Photos: Storyteller Right At Home Inside State Farm's Archives
There is treasure buried underneath State Farm’s corporate headquarters.
No, not literally treasure. More like a treasure trove.
“I don’t get a lot of visitors in the basement unfortunately,” jokes State Farm archivist Buck Farley. “A lot of people don’t know I’m down here.”
"It's making insurance interesting for people and getting them to fall in love with who we are as a company."
That's OK, because a big part of Farley's job is to bring history out into the world, to find stories and actionable research hidden in drawers and old binders.
That said, he does occasionally get a visitor. During GLT’s recent visit with Farley, retired State Farm CEO Ed Rust Jr.—one of the most powerful people in Bloomington-Normal for many years—popped in for an unnoticed visit.
“Mr. Rust and I have been working very closely together since his retirement to preserve his legacy at State Farm and to tell his story and his family’s story,” Farley said. “I’ll probably have a close relationship with Ed now for a while now, because he has a lot of history to tell me.”
Farley has a lot of history to tell himself. GLT spent an hour walking around his archive underneath State Farm corporate headquarters off Veterans Parkway.
There are nearly 60,000 unique objects in the collection, plus millions of photos and thousands of hours of audio and video.
Farley attended Illinois State University, hoping to be a history teacher. Then he worked as an archeologist. Five years ago, he became State Farm’s archivist.
He said it’s a little different being a historian at one of the biggest companies in the world, rather than in academia or at a museum.
“(The best part) is telling the stories of the past to people and seeing their eyes light up, when an understanding comes across their face or a connection clicks with them,” Farley said. “It’s telling somebody about how we expanded the U.S. as a company, and then they’re like, ‘That’s the coolest story I’ve ever heard.’ It’s making insurance interesting for people and getting them to fall in love with who we are as a company.”
Farley is just full of fun facts and quick anecdotes.
There’s the story about the youngest State Farm agent ever—a 12-year-old from Georgia in the 1930s. His descendants are still agents in Georgia.
And the one about State Farm buying a fleet of Singer sewing machines to more quickly tie together policies and applications. Employees went from about 50 an hour to about 1,000.
One of Farley’s favorites: an iconic State Farm atlas from the World War II era. It was the only time State Farm put a map of the world in the atlas, so its customers could see where their sons and daughters were going during the war.
Trivia is fun, but there are also more business-minded applications of this collection and knowledge. The blueprints for State Farm's downtown Bloomington building, for example, have come in handy as they wind it down and prepare for its sale.
Farley said doing research for executives and other employees is a big part of his job.
"People don’t typically work 100 years. So sometimes something happened in the past that people have forgotten about. Like, ‘Hey, let’s start a new company or a new initiative. Have we ever done this before? I don’t know. Let’s ask the archivist,’” Farley said. “And the archivist typically has the information to provide to them and the details, like was it successful or was it not. Can we change it around to make it different?”
Bells and Neigh Bears
The scope of State Farm's archive is a bit staggering. Which makes sense since State Farm, a Fortune 50 company, is the largest home and auto insurer in the U.S.
There’s a cabinet full of model cars. Boxes full of old employee and agent publications Alfi and Reflector. A full-size Neigh Bear costume. Sitting on a shelf is the Employer Support Freedom Award the company got in 2008 from the Obama administration for its military affinity employee group.
And then there’s the giant life bells. They date back to the 1930s, when agents and later operations staff began ringing a bell every time they binded a new life policy. The only reason they had a bell is because an executive needed a way to call meetings at the downtown building, Farley said. So the executive grabbed a train bell.
Farley recently relayed that story to current employees, who still can ring bells when they bind policies.
"And they said, ‘We always wondered why we stand up and ring a bell for this type of thing and we always wondered where it came from. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, it came from 1935,’” Farley said.
A slightly more unusual item in the archive is a crystal ball. It was used by a “colorful” former life insurance executive named Morris Fuller decades ago—a rather ingenious way to speed up staff meetings inside the sweltering downtown building.
“All he’s doing is watching you (in these meetings). And this goes on for like an hour. And finally he holds his hands up and says, ‘Wait a minute.’ And he walks over and brings this crystal ball out. And he sets it on this podium. And he says, ‘Crystal ball, what do you think we should do?’ He puts his hands on the side and pushes a button and it flickers. He says, ‘Crystal ball says we should do this.’ And they believed him. Because they didn’t have any reason not to,” Farley said.
The downtown Bloomington building has yielded a lot of treasures for the archive, especially recently. That's because State Farm has moved out and is getting ready to sell its former headquarters. That sale is set to close this summer. The buyer wants to turn it into a mixed-use space for a restaurant, co-working tenants, and other office space.
The plan is to showcase downtown artifacts in a new space being planned for State Farm’s corporate headquarters.
“There are several pieces down there we wanted to preserve. Mainly our founder’s furniture. Adlai Rust’s furniture. He was our third president of State Farm. George Mecherle’s furniture was down there, so we pulled that out. Recently we’ve tried to salvage the time capsules,” Farley said.
Ultimately, these are all objects. Things you can hold in your hand, photograph, or stick on a shelf. In the years ahead, Farley's job is going to get a lot harder because of all the digital artifacts that need preservation.
It’s a challenge that any archive faces, not just at a technology-focused company like State Farm, Farley said.
“Archives are typically set up for paper and digital objects,” he said. “In the new digital environment, there’s a scramble underway to preserve that stuff. The items that went digital—it’s about that time when archives would be collecting those materials. Ten, 15, 20 years in the past.”
Farley said he’s continuously trying to educate State Farm employees about preserving important digital items.
“That’s what I struggle with every day. Because back in the day, it was a Western Union telegram. I had those. That was easy. But when it’s emails between executives—‘Let’s start a new company!’—that’s the hard stuff to collect. Now you’re dealing with email chains that could be deleted and it’s gone forever,” he said.
Aside from that challenge, Farley is tasked with bringing State Farm's history out into the world. The newly remodeled atrium at corporate headquarters is shaped around that history.
A massive four-story mural made up of nearly 15,000 photos of past and present employees overlooks the atrium. A 1935 fire department truck is parked in the atrium too—a throwback to the days when insurance companies owned fire companies. History is splashed all over the inside of new cubbyhole work areas just off the atrium.
State Farm is old; it was founded 97 years ago by Mecherle. Many families have sent multiple generations of workers into the company. And as it tries to recruit and retain the next generation of employees, its history is part of the sell.
“We’ve tried to incorporate our heritage into our everyday workspace. So that learning about our history isn’t at a special event or a tour. It’s something you can learn every day,” Farley said.
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