EXCHANGE: A.E. Staley’s industrial empire celebrated

DECATUR, Ill. — The namesake company founded in Decatur by A.E. Staley Sr. 105 years ago extracted much more than food products from corn and soybeans: it managed to distill an enduring sense of loyalty from its employees.

More than 100 of those former workers were invited to drop in July 9 to celebrate old times at an open house at the industrial baron’s glorious Arts and Crafts home, now the Staley Museum.

There was live music, history presentations and, above all, the chance to meet and chat and share workplace memories at the address reconfigured to house them like a vast storage battery of recollection.

Staley, who died in 1940 at the age of 73, was gone before July 9’s Staley veterans of what is now Tate & Lyle ever knew him. But his memory, and that of his descendants who ran the family firm, lived on in stories passed down through generations about the way family did business and treated those who worked for them.

Ken Whitsitt, a 30-year veteran who worked as a corporate engineer, remembers a story about the Decatur Staleys football team founded in 1919 that became the Chicago Bears. Whitsitt said a group of workers was spotted one day sitting on top of one of the factory buildings watching the team practice in their neighbouring field.

Staley was informed of this and asked what should be done about it. “Have the workers got their jobs done?” Whitsitt said Staley had asked, and was told they had.

“‘Then leave them alone,’ ” he replied.

Tales like this were tossed around July 9 and recalled a Jurassic corporate era when industrial titans who built empires still lived in the towns they helped create. And they knew and cared about the people who worked for them, often multiple generations of the same families.

Staley Museum Director, Laura Jahr, says when Staley moved into his cathedral-like Art Deco office building on Eldorado Street in 1930, he credited two groups with making his soaring success possible: “He dedicated the building…

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