January 28, 2007

Bear tracks fade from town
Visionary A.E. Staley brought pro football and a thriving business to Decatur, Ill. But the team left long ago for Chicago, and the industrial city has seen better days.

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH
The Kansas City Star

DECATUR, Ill. | They called it a “Castle in the Cornfields.”

Even at night, you could see it for more than 20 miles. That’s because the A.E. Staley Manufacturing Co.’s administration building — the tallest structure in downstate Illinois — featured alternating, multicolored lights. They flashed brightly on the castle’s 14th floor, more than 200 feet above the land that built it.

For many years after its completion in 1930, the Staley building functioned like Decatur’s own drive-in movie theater. People would travel from all over the region to park their cars and watch the show.

Today, people here can’t remember the last time they saw the lights. The show left town decades ago, leaving behind only the pungent smell of old man Staley’s corn starch refinery. They used to say it smelled like money. Now, it just smells.

Thing is, money for Staley meant money for Decatur. All over town, there are signs that this was once a community of movers and shakers, a beacon of hope for other rural, Midwestern cities.

There’s the mansion Staley lived in on College Street, which is now run down and neighbored by boarded-up houses. There’s the Staley Viaduct, a large trafficway built to allow travelers to drive through the factory safely, and there’s Lake Decatur, built by Staley for the community to enjoy.

There’s one final sign, probably the most important clue of all. You can find it as you enter town on U.S. 51, just past the Wal-Mart on the right side of the street. The sign reads:

“Welcome to Decatur: Original Home of the Chicago Bears.”

•••

As Bears fans pack their bags for Miami this week, very few will think about the founder of their franchise, a big man and an even bigger thinker named A.E. “Gene” Staley.

Staley’s rise to the top, detailed in the book The Kernel and the Bean, was uniquely American. A North Carolina farm boy, he sold his father’s produce in neighboring towns. As a young man, he started his own cream starch packaging business in Baltimore. By 1906, his operation had become so successful that his suppliers cut him off. He’d have to make his own starch, but where could he do that?

Of all the places, he chose Decatur — a city of 31,000 people — because there was an abandoned factory, numerous railroad lines and, of course, bushels and bushels of corn to be had. Staley, his wife and children would soon become Decatur’s first family.

“The town was built around the Staley plant,” says Eugene Sharp, a Staley employee during 1961-2000. “A lot of people came here because of the Staleys.”

In 1919, Staley decided he would boost worker morale by starting a factory-based, semi-pro football team, similar to ones that had already been started up in towns such as Canton, Ohio, and Muncie, Ind. Staley would hire top-flight college athletes to work at the factory and earn an extra stipend by playing football.

Staley sought out a young man named George Halas, who had played football down the road at the University of Illinois and was working as an engineer in Chicago. Staley offered to pay Halas $50 a week to be the Staley athletic director. Halas gladly accepted.

The team would be called the Decatur Staleys, naturally, and the games would be played at Staley Field. But whom would they play? In September 1920, Halas traveled to Canton, where 12 teams were represented, and the American Professional Football Association — which later became the NFL — was born in only two hours.

That first season of 1920, the Staleys were a rousing success, winning 10 games, tying two and losing once. They were declared national champions. Staley, who sweated out every minute, was tickled.

But Staley, above all else, was a businessman. In 1921, economic depression hit the country. It pained Staley greatly, but in the middle of that second season, he decided the team couldn’t make it in Decatur.

Staley sold the team to young Halas for nothing and actually paid him $5,000 to move the team to Chicago. The only condition was that they would be called the Chicago Staleys for the remainder of that season. Halas agreed, and the Staleys would win yet another championship. In 1922, Halas named his franchise the Bears.

“Without Gene Staley,” Halas said in The Kernel and the Bean, “there never would have been the Chicago Bears.”

Certainly, Staley could not have known that the NFL would become America’s most popular sport or that his franchise would one day be worth around $1 billion. Staley was dedicated to Decatur, and he was about to introduce a new crop, the soybean, to America.

But to this day, Gene Staley’s living grandsons wonder, “What if Grandpa had sold the company and kept the Bears?”

•••

Within a year of sending Halas packing, Staley got his wish. His company became the first to mass-produce soybean products, and it wasn’t long before Decatur had dubbed itself “The Soybean Capital of the World.”

Even the Depression couldn’t stop Staley. While everything else in America seemed to be crashing down, Staley’s “Castle in the Cornfields” sprouted out of the ground.

Staley had created a lifestyle for Decatur. His 72-acre lake gave Decaturites a chance to experience new, upper-class things like speedboat races and swimming contests. A ballroom for social functions overlooked the lake.

“The Staley name was a magical name back in those days,” says Henry Staley, 74, Gene Staley’s grandson. “Growing up here, a lot of people were either jealous or felt that I was in another category from them.”

The Staley name inspired awe. It inspired hope and a belief that Decatur would be a secure place for families to settle for years to come. Decatur’s population grew rapidly, and somewhere along the way, the farm town began to look at itself differently.

“Staley’s guaranteed a future,” says Sharp, whose father worked at Staley, too. “It may have been shoveling feed into bags or scooping coal, but it didn’t make any difference. They had a future.”

•••

Even after Gene Staley died in 1940, Decatur’s future appeared as bright as the lights at the top of his castle.

A.E. Staley Jr., known as “Gus,” had taken over the company, but Junior was different from his father. He was far from a risk-taker. Gus grew up with the luxuries his dad’s success had brought, and, instead of adding to them with innovation, he chose to preserve what was already there.

Gus was also against nepotism. He didn’t encourage his four boys to follow in his footsteps. Accordingly, only two worked within the company, and Gus almost went out of his way to make sure Henry, the company’s chief financial officer, would not be his successor.

Gus was like his father in one way, though. He cared about the well-being of his workers. He first proposed a group insurance program with broad benefits for employees and their families. At that point, most of the workers had never heard of group insurance.

Staley’s maintained success in Decatur attracted several other corporations, including Caterpillar, in the 1950s and ’60s. The population had risen to near 100,000.

But, in 1975, A.E. Staley Jr. died. Because of Gus’ decision to keep his sons out of higher management, a man named Don Nordlund took over as CEO. After 69 years, the Staley company was no longer family-run.

Nordlund, who could not be reached for comment, moved the company’s corporate offices to the Chicago suburbs in the mid-80s. Nordlund had forgotten about corn and soybeans and had started focusing on the food-service industry. Henry Staley could only watch as his family’s company forgot its roots.

“Nordlund lost touch with the people of Decatur,” Henry Staley says. “He was kind of like an absentee landlord and wasn’t sensitive to Decatur’s problems.”

This was not just Decatur’s problem. It was America’s problem. Small-town, family-owned companies were disappearing and being replaced with supranational corporations that played by their own rules. By 1986, the year the Chicago Bears won their first Super Bowl, the stage was set for the Staley company and Decatur to follow suit.

“Nordlund hired a consulting firm to come in and rewrite the jobs in Decatur,” says Henry Staley, now the only Staley descendant left in Decatur. “A lot of people lost their jobs in the process.”

•••

That was only the beginning. In 1988, the Staley company was bought by Tate & Lyle, a British company. Tate & Lyle owned factories all over the globe, and they were run the same way — with 12-hour, rotating shifts for workers. The company couldn’t afford for its Decatur plant to be any different.

But the local American Industrial Workers union would have no part of it. Rotating shifts were created so that the skill was taken out of a worker’s job. Instead of working in one facet, you rotated among three different jobs. It was also bad for families. Workers would alternate between night and day shifts.

Rotating shifts “are about the worst thing you can put a human being through,” says local labor historian Bob Sampson. “Staley employees were a very active part of the community. They were the Little League coaches and the Boy Scout leaders. They didn’t have time to do that with 12-hour, rotating shifts.”

Labor tensions were so high by 1993 that Tate & Lyle, still called Staley, locked out the factory workers and replaced them with scabs. Tate & Lyle was known as a union-busting company, and they were going to make sure Decatur’s AIW local would be busted, too. The lockout lasted for more than a year and became a national story.

Predictably, when both sides finally came to an agreement, the workers had lost. The 12-hour, rotating shifts would remain.

“If it would have stayed family-owned,” says Bill Coleman, a union representative at the time, “we never would have faced that. I think the Staley name has been tarnished by what Tate & Lyle has done here.”

•••

The Staley name has almost disappeared today. There are only five Staleys listed in the Decatur phone book, and none of them are closely related to the original Staley clan. Henry Staley is unlisted. He was getting too many unwanted phone calls.

Tate & Lyle, which employed around 3,000 people when it was Staley, now employs around 800. As of the 2000 census, Decatur’s population has fallen to under 80,000, and its median household income is almost $9,000 less than the national average.

Decatur, like many industrial cities, is trying to reinvent itself. They’ve spruced up the downtown area, and city officials boast that it has become more white collar than blue collar. The unemployment rate is down from 10.5 percent at its highest point to 4 percent.

Still, Eugene Sharp, sipping a beer at the union hall’s “Labor Lounge,” wonders what Decatur has to offer a young, working-class family.

“I can’t think of a thing,” says Sharp, a two-time union president at Staley. “If the original A.E. Staley had it to do over, would he start it in Decatur? I don’t think so.”

Sharp and Coleman, both diehard Bears fans, agree the former Decatur Staleys have a roll to play in Decatur’s future. Decatur has reached out to the Bears several times, trying to get them to play a game or camp in their original hometown. Most recently, in 2002, Decatur thought it had the Bears locked up to camp at Decatur’s Millikin University. But the Bears decided instead on Bourbonnais, Ill., which is closer to Chicago.

“Right now, I see the Bears as the emblem for Decatur in the future,” Sharp says. “They may not want to move here, but people will want to know, if it’s projected right, how the Bears started.”

Decatur is always ready with the answer, but then again, who’s asking any more? The Bears did name their mascot Staley in 2003, but Staley the Bear says a lot of fans mistake him for Stanley.

“I have to correct them and point to the name on my jersey,” Staley the Bear says.

The name has just about died and much of the town it built has gone with it. The NFC champion Bears are one of the last lingering signs of what Decatur could have been.

“I’m proud when I drive into Decatur and I see that sign out there that says, ‘Home of the Chicago Bears,’ ” Coleman says. “I think everybody who lives here is proud of that. To me, that’s one of the old man’s legacies that he left with us. There’s two things people will remember — Decatur Staleys and Staley’s corn starch. They’ll remember that forever.”

To reach J. Brady McCollough, sports reporter for The Star, call (816) 234-4363 or send e-mail to jmccollough@kcstar.com

 


J. Brady McCollough - jbrady@coveringsports.com (email) - 816-868-2621 (cell)