Decatur, Illinois

Understand one thing before you go to Decatur: it’s a company town. True, there are four or five companies instead of just one, and some are owned by distant investors who have even less interest in Decatur than you do. Nevertheless, in this place it’s much harder than usual to ignore the power of private capital.

The best way to see a company town? Look where the companies wish you wouldn’t. Official guides to Decatur send you to Hickory Point Mall, the Rock Springs Environmental Center, the obligatory Lincoln heritage site, and the downtown library (which is laid out in a vast, open, one-floor pattern familiar to any midwesterner).

The boosters don’t mention certain other places around town. Unlabeled, unloved, and for the most part unlovable, these sites commemorate hard luck, bad news, intractable dilemmas, and outright class warfare.

Touring them is a do-it-yourself project. No gift shops. No velvet ropes. No docents whispering over your shoulder. No multimedia displays of nitrite poisoning or police beating workers. You’ll have to imagine for yourself an endless tape loop playing what former Archer Daniels Midland executive and expert price-fixer Terry Wilson told a March 1994 meeting of his supposed competitors: “You’re my friend. I wanna be closer to you than I am to any customer, ’cause you can make it that I can make money or I can’t make money.”

Company Town I: Something in the water. Driving southwest from Champaign-Urbana on Interstate 72, you enter the Lake Decatur watershed approximately when you pass exit 176 for the towns of Mahomet and Seymour. Decatur draws its drinking water from this lake, created in 1922 when the city dammed the Sangamon River. About 800 square miles of farmland lie upstream, most of it planted in corn and soybeans.

The biggest and most amorphous “company” to which Decatur is subject is the agricultural industry that surrounds it. Decatur’s big employers–Caterpillar, A.E. Staley, Bridgestone/Firestone, and the largest, Archer Daniels Midland–supply and are supplied by farmers. The agricultural industry has a direct impact on Lake Decatur as well. Barry Commoner, then based at Washington University in Saint Louis, told the story in one succinct chapter of his 1971 book The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology.

The farms you see along I-72 are picturesque but not innocuous. You are in fact driving through a gigantic flat-floored factory. It just happens to have green wallpaper, a blue-and-white ceiling, and a vast man-made drain into which everything gets hosed at the end of the day. Last year in Illinois every acre planted in corn received an average of 155 pounds of artificial nitrogen fertilizer. As Commoner points out, without some such dosage, farmers couldn’t grow enough crop to be worth their while.

Some of that nitrogen goes to build strong stalks and full ears of corn; some of it runs off the fields and into Lake Decatur in the form of dissolved nitrate. (Later on it reaches the Gulf of Mexico, where it overfertilizes offshore ecosystems and creates a “dead zone” every year, but that’s another story.) Not all the nitrate in Lake Decatur comes from excess farm fertilizer–the experts are still arguing over exactly how much–but a great deal of it undeniably does.

One trouble with nitrate is that babies’ digestive systems can turn it into nitrite, which in sufficient quantities can deprive the blood of oxygen, asphyxiating the kid from within. Lake Decatur exceeds the state EPA’s limit of ten milligrams of nitrate per liter of drinking water almost yearly, with levels usually peaking between February and July. There’s no way for current water-treatment plants to remove nitrate, and boiling the water at home only increases its concentration. Prevention is the only known cure.

In 1992, with EPA encouragement, the city of Decatur hired the Illinois State Water Survey to measure nitrate pollution in the lake and its tributaries and to suggest ways of farming that might reduce the amount of nitrate Decaturites drink between Valentine’s Day and Independence Day. The ISWS, based in nearby Champaign, has made some of the reports available on the Web. You can read the latest one, “Watershed Monitoring for the Lake Decatur Watershed, 1998-1999,” by Laura Keefer and Misganaw Demissie, at (search under Contract Reports). But you can’t find it on the shelves in the Decatur Public Library.

Company Town II: Follow the fixers. The premises of Archer Daniels Midland, Decatur’s admitted price-fixer, are gated and inaccessible. And none of its thieving from customers (which is what price-fixing amounts to) occurred locally. The scenes of the crime may be elsewhere, but scenes relevant to it are all around.

Follow U.S. 51 south of Decatur for 14 arrow-straight miles until you reach the town of Moweaqua. Turn right at the flashing red light in the heart of town, the corner of Main and Main (really). Half a mile west you’ll be out of town again and alongside a rare grove of trees. Within the grove and behind a black gate sits the Old Homestead, a palatial column-fronted Georgian house once owned by former ADM chairman Dwayne Andreas and later by Mark Whitacre during his tenure as president of the company’s bioproducts division. In its driveway on November 5, 1992, Whitacre startled FBI special agent Brian Shepard with the confession that he was involved in an international conspiracy to fix the price and limit the production of the animal-feed additive lysine.

The next act played out the evening of November 9. Just east of the corner of Pershing Road and Water Street on Decatur’s north side stands the Shelton Inn, a Best Western with an attached restaurant, outdoor pool, and billboard offering “extended stay rates.” Inside, behind the front desk, runs a hallway containing several vending machines and pay phones. In this semipublic place Whitacre first tape-recorded an incriminating telephone conversation with a competitor–as it happened, Masaru Yamamoto of Kyowa Hakko Kogyo in Tokyo. The circumstances were awkward. According to Kurt Eichenwald’s account in The Informant, Whitacre held a microphone against the receiver as he talked, while Shepard stood by holding the tape recorder. People passing down the hallway gave them odd looks, but Whitacre’s seemingly wild claims of a price-fixing conspiracy were confirmed when Yamamoto acknowledged “how we maintain the price at $2.50, you know, in other countries, and $1.05 in the United States.”

Later on Whitacre frequently rendezvoused with his FBI handlers in the more posh Holiday Inn on the far west end of town, just off U.S. 36 before it reaches the Decatur beltway. Here on January 9, 1993, he signed a formal cooperation agreement in which he pledged (among other things) not to engage in any criminal activity without the prior knowledge and approval of the FBI–a promise he wasted no time in breaking by continuing to embezzle from ADM. Here too, Whitacre failed two lie-detector tests administered by the bureau in December 1992 and March 1993. Both times he was sure he had outwitted the machine.

Company Town III: Days of rage. Decatur has a way of occasionally abandoning its midwestern reserve and going ballistic, making front-page news across the nation. One such event was the teenage brawl that broke out on the evening of September 17, 1999, at a high school football game. The controversy that ensued briefly engaged Jesse Jackson in the question of downstate school discipline. The football field itself is tucked in back of Dwight Eisenhower High School, on South 16th Street just off Lake Shore Drive. The “Home of the Panthers” is easier to spot if you drive around the block and approach it from behind.

A bigger and possibly more momentous brawl occurred in the mid-90s, when three of Decatur’s major employers were locking out their employees (Staley) or being picketed by them (Caterpillar and Bridgestone/Firestone). The immediate issue was production speedups. The deeper issue, according to Tom Frank and Dave Mulcahey, writing in the Reader on January 20, 1995, was whether working people could manage to keep from being impoverished by corporate globalization. Militant feelings ran high after June 25, 1994, when Decatur police beat and pepper-gassed workers who were passively blocking the entrance to the Staley plant. That fall, on October 15, some 7,000 people rallied in support of the strikes. The march flooded all four lanes of the William B. Sands Viaduct, part of North 22nd Street on the city’s heavily industrialized east side.

A Decatur landmark, the viaduct arches for three-quarters of a mile. At its south end stands the pyramidal Staley headquarters, wildly out of scale with the low-rise city around it. Not far from the viaduct’s north end is the Bridgestone/Firestone tire plant, a low-slung two-story brick affair that resembles a 1960s high school. According to Ford Motor Company engineers, this plant produced a disproportionately high number of the famously defective SUV tires since recalled by the millions. Bridgestone/Firestone blames its tire woes on bad design. Others suspect inferior work connected with the 1994 strike–either that done by scabs or done afterward under ill-advised management speedups. The plant has yet to return to full production since the recall.

Below the viaduct lies an expanse of railroad tracks snaking between factory buildings, steaming pipes, and heaps of scrap metal. The air is thick with eau de Decatur, the sickly sweet smell of processed corn. At last report, globalization has not slowed down. If it ever does, perhaps someone will put a historical marker on this low arch of concrete and steel that spans the heart of a company town.

–Harold Henderson

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Heather McAdams.