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. Thats
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 castles 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 Decaturs own drive-in movie theater.
People would travel from all over the region to park their
cars and watch the show.
Today, people here cant remember the last time they
saw the lights. The show left town decades ago, leaving behind
only the pungent smell of old man Staleys corn starch
refinery. They used to say it smelled like money. Now, it just
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.
Theres the mansion Staley lived in on College Street,
which is now run down and neighbored by boarded-up houses.
Theres the Staley Viaduct, a large trafficway built to
allow travelers to drive through the factory safely, and theres
Lake Decatur, built by Staley for the community to enjoy.
Theres 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
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.
Staleys rise to the top, detailed in the book The
Kernel and the Bean, was uniquely American. A North Carolina
farm boy, he sold his fathers 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. Hed 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
Decaturs 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
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
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
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 couldnt
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
Without Gene Staley, Halas said in The Kernel
and the Bean, there never would have been the Chicago
Certainly, Staley could not have known that the NFL would
become Americas 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,
But to this day, Gene Staleys 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 wasnt long before Decatur had dubbed itself The
Soybean Capital of the World.
Even the Depression couldnt stop Staley. While everything
else in America seemed to be crashing down, Staleys 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 Staleys 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. Decaturs population grew rapidly,
and somewhere along the way, the farm town began to look at
Staleys guaranteed a future, says Sharp,
whose father worked at Staley, too. It may have been
shoveling feed into bags or scooping coal, but it didnt
make any difference. They had a future.
Even after Gene Staley died in 1940, Decaturs 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 dads
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 didnt 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 companys 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
Staleys 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
companys 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 familys company forgot
Nordlund lost touch with the people of Decatur, Henry
Staley says. He was kind of like an absentee landlord
and wasnt sensitive to Decaturs problems.
This was not just Decaturs problem. It was Americas
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
couldnt 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 workers 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
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 didnt 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 Decaturs 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
Tate & Lyle, which employed around 3,000 people when it
was Staley, now employs around 800. As of the 2000 census,
Decaturs population has fallen to under 80,000, and its
median household income is almost $9,000 less than the national
Decatur, like many industrial cities, is trying to reinvent
itself. Theyve 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 halls Labor
Lounge, wonders what Decatur has to offer a young, working-class
I cant 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 dont
Sharp and Coleman, both diehard Bears fans, agree the former
Decatur Staleys have a roll to play in Decaturs 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 Decaturs 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 its projected
right, how the Bears started.
Decatur is always ready with the answer, but then again, whos
asking any more? The Bears did name their mascot Staley in
2003, but Staley the Bear says a lot of fans mistake him for
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.
Im 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, thats one of the old mans legacies that
he left with us. Theres two things people will remember Decatur
Staleys and Staleys corn starch. Theyll remember
To reach J. Brady McCollough, sports reporter for The Star, call (816) 234-4363
or send e-mail to email@example.com