by Larry Austin
Before Kelly's Country Store put down roots on Grand Island, it began at tiny fairs along the East Coast where Walt Kelly and his son Mike would sell knick knacks and later the candy that would help make their company an Island institution.
That company is celebrating 50 years in business on Grand Island Boulevard this month by thanking its Island family of customers. The business is now operated by its third generation, Walt's grandson's and Mike's sons, Kevin and Sean.
The figurative foundation of the famous red barn building is the work ethic the Kellys developed making money at fairs during the year, three months at a time away from home.
"It was just a constant grind," Mike's wife Deanna said. "Very difficult."
Kevin said his grandparents Walt and Grace worked the show circuit, where 12-to-14 hour days in the heat were the norm. They would operate their stand from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., do the books until the wee hours of the morning, then get back up early to start it all again. They would work a fair one day, knock down their setup at night, go to bed, get up and head on to the next fair.
Walt started out of his home base in Buffalo doing the fairs, selling tea logs and incense, and later penny candy.
"It takes a certain person to do it," Kevin said. Kevin travelled the circuit with his mother Deanna even before he was born.
"The first year Mike and I were married was the first year I went (on the circuit). I was pregnant with Kevin," Deanna said. "We left here in August and we never came back till October. We were working very tiny shows in Pennsylvania up in the hills. And I mean tiny. We stayed in cabins, very, you know, 'rustic.' "
"Dad said the first fair they did where candy was a penny a piece they made $70 their first day. They thought they were millionaires," Sean said.
"That is how they made their money to actually to buy this place and start their own business," Deanna said. "They worked all the fairs, little fairs - tiny, tiny fairs. Mike would be gone for three months in the winter and be gone for three months in the summer. And it was a circuit that you went on and didn't come home."
"You went to show to show to show," Kevin said.
"But believe it or not, it was a very family-oriented thing. When you went on that circuit, those people all knew each other, and they all took care of each other. They watched out for each other. It was something that Mike totally loved, totally loved," Deanna said.
At a certain point, though, Walt decided he needed to set down roots for the business to grow.
"People used to say, 'Well, Mr. Kelly, where's your store?' And he didn't have one," Deanna said. "And that's when he said to Grace, 'Grace, people ask us all the time where we are.' "
Walt Kelly found his place to be at 3121 Grand Island Blvd., when he traded homes with another man: his house on Parker Avenue in Buffalo, for the an old poultry farm on Grand Island Boulevard. Walt and Grace looked at this property with room to expand and for its ample parking, an example of the foresight that Walt was known for, Deanna said.
Walt and Grace Kelly founded the store in 1962 with their son, Mike. Later, Walt found a barn that was to be torn down on the Island. He and Mike took it down and rebuilt it at its present location on Grand Island near Long Road, establishing the signature Kelly's Country Store look.
Walt was one of the most down-to-earth people ever, Deanna said, part entrepreneur and part Walt Disney, who loved giving children free rides on a merry-go-round he had in the back yard. He also enjoyed scaring the living daylights out of customers with a speaker and intercom system he ran out to the store's front porch, Kevin said.
Though Kevin and Sean aren't playing mischief on their customers, the foundation of the Kelly enterprise as hard work endures. Kevin remembers his career began as a child boxmaker, before his promotion to weighing jelly beans. Along the way he's done some less than glamorous jobs, such as scrapping chocolate off the cement floor in the chocolate factory.
The Kellys are inviting the Island to stop by the store for the opportunity to say to their loyal customers "Thank you."
"It's an honor for Sean and I to keep this business going," Kevin said. "It's honestly an honor. We can still be a part of the families that have been here and look forward to coming here, and we take it like everybody who comes here is family to us."
"I'll tell you what I tell everybody is that there are a lot of driveways to pull in, and I am so thankful that they choose ours, whether it's to come here for candy or whether it's to come here to see Santa or the Easter Bunny, or to get their Easter chocolate."