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The official company website:  A. E. Staley Manufacturing Co.


The following is an excerpt from the book Ideas that Became Big Business by Clinton Woods. Published by Founders, Inc. Baltimore, MD, 1959, 414 pages.

Buy this book: Ideas That Became Big Business

The Staley Story

It started small, before the turn of the century, when a traveling salesman for tobacco and baking powder got engaged to an Ohio girl who wouldn't marry him until he settled down. He bought a trademark for $200, rented a Baltimore loft for $16 a month, got some barreled starch, and went into business, filling the packages at night, making the rounds of stores by day.

So began the A. E. Staley Manufacturing Company, corn and soybean processor, one of America's major industries. The traveling salesman was A. E. Staley, Sr., founder and chief executive of the Company until his death in 1940.

A North Carolina farm boy who knew the privations of the post Civil War era, he never learned to like farm chores, yet in later life he became a key figure in giving the nation a new farm crop, soybeans.

His first brush with business began when he saw a "boy wanted" sign at the Julian, N.C., general store, and ended with the owner advising him to go back to the farm. "You'll never make a businessman." Yet he became a captain of industry.

He went to work for Bloch Brothers Tobacco company at 17, calling on country stores in the Carolinas, Virginia and Tennessee, traveling by mule, by horse and by wagon. He was a salesman first, last and always. He got better jobs, divisional field manager for Price Brothers Extracts in the East and Midwest, then a sales post with Royal Baking Powder Company that took him over most of the country. Then the lady's ultimatum to settle down.

Calling on grocers, he had noticed that boxes of starch were a staple in every store. This gave him the idea to start packaging and selling starch. He had only $1,500 capital to back it, but a world of ambition and a keen knowledge of human nature.

At one time he had to pawn his watch to pay the boy he had hired to do the packaging so he himself could concentrate on selling, but things picked up and soon he had salesmen for "Cream" corn starch calling on grocers throughout the East.

Business was so good that he began to have problems getting starch supplies from manufacturers.

He decided to make his own starch. He incorporated a company in 1906, bought a defunct corn processing plant at Decatur, Illinois, and spent three years and everything he could scrape together getting it into production. At one time even the "Cream" trademark was assigned as security to a Chicago bank.

The business took hold, and operations smoothed out. Wet corn milling plants are not small by nature, and slowly Staley's built up a complex of buildings and processing equipment required to produce a tremendous varieties of starches, glucose syrups, dextrins, oil, feed and other products from corn.

The Company was only 10 years old, though, and still had a long way to go in corn processing when Staley became interested in soybeans.

Soybeans had been grown in the U.S. as early as 1804, and as "coffee berries" in the South during the Civil War, when they served as a coffee substitute imposed by the Union blockade. A West Coast mill had crushed a few soybeans imported from the Orient in 1910, and a North Carolina cottonseed mill tried crushing a few homegrown soybeans in 1915.

But there was no domestic soybean crop or commercial processing. Soybeans were only a forage crop in this country. The U.S. had imported 41 million pounds of soybean oil in 1911, and imports soared to 343 million pounds in 1918 with World War I. China's soybean exports exceeded U.S. corn exports, every year.

For A. E. Staley, Sr., there was powerful logic in figures like these. The U.S. was destined to have a large soybean industry. All it needed was (1) a soybean crop, (2) processing plants, and (3) markets for the resulting oil, meal and refined soybean products.

Staley, who had first seen soybeans as a farm boy in North Carolina, a few handfuls brought from China by a missionary, now became a missionary for soybeans in the U.S. From 1916 on, Staley and the men around him talked soybeans to anyone who would listen. By the spring of 1922, the Company was able to announce construction of a soybean processing plant, and contract with farmers to buy their crop.

Soybeans are an immensely important source of vegetable oil used in cooking and baking, as salad oil, for packing sardines and tuna fish and for making margarine. It also has many important industrial uses in making paper coatings, adhesives, sizing for cloth, linoleum backing, insect sprays, synthetic paints and varnishes. Soybean meal from which the oil has been extracted is ground into flour for breads and pancakes or used as livestock feed. And livestock feed is by far the greatest user of soybean meal.

Illinois farmers planted 135,000 acres of soybeans that spring, more than four times as much as the year before, and America's first commercial soybean processing plant was put in operation at Staley's that fall.

Today soybeans are a billion-dollar U.S. farm crop essential to the nation's industry, and Decatur is known as the "Soybean Capital of the World." And also at Staley's during these years when the soybean was becoming a part of the nation's agricultural scene, the Company's corn refining business continued to grow. After all, starch was the basis for its founding and products from corn supplied the capital to back the start of the soybean. Today Staley's is the second largest corn refiner in the U.S. and continues as one of the leading processors of soybeans.

Staley's corn refining operations have kept pace with developments of science and research, adding literally hundreds of products from and uses for this plentiful raw material.

There are more than 600 Staley products, made from corn and soybeans, serving an almost unbelievable range of uses in scores of industries, in foods, papers, textiles, pharmaceuticals, ceramics, metals, building materials and many other lines. Products for industry, home and farm--more than 100 carloads roll out of the Decatur plant daily.

From a rented Baltimore loft in 1898, a run-down Decatur starch plant on a 6-acre site with a half-dozen employees and 15 acres for "future expansion" in 1909, the Company has grown to employ over 3,300, occupy 142 buildings on some 400 acres in Decatur, plus plants near Cleveland and Chicago, offices across the country. The Company's sales exceed $150 million a year.

And it all started small, with a traveling salesman who had an idea packaged starch was a good, staple product, who saw and realized a great future in corn and soybeans."

"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." - Virginia Woolf

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