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updated: 8/13/2014 7:26 AM

Reinvention keeps Decatur business going

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  • Warehouseman Harry Michael operates a narrow aisle fork lift retrieving boxes for a fork truck driver to load into a semi-trailer at Parke Warehouse in Decatur.

      Warehouseman Harry Michael operates a narrow aisle fork lift retrieving boxes for a fork truck driver to load into a semi-trailer at Parke Warehouse in Decatur.
    AP Photo/Herald & Review, Jim Bowling

 
By THERESA CHURCHILL
Decatur Herald and Review

DECATUR -- The railroad has been a driving force over the long history of Parke Warehouses.

Indeed, construction of the Illinois Central was why Gus Hardy practically gave away his Decatur livery business to Virgil Parke, then 21, early on a Monday in 1854.

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"The big gang of workmen was then at Moweaqua, where Gus had established a store, and he was anxious to get there and look after that," Parke told the Decatur Daily Review at age 75.

Interestingly, Parke had just arrived from Bloomington on the new track, possibly returning from a family visit to get back to work covering Central Illinois for a Chicago collection agency.

Fast forward 160 years, and one of Decatur's oldest businesses stands ready to help the city make a successful transformation to inland port via the rails.

"People ask how Parke can have such longevity," President Bruce Stoddard said. "It's because the business has reinvented itself so many times."

The first reinvention was a lucrative one, when Virgil Parke transitioned in the early 1860s into selling farm implements on the site where the Lincoln Square Theatre would eventually stand.

The price of corn jumped to $1 a bushel during the Civil War, and Parke's business was up and running.

Next came the move in 1887 to the "country" and close to the railroad tracks - five blocks north to 621 N. Main St. - to deal in feed, coal and wood, handling 1,200 to 1,400 rail cars annually.

That same year, Parke took his son Guy into the business, also at the tender age of 21.

By the time incorporation as Parke & Son came in 1903, a large storage house had been built, the company had added building materials, such as lime, plaster and cement, and had also gone into the business of laying sewer pipe and doing concrete work.

A larger warehouse was added a decade later, possibly for storing furniture, and in 1931, a rug cleaning plant was installed.

Then in 1958, Guy Parke and his son William moved their operation to the current headquarters at 1800 E. Garfield Ave. - into the former Illinois Terminal Railroad shops.

But when William Parke left the banking industry 11 years earlier to join the family business, he brought with him a former employee he'd hired in Chicago after noticing they were both born in Decatur - the late Dave Stoddard of Argenta.

William Parke, who never married nor had children, bequeathed the family business to Stoddard upon his death in 1984, and Stoddard in turn placed it in the hands of his son Richard, who is the chairman and CEO.

"William Parke and my dad recognized in the 1950s they wanted to get away from moving people's furniture," Richard Stoddard said. "It was a very difficult business to do, and they thought there was more of a need for storage in Decatur, which they thought was an up-and-coming industrial community."

Younger brother Bruce Stoddard joined Parke & Son in 1996, by which time another shift had occurred toward handling food ingredients. Toll processing had also become a big part of the business.

Bruce Stoddard said that grew out of a request by Tate & Lyle to take starch out of a bulk rail car and put it into 2,000-pound sacks.

"Once we started doing that, they wanted us to blend ingredients for them and pack that off," he said. "Then other companies started finding out we did that, and pretty soon we were in this other business."

Today, with Richard's son Gavin having joined Parke & Son as chief financial officer, the Stoddards use the word "logistics" to describe the business they're in.

They say development of Decatur's Midwest Inland Port, with Archer Daniels Midland Co.'s intermodal rail facility as its centerpiece, presents Parke with opportunities unlike any it's seen before.

Its official name still Parke & Son, the company serves as a distribution center from five locations in Decatur, operates 150 trucks and employs 82 people.

"We move goods from one point to another," Richard Stoddard said. "The importance of logistics is often overlooked, but it's huge and it's not going to get any smaller."

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