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September 1, 2013

History in stone

Family gives keystone from ancestor’s store building to Historical Museum

TERRE HAUTE — Over 106 years after it became part of a building exemplifying a couple’s American dream, a priceless piece of Terre Haute immigrant history joined the collection of the Vigo County Historical Society and Museum on Saturday afternoon.

A keystone that says, “K. Hanna A.D.—1907,” was presented to the museum by the descendants of Kaleel Hanna and Sadie Shahadey Hanna, Syrian immigrants who operated a dry goods business in Terre Haute during the early 20th century.

A short but meaningful dedication ceremony at the museum’s porch marked the occasion.

“We’re happy that our family is able to contribute to the history [and] the rich tradition of Terre Haute,” Bill Hanna, grandson of Kaleel and Sadie Hanna, said during the ceremony.

The keystone is a 300-pound concrete piece that sat at the top of the former Hanna general store building, which was located at Third and Eagle streets. Hanna said the building was torn down in the mid-1940s, and the stone has been kept in his uncle’s home in recent years.

“We’ve had it in the family for a long time,” Hanna said to almost 40 family and friends, some from out of town, gathered at the event.

But this keystone is a reminder of something more, and a memorial plaque beside it tells the story.

Kaleel Hanna moved to the U.S. in August 1895 from his home in Eine-el-Sharra, Syria.

Like many others before him, Kaleel’s port of entry was Ellis Island.

He settled in Fort Wayne after his arrival but two years later, in 1897, he moved to Terre Haute where he continued his trade as a “pack peddler,” a door-to-door salesman. He sold fabrics and clothing items.

“After being granted a credit line from Herman Hulman of Hulman and Company; he and his wife, Sadie Shahadey Hanna, whom he married in 1898, worked side by side in the expansion of his dry goods business,” the plaque states.

Bill Hanna said his grandparents “worked together as a team.”

It was no easy task.

Hanna said his grandparents, like many other immigrants, had to work “long and arduous” hours to make their business successful. They had to make their own way, he said.

And those hours eventually paid off.

Just 12 years after immigrating to the U.S., Kaleel built his first retail general store, “complete with billiard room, warehouse and sleeping rooms on the second floor,” according to the plaque. The project cost $15,000 during a time when the average cost of a house was $6,140 and the average wage was $13.83 per week, Hanna said.

And the team helped other immigrants along the way.

The plaque describes how Kaleel encouraged and financed his friends and relatives’ relocation to Terre Haute and provided employment to them as pack peddlers.

“In later years, he was a key financier for many other Syrian family members and friends, helping them ignite their business careers,” according to the plaque.

Kaleel passed away in 1944 and Sadie in 1963.

The couple raised six sons and five daughters.

Their oldest surviving daughter witnessed the dedication.

Terre Haute native Helen Hanna Sims traveled from her home in North Carolina for the event.

“I’m very proud,” she said of the event and of her nephew, Bill, who organized it.

Sims said she is very happy to attend the event celebrating  her parents’ achievements. They arrived in the U.S., assimilated into the society, and grasped the opportunities that were presented to them, she said.

“My Dad was the most wonderful father. Very smart,” Sims recalled.

Bill Hanna said dedicating the keystone to the museum was Sims’ idea.

“It’s part of our family history. It is part of Terre Haute’s history, too,” he said.

Sims, who traveled with her son, Monte and his family, thanked those who attended and the museum staff Marylee Hagan and Barbara Carney.

“We’re thrilled to have it,” Hagan, executive director of the Vigo County Historical Society and Museum, said of the keystone.

“It’s actually the first keystone in the collection. It will become part of a display telling the story of immigrants in Vigo County that came to make their home and their families ... and prospered,” she said.

Hagan said this latest addition will “represent the Syrian community that has been active in this community for many years.”

Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or dianne.powell@trib star.com.

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