DECATUR — Although A.E. Staley has been gone for 80 years, his legacy continues to be felt in Decatur.
His name is synonymous with the William Sands Bridge, the Masonic Temple on West William Street, the Tate & Lyle building and business and the now-demolished Staley Pump House. A museum devoted to the man and his impact was created three years ago with information about all of these reminders and more.
To honor the man and the road to Decatur, his family is developing the feature documentary “Fields of Gold: The Rags to Riches story of A.E. Staley” about the life and times of the Decatur manufacturer. It is presented in partnership with the Herald & Review, which provided images.
“As a family, we thought this was a good story to be told,” said Julie Staley, the wife of Staley's great-grandson. “It’s that American dream, a true rags-to-riches story that anybody with a dream can identify with.”
“This is a story that can be told outside of Decatur or Illinois,” Julie Staley said. “People can identify with that.”
Much of the information was obtained through the Staley Museum, which in 2016 opened in the business leader's former home at 361 N. College St. in Decatur. Exhibits focus on his personal life and business, as well as Decatur history.
“Our museum is not broken down chronologically, but by era,” said Laura Jahr, the museum director. “It’s more by theme.”
The museum has a special room devoted to the stories of the man. “Staley’s prolific decade and legacy to Decatur,” Jahr said. “Things that are still are around and people still remember and are nostalgic about.”
Augustus Eugene Staley was born on Feb. 25, 1867, on a North Carolina farm. “He had to work instead of going to school,” Julie Staley said. “The 'Blue Back Speller' was the book he learned from at home with his mother.”
Never formally educated, he created his business through experience and the dreams he had. “He used his intuition and sixth sense,” Julie Staley said.
A.E. Staley was a traveling salesman, having made his way throughout the country. Decatur was one of his stops. Several years later, he lived in Baltimore where he started his family. A city fire destroyed his employment and home. “He lost everything,” Julie Staley said.
He would decide to take a chance and become a manufacturer. He bought a rundown factory in Decatur. “Because it was a good deal,” Julie Staley said.
A.E. Staley had to reconstruct the Decatur manufacturing building, but often had setbacks before the company became a success. “He had failure after failure after failure,” Julie Staley said. “Everything was pulled out from under him.”
It is the lesson of someone who learned from setbacks and found his dreams.
“He has a story of comebacks after comebacks,” said Julie Staley. “That is the story. Not letting your downfalls get in the way of your dreams.”
These characteristics were used to describe the business mogul through many of the people who knew him. “Every time we talk to somebody or get information about people who knew him, they all say he had a clear dream,” she said. “He knew right away that he was destined for big things.”
A.E. Staley died in 1940, and today the company is part of Tate & Lyle. Researchers for the movie were able to interview people who were children when he was alive. Many had families working for the company. Their memories were of a kind man with a gentle spirit, Julie Staley said.
“There are many, many great stories about A.E. Staley that we’re trying to get together,” Julie Staley said.
They expect the film to be ready in about a year. How it will be available to the public has yet to be determined. Options include airing the film on a local television station, a theatrical release, film festivals, or streaming options. “It shouldn’t be too difficult to try to figure out where we could put it,” Julie Staley said.
Filming should be finished in the fall, according to producers. Marketing materials have already been produced, including a poster with Herald & Review images.
Spencer Films is the production company producing the movie. Julie Staley is owner of the company. The family film is one of their first projects they started more than three years ago.
Although research is almost complete, the producers will interview anyone who has a firsthand story of A.E. Staley. “If they can give us an insight into what it was like to live or work around A.E. Staley, we would love to hear that story,” Julie Staley said. “It’s not something we would just put in the film. These are things we can share at the museum too.”
The museum director said she welcomes any story and artifact from the life of A.E. Staley. “Even if they aren’t necessarily wanting to donate,” she said. “If they just want to bring them in and tell us about them. They can donate them or put them on loan, let us exhibit them for a given period of time. Then we return them.”
As information becomes available, the museum alters the displays. “You have to be willing to give something up in order to put something new in,” Jahr said about the exhibits. “We struggle always to figure out what can we let go to bring something new in.”
29 celebrities with Decatur ties
30 celebrities from Decatur
Gary Forrester, a New Zealand-Australia based musician, composer and poet who was profiled as one of the major figures in the Australian music scene during the 1980s and 1990s, was born in Decatur and grew up in the Effingham, Quincy and Tuscola areas.
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Jenny Lou Carson
Jenny Lou Carson, originally known as Lucille Overstake of the Three Little Maids, was born and raised in Decatur. She went on to write "You Two-Time Me One Time Too Often," which was the first top country hit written by a woman. She was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame in 1971.
June Christy, an American singer hailed as "one of the finest and most neglected singers of her time," was known for her work in the cool jazz genre. She was born in Springfield in 1925 and moved with her family to Decatur when she was 3.
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Brian Culbertson, an American contemporary jazz/R&B/funk musician, has written and produced over 25 No. 1 contemporary smooth singles on the R&R, Gavin and Billboard Radio charts. He was born and raised in Decatur.
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Howard Warren Buffett
A graduate from Mount Zion High School, Howard Warren Buffett currently is a faculty member at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and was previously a policy adviser in the Executive Office of the President of the United States under President Barack Obama.
Steve Hunter, born and raised in Decatur, is an American guitarist best known for his collaborations with Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Bette Midler and Meat Loaf.
Richard Peck is an American novelist who was awarded the Newbery Medal in 2001 for his novel "A Year Down Yonder".
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Icon for Hire
Icon for Hire, formed in 2007 in Decatur, is an American rock band that has had two Billboard-charting albums.
CeCe Frey is a pop singer from Mount Zion who finished sixth place on seasontwo of "The X-Factor."
Charles Earl Boles
Known as Black Bart, this English-born outlaw lived in Decatur during the 1860s before becoming one of the most notorious stagecoach robbers to operate in and around Northern California and Southern Oregon in the 1870s and 1880s.
Homer 'Boots' Randolph
Best known for his 1963 saxophone hit "Yakety Sax", "Boots" Randolph played with the Dink Welch's Kopy Kats in Decatur from 1948-1954.
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Herbert Dickens Ryman
Herbert Dickens Ryman, who grew up in Decatur, was an artist and Disney Imagineer who drew the first illustrations of Walt Disney's vision of a theme park that eventually became Disneyland. His filmography includes Art Director of Fantasia and Dumbo.
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RonReaco Lee is a television and film actor best known for his roles as Tyreke Scott on "Sister, Sister" and Jamal Woodson the BET romantic comedy "Let's Stay Together." He was born in Decatur.
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David Joyner, best known for his role as Barney, was born in Decatur and graduated from MacArthur High School in 1981.
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Historian Stephen Ambrose, born in Decatur and raised in Lovington, was the best-selling author of books about Lewis and Clark and World War II.
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Howard Graham Buffett
Businessman and philanthropist Howard G. Buffett was the Corporate Vice President and Assistant to the Chairman of Archer Daniels Midland from 1992 - 1995 and is the founder of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. He currently resides in Decatur.
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Most recently known for her worked on Clint Eastwood's "Changeling," Decatur-born Kerri Randles also opened the first ever Hollywood Fringe Festival with her one-woman show "Can't you Hear Me Knockin?"
Musican-actor John Doe, born in Decatur, paved the way for alternative rock with his band X before turning to acting in movies such as "Great Balls of Fire!" and "Boogie Nights".
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Eisenhower alumni Bill "Mad Dog" Madlock, Jr. was a right-handed hitter who won four National League batting titles and is one of only three right-handed hitters to have won multiple National League batting titles since 1960.
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Freddy Krueger, the world's No. 1 professional water ski jump champion, was born and grew up in Decatur.
James W. Loewen
James Loewen, a sociologist, historian and author best known for his book, "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong," was born in Decatur and was a 1960 graduate of MacArthur High School as well as a national merit scholar.
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Contact Donnette Beckett at (217) 421-6983. Follow her on Twitter: @donnettebHR
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