Growing up in Mattoon, Illinois before moving to Pawnee, Decatur and A.E. Staley was always something I knew. Soybeans were just part of life in central Illinois. The growing, the processing and the knowledge that they helped make the world go round were paramount to life in this neck of the woods. Visiting the Staley Museum though, told me the story of how this came to be.
Who was A.E. Staley?
Born Augustus Eugene Staley on February 25, 1867 in Julian, North Carolina on a farm, the family raised tobacco, corn and cotton. Working hard on the farm, there was little time for anything else and at the museum information showed that “Gene” Staley planned to leave the farm and be a salesman at an early age.
The Staley website shares that while the family hoped he would stay on the farm. After his father’s death though he struck out as a salesman. “… He began his forays into the world by taking the family truck, loaded with products from their farm to a nearby town to market. “
While one man told him he would never make a salesman, he didn’t listen. He forged ahead working selling baking powder and flavor extracts. The baking soda sales led him to Decatur.
Emma Louise Tressler
The other half of the Staley pair is Emma. Gene Staley met her after her Chicago performance in 1897. She was the featured piano player at the soiree that evening. He immediately pursued her. Then later, when he proposed she required one thing. She requested they settle in Baltimore where they could share a home. With that request, this was to be the end of his on the road sales.
Emma was a proficient piano player and she also wrote songs and poetry! The first two lines of “My Boy” are, “I have no words to tell the rose how much it means to me’ And yet I watch its steady growth, and hold the imagery.”
This talented woman was a writer, musician, wife, mother and companion that helped Gene Staley along the way.
Decatur and the Staley Empire
The first product that Gene Staley began with was corn starch. It became the foundation of what would later be the A.E. Staley Mfg. Co.
The website states when he began looking for a plant, “His search brought him back to Decatur, Illinois where he purchased a defunct starch making plant in 1909 and set to making the necessary repairs and improvements. He opened the doors for business in 1912.”
Staleys trademarked Cream Corned Starch in 1902. In later years they processed a variety of syrups and laundry products. They produced a high fructose corn syrup SWEETOSE. Staleys also pioneered the production and processing of soybeans. Gene Staley originally learned about the soybeans at church camp meetings from missionaries that had returned from Asia with beans they called Soya Beans. The missionaries said they were a staple in Asia. He later remembered those words.
The Staley Mansion
Part of the lure for me of visiting the Staley Museum was the mansion. The mansion was built in 1844 by William Quinlan. In 1913 the Staleys purchased it and began remodeling. They added the wrap around sun porch. The Victorian design was altered to make the home into a Tudor style home which fit their personality. It is fun to wander through the house and see the beautiful floors, and staircase and more.
There is a connection to another powerful Decatur family, the Mueller family. This connection came about when A.E. Staley Jr. and Lenore Mueller married. On the second floor Lenore’s wedding dress and some of her clothing are on display. The dress is a show stopper. Although the marriage didn’t last, the beauty of the clothing and connections did. Today, the Hieronymus Mueller Museum is a sister museum to the Staley museum!
So much more!
There is so much more to be said. The impact the family made nationwide, and locally. The museum focuses on the Decatur history and some of the beautiful things the company added like the amazing office building . The building commissioned in 1928 is referred to as “Castle in the Cornfields”!
Stories go on and on, but to really get the gist, you just have to visit! When visiting during COVID-19 you will be required to wear a mask and keep social distancing requirements. Groups will be limited to 10 visitors at a time. Call 217-422-1212 for more information!