A look into A.E. Staley's legacy and how it shaped Decatur.
A.E. Staley's legacy: His American dream continues to shape Decatur
DECATUR – Augustus Eugene Staley may have been born to Southern farmers ruined financially by the Civil War, but he dreamed of becoming a businessman.
Willing to travel and talented at sales, he saw that corn starch was more in demand than tobacco or baking power, so he went into business selling packaged starch at age 30.
The desire to manufacture his own product led Staley to Decatur within a dozen years, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Here are some of the historical highlights to be featured at a new Staley Museum opening Saturday in the longtime family home on College Hill (361 N. College St.):
1867: A.E. Staley was born on a farm near Julian, N.C., Feb. 25 to William and Mary Jane Ledbetter Staley.
1885: After losing his father at age 18, Staley begins more than a dozen years of working as a traveling salesman. Among the products he sold was corn starch.
1890s: He admires the Victorian home of William H. Ennis on College Hill whenever he is in Decatur, which was part of his sales territory.
1898: Settling in Baltimore and founding his own company the year before, he makes his first sale of packaged starch locally on March 3 and marries Emma Louise Tressler on Dec. 14 in Bryan, Ohio.
1900: Ione Staley, the first of their five children, is born Jan. 23. She outlives all her siblings, dying in 1981 at age 81.
1909: Staley buys the former Wellington Starch Co. in Decatur and re-opens the plant in 1912. He and his family initially live at 524 W. Prairie Ave.
1913: He buys the house on College Hill completed in 1884 for William J. Quinlan, secretary-treasurer of Chambers, Bering and Quinlan check rower and hog ringer manufacturers, but owned by the Ennis family since 1889. Staley spends almost as much as the $20,000 purchase price remodeling it along Elizabethan lines.
1920: A.E. Staley and his company are a driving force behind the city's decision to build Lake Decatur.
1921: He sends his two-year-old Decatur Staleys football team and coach George Halas to Chicago. Halas re-named the team Chicago Bears the next year.
1922: A.E. Staley Mfg. Co. begins processing soybeans, contributing to Decatur's moniker as the “Soybean Capital of the World.”
1926: A.E. Staley Jr., third child and oldest son of A.E. Staley Sr., marries Lenore Mueller Sept. 15. On June 25, 1924, his big sister Ruth married Ebert Mueller in the Staley family home in the first wedding to connect the two prominent Decatur families.
1928: Staley Sr. is instrumental in plans to build a viaduct on 22nd Street (then Seventh Street), which is named Staley Viaduct upon completion.
1930: Staley Sr. inaugurates the Staley Administration Building, one of the most iconic structures in Decatur.
1932: He steps down as president of A.E. Staley Mfg. Co. after running the company since founding it in 1897. He is succeeded by Staley Jr.
1940: Staley Sr. dies Dec. 26 at his winter home in Miami, Fla., at age 73.
1953: His widow makes the Florida estate her permanent residence and donates the family home in Decatur, which is used for apartments for many years.
1967: Emma Staley, 91, dies in Miami on Feb. 25, the 100th anniversary of her husband's birth.
1975: Staley Jr. dies March 19 at age 71. Donald Nordlund replaces him as head of the company.
1988: British company Tate & Lyle acquires majority ownership of A.E. Staley Mfg. Co.
2001: The former Staley Mansion is featured on the Heritage & Holly Historic Home Tour of the Near Westside Restoration & Preservation Society Nov. 23-24.
2013: Staley Museum buys the largely restored home at 361 N. College St. from Dennis and Jana Drew.
Back in the family: New Staley Museum tells story of founder's life, company
DECATUR – A Victorian masterpiece built on College Hill for a local manufacturer in 1884 quickly caught the eye of a young Southerner and traveling salesman named Augustus Eugene Staley.
Well-kept and attractive, with a groom to care for the stable and carriages, the house represented the ideal home to him.
“It was the finest I had ever seen,” Staley recalled in 1924. “I would stop and admire it and wonder if I would ever have the chance to own a home like it.”
By coincidence, he did buy the house in 1913, the year after he reopened a defunct starch plant in Decatur as A.E. Staley Mfg. Co. to begin making the cornstarch he'd been selling out of Baltimore since 1898.
Owned by the family for 40 years, the former Staley Mansion is back in the family's hands and begins a new chapter next weekend as the Staley Museum.
The focus is A.E. Staley Sr., his company and his legacy, personal and professional.
Julie Staley, president of the museum board and wife of Mark Staley, the treasurer, said they've seen the value of preserving family history from the community response to the Hieronymus Mueller Museum, opened 20 years ago and relocated in 2005 to 420 W. Eldorado St.
“When the opportunity came to purchase the Staley Mansion just a block away, we thought it would be the perfect setting to bring the story of A.E. Staley to life,” she said.
Mark Staley's brother, Grant Staley, is vice president/secretary of the board.
The brothers are great-grandsons of Hieronymous Mueller and A.E. Staley Sr. through the 1926 marriage of their paternal grandparents, Lenore Mueller and A.E. Staley Jr.
The family didn't have to look far to find the right staff to run the Staley Museum. Director Laura Jahr is also assistant director of the Mueller Museum, and assistant director Mike Deatherage is also the Mueller director.
Nor did they need to do much to the house itself, as previous owners had done a fine job converting it back from apartments to a single-family residence.
“We're not intending to be a period home,” Jahr said. “We're a museum that happens to be in the family home. The intention is to tell stories about the family, the company and the community.”
For example, one of the first portraits of A.E. Staley Sr. you see upon entering is on loan from the Masonic Temple. It was painted by Shelbyville artist Robert Root to honor Staley, a Mason, for his contributions to the construction of the temple's 1929 building.
Other rooms on the south side of the main floor are devoted to Staley's family and to the Decatur Staleys football team and other athletics, but the sun porch explores the history of A.E. Staley Mfg. Co. and includes exhibits and information about Tate & Lyle as well.
Macon County Master Gardeners have also spruced up the landscape as the time draws near for the Staley Museum to open.
“It's a local history museum, a work in progress and an American Dream story,” Jahr said. “Who doesn't like American Dream stories?”
Aerial photos of Staley buildings in Decatur.
To see more photos from our archives, visit herald-review.newspapers.com.
Photos from the Herald & Review archives of A.E. Staley Mfg. Co. employees.