter, the worse the weather is, the better we do. When it gets really cold, we sell ice melter and bird seed,” he said.
Yet spring fever has a special meaning at Kelly Seed, said Stephen Church. “We call the period between March and the middle of June our Christmas time,” he said. That’s when the store makes good use of the two parking lots it maintains, able to accommodate up to 74 vehicles.
As for that mention by Oberhelman regarding the store, Stephen Church wasn’t surprised. “Doug’s a good customer of ours,” he said.