DECATUR — Work on the documentary “Fields of Gold: The Rags to Riches story of A.E. Staley” was delayed during COVID-19, but with a big push this summer, the finish is in sight.
Julie Staley, the film's producer and director, said there still isn't a release date, but predicted there are just months left in what's been a four-year project. The Herald & Review is a partner in the movie.
"We’re hoping to have something out as soon as possible," Julie Staley said. "We’re kind of playing catchup this summer trying to get everything shot as much as we can. We should be wrapping filming in the next few weeks. We started editing while we were minding our time and idling. We’ll finish post production in the next couple months. I hate to put an exact time on it, but in the next several months."
The film is a passion project for Julie Staley, who spent more than 20 years in various cities as a TV news anchor and reporter. She became part of the Staley family when she married Mark Staley in 2003. They founded the Staley Museum in 2016 at A.E. Staley's home during his time in Decatur (361 N College St.). Julie Staley began Spencer Films in 2019 with the Fields of Gold project in mind.
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A.E. Staley started the A.E. Staley Manufacturing Co. in Baltimore in 1906, but moved operations to Decatur in 1909 at the site of a twice-failed corn processing plant. Despite setbacks, including World War I, that nearly led to the failure of the company and financial ruin for Staley, it eventually became the most successful business in the city.
A huge sports fan, Staley sponsored athletic teams through his company — his Decatur Staleys football team was a charter member of the NFL and eventually became the Chicago Bears. But his greatest contribution was the introduction of a soybean processing plant to the company's operations, which led to the soybean becoming a staple crop in the U.S. and gave Decatur its nickname: the Soy Capital.
"This is the story of A.E. Staley and his life from beginning to end," Julie Staley said. "We go back to where he was born — in a log cabin in North Carolina. He spent his childhood on that farm. We visited there doing the filming, and it’s hard to believe he came from that humble area and built the castle in the cornfields in Decatur.
"We’re excited to go through all the history and archives, and partner with so many like the Herald & Review to bring this history out to today, and what brought him from NC to Decatur — that road to success."
A.E. Staley died in 1940. Though Tate & Lyle bought the bulk of Staley's operation in 1988 and the company hasn't been known as "Staley's" for 16 years, Decatur residents are reminded of his impact on the city daily — Lake Decatur and the 22nd Street viaduct are just two of the city's lasting legacies that originated with A.E. Staley.
"This isn’t just family history or his history, it’s Decatur history," Julie Staley said. "Everyone in Decatur is connected to that company somehow. Everyone knows someone or related to someone who worked there. Many had generations work there."
Among the many interviews for the documentary have been Decatur Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe, WAND-TV anchor Sean Streaty, local historian Tom Hanks, the Herald & Review's Justin Conn, the Staley family and former employees of the company.