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Race against clock to save Hens & Kelly's time capsules

The former Hens & Kelly's store in Hamburg is expected to come down sometime this year to make way for a new Wal-Mart, but there's still one search-and-rescue mission to be carried out.

David Hens, a former Western New Yorker, and Joe Dietterich, a local history buff, want to make sure that 45 time capsules sealed in the building's bricks when it was constructed in 1959 are retrieved before the wrecking ball arrives.

"These mementos are purported to be buried in the brick walls of the South Shore store," Hens said. "It's my passion. I don't want the fondness for the H&K family to be buried in some landfill."

Hens is the great-grandson of Mathias Hens, the founder of the Hens & Kelly chain. Hens, 49, moved from the area in 1982 and now works as city budget analyst for Colorado Springs, Colo.

Hamburg resident Dietterich, meanwhile, acknowledges being "obsessed with retail history" and says he has long been fascinated by the Hens & Kelly's site. He has seen photos of the store from its early days.

"It hasn't changed since the 1960s, aside from the water damage," he said.

The site is sealed, awaiting asbestos-abatement work. Therein lies part of the problem for Hens and Dietterich.

Benderson Development Co., which owns the site and is redeveloping it for Wal-Mart, is being careful about granting access.

"When we're allowed to enter the building, and prior to demolishing the building, we will allow that group to explore the building," said Anthony Battista of Benderson.
"Obviously, they'd have to be properly insured and sponsored by some local group that has the proper insurance. But we'd be glad to work with them."

Dietterich has been an opponent of the Wal-Mart project but said this is a different issue.

"This issue isn't about the Wal-Mart," he said, "it's about preserving some local history."

The time capsules were placed in the store by the Hens & Kelly board of directors and members of its management team. The employees of the company then wrote notes on a 60-foot-long scroll that was also entombed.

Battista said Benderson would like to see the scroll donated to a local historical society, if it's found.

The capsules were small -- small enough to be placed within the cavities of the bricks -- and many are thought to have included messages to relatives.

Hens contacted Dietterich after reading about the impending Wal-Mart. He said his great-grandfather's store -- founded in the 1880s -- was a ground-breaker in both its good treatment of employees and customers.

The company built several stores in the late 1950s and early '60s and put time capsules in all of them. At its height, the chain had eight stores, anchored by the downtown shop at Main and Mohawk streets -- current home of Erie County's Social Services Department.

Hens said he has many relatives still in the area, all of whom support saving the capsules.

"I am not trying to impede Wal-Mart. I don't want to delay Wal-Mart," he said. "That's not the purpose. I'm appealing to their sense of good will.

"Frankly, I desire to save a small part of Western New York retail history and my great-grandfather's legacy and spirit."


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