Patrick Kelly House - Table of Contents

History of Hens & Kelly Department Store

The Place to Shop: Hens & Kelly
Buffalo Place (online May 2017)

Hens & Kelly began as a dry goods store at 485 Main St in 1879.  The original owner was Jeremiah F. Sheehan.  In 1882 Sheehan partnered with John J. Klaus. They opened their new store together, Klaus & Sheehan, at 446 Main Street.  Mathias J. Hens was hired as a bookkeeper for Klaus & Sheehan.

Hens came to Buffalo from Germany in 1871, and began to work at Klaus & Sheehan after graduating from Canisius College.  He met Patrick J. Kelly, who just arrived to the country, while on a buying trip in New York City.  Kelly was employed at Simpson & Crawford. 

Jeremiah Sheehan decided to leave Klaus & Sheehan and create his own company, J.F Sheehan & Company in 1887. Mathias Hens bought Sheehan’s share in J. F. Sheehan & Company shortly before the company dissolved, in 1892.  Hens invited Patrick Kelly to join, and they created their store together, Hens & Kelly. The first store opened on May 1, 1892 at 488 Main Street, photo above as part of the Miller Block. They stocked “ladies and gents furnishings.”

Hens & Kelly survived the Panic of 1893, they in fact prospered during this time. They took over the neighboring Benson Art Shop and made it their millinery department. The store’s founders made “Good merchandise at the lowest prices,” the store policy.

Hens & Kelly was one of the first stores to adopt S&H Green Stamps. This was a rewards program that provided stamps with each purchase. These stamps could be used to buy products from a catalogue at a later date.

Hens & Kelly, 1901   ...   Source:  Detroit Publishing Company, Library of Congress

The department store was able to survive another depression in 1907 and continued to grow.

View of Hens & Kelly expansion of 1910 from Palmer’s Views of Buffalo, 1914, posted at the Library of Congress

 The store kept expanding to meet demand, eventually consisting of six little stores, nearby, on Main Street.  In 1922 Hens & Kelly began the biggest expansion of their downtown store, compressing all the stores into one department store.  This renovation cost one million dollars, which would be $13 million today. They also added a six story addition.

Photo by Frank Schifferle, from the SUNY Buffalo State Archives and Special Collections, Courier Express Collection

Hens & Kelly added a special feature for men shoppers.  The owners realized that most men do not enjoy shopping, and wanted to make the shopping experience easier for them. The department store created a special entrance for men, leading right into the Men’s Department.

The two Hens & Kelly partners were unusual in business because they never retired. Kelly was quoted saying “I would rather wear out than rust.” Kelly died in 1927 doing what he loved. The following year the department store had a notable robbery. Thieves broke in around 7:00 am, tied up two watchmen, and blew open the safe door using nitroglycerin. The thieves were able to escape with $20,000, which would be $250,000 today. In 1935 the remaining original owner, Mathias Hens, died. Arthur P. Wesp became the new president for the department store.

The 1950s brought expansion outside of downtown.  Hens & Kelly opened a store in South Buffalo at 2262 Seneca Street in December 1950. The location did poorly and closed in 1959.  Despite this start, new stores opened in Lackawanna and Clarence.  In 1960, Hens & Kelly opened their largest suburban department store in Hamburg. The store cost $4 million and was the largest S&H Green Stamp redemption center in Western New York.  Hens & Kelly placed a time capsule in the brick wall with signatures and messages from the Hens & Kelly Board of Directors. Another store opened in Amherst in 1961.

Sperry & Hutchinson, the parent company of S&H Green Stamps, bought Hens & Kelly, deciding it would be more profitable to purchase the department store chain then to work through them.  Sperry & Hutchinson added two branches to the chain.  1970s sales were not performing. Hens & Kelly was sold to Twin Fair Inc., a Western New York discount chain, in 1978. Twin Fair hoped to bring back the glory days of Hens & Kelly, but sales continued to decline. The first store of the chain closed in 1981, followed soon by four more, launching a domino effect for the rest of the stores.  By 1982 the final Hens & Kelly store closed, a victim of the depressed economy in Western New York and changing trends in national retailing.

Twenty-five years later, in 2007, there was talk of demolition of the South Shore Hens & Kelly store for construction of a new Walmart.  There were protests urging retrieval of the 1960 time capsule, but they were not headed. The store was demolished, but fifty four small scrolls containing the history of the Hens and Kelly stores were found in the rumble and saved.

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2017
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