The Legacy of Keasbey & Mattison Company

Think about this: how did Ambler become a thriving town? Why were so many people coming to Ambler? What does Ambler have, but other towns don't?


We have Keasbey & Mattison Company.


The Keasbey & Mattison Company was established in Ambler in 1881 after moving their headquarters from Philadelphia. The men behind the company were businessman Henry G. Keasbey and chemist/pharmacist Richard V. Mattison.

Who Were They? How Did They Meet?


When I researched about this company, I found out that it was Richard Mattison who played a bigger part in Ambler than his quiet business partner Henry Keasbey.

Dr. Richard V. Mattison (1851-1936)

Richard V. Mattison (1851-1936) was born in Bucks County, PA to a poor Quaker family. Somehow, he was able to attend the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy on a scholarship. He later went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. The thing was that Richard never practiced medicine.


Instead of becoming a doctor, Richard worked in a small pharmaceutical laboratory in Philadelphia where he was working on a product called Bromo Caffine. One night, while working with milk of magnesia...

"the doctor spilled one of his many concoctions onto a heated pipe and noticed that it didn’t burn — the mixture withstood the heat. A light bulb ignited in Mattison’s mind, and he set off on an odyssey of experiments."

- Dutch Godshalk, "THE ASBESTOS KING: The life & times of Dr. Richard V. Mattison, who built an empire in Ambler Borough."


After the accidental experiment occurred, Richard began experimenting with asbestos, which is a whitish, non-flameable, natural substance. This was when Richard began to realize that he could use asbestos to develop uncountable insulating and fireproof materials (fabrics, millboards, curtains, shingles, etc.) He could also use it to built homes and theaters. The only problem was that he had to figure out how to promote asbestos. He needed to ship asbestos down from the mines of Quebec, Canada, which means he would need easy access to a train, and a factory located near a depot. Most of his products also required large amounts of limestone. He also needed a large amount of money.


That was when Henry G. Keasbey came into the picture.


Henry G. Keasbey (1850-1932) was the descendant of a wealthy New Jersey family, and like Richard, he studied at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. Henry was considered "a mild-mannered" individual who considered Richard as a genius, and never had a problem working with him. It's unknown how exactly the two men met, but the two ventured out somewhere in the expansive Philadelphia countryside to build a manufacturing plant.


Read his patent of a Feed Water Heater by clicking here!


The two went on a carriage ride outside the city and explored the farmland that could work for their company. When the two walked out of their carriages, dairy workers, blacksmiths, and wheelwrights found them odd-looking coming into the farmland.

"When Mattison passed through Ambler for the first time in the early 1880s, the town was in a slump. Grain milling had once been the lifeblood of the local economy, but the arrival of a railroad station in 1855 allowed farmers to send their grain by freight to cities, such as nearby Philadelphia, where large food distributors already offered grinding services. That newfound efficiency devastated the town. By 1880 the mills had either closed or were operating at a loss. The same fate befell Ambler’s sawmills and its silk and wool mills, the latter undone in the 1870s when fringed shawls fell out of fashion."

- Samson Reiny, "Living in the Town Asbestos Built."

"At six feet, four inches, with broad shoulders, narrow hips, and such disproportionately long, thin legs that he seemed to be walking on stilts, the sternly spectacled Dr. Mattison towered over the five-foot-seven-inch Mr. Keasbey, who had a round ruddy face and muttonchops whiskers and nodded affirmatively at nearly everything he heard the talkative doctor say. Bystanders could have justifiably assumed that Dr. Mattison, and not Mr. Keasbey, was the scion of a powerful family of Anglo-Americans who had been social leaders and philanthropists for generations, and who decorated their grand residences in Morris County, New Jersey, with mounted moose heads over the mantels, and burnished medieval-style breastplates flanking the staircases beneath staffs of jousting banners and suspended battle-axes. In deference of Keasbey's wealth, and with the understanding that he would continue to underwrite his aspirations, Dr. Mattison placed Keasbey's name in the primary position on their joint enterprise. It was called Keasbey & Mattison Company."

- Gay Talese, Unto the Sons, page 201

North Pennsylvania Railroad 1886 Philadelphia - Bucks - Montgomery Counties, Ambler; J. D. Scott, Publisher

In the 1890s, Henry stopped contributing to the company after deciding to leave the area to live in southern France with his ailing wife. They hadn't visited each other ever since.

The Mattison Era


Mattison was left on his own ever since Henry left. He continued to expand the company, and little by little, his asbestos products were selling like crazy. His plant made asbestos-lined helmets for soldiers during World War I.


Not only was his company in bloom, the Ambler community began to bloom as well. Mattison hired laborers from different parts of Europe, and African Americans from Westmoreland County, West Virginia.


Mattison created a class system by building 400 homes in Ambler. 80% of them are still standing:

  • Brick row houses along Church Street for his blue-collar workers

  • Twin houses along Highland Avenue for his supervisors

  • Stone mansions on Lindenwold Terrace for his executives

Mattison even built his own 24-acre baronial estate right across from the stone mansions. He'd also...

  • Built streets

  • Built the Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church (in honor of his daughter who had died)

  • Improved the town's water supply

  • Introduced electric streetlights

  • Enhanced culture by building Ambler's first opera house and library

  • Sponsored plays and other entertainment

He pretty much took good care of his workers!

Atlas of the North Penn Section of Montgomery County, Pa., 1916, Plate 26; A. H. Mueller, Publisher

In 1931, the Keasbey & Mattison era came to an end when the Great Depression hit, and it forced Mattison to sell the company.

Asbestos Controversy


Ambler's economy relied on the asbestos production at the Keasbey & Mattison Company. Little was known about the affects of asbestos on the workers and on those who lived nearby the operation.


Even though the K & M Co. ceased operations, there were other asbestos companies that bought out K & M: Certainteed Corporation and Nicolet Industries. Dumping of asbestos-containing waste materials began in the late 1800s, basically when K & M Co. moved to Ambler. And it continued on through 1974.


Formal complaints of air and water contamination were filed in the early 1970s, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) got involved in the inspection, study, and cleaning up of the site when it was labeled the Ambler Asbestos Piles Superfund Site. With field surveys and high ambient air monitoring, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a Public Health Advisory concerning the Site. 


It was decided by the EPA to remove at least some of the materials and to secure other areas in 1984. "Two additional removal actions were conducted in 1985 and 1990 to improve the vegetative cover and fencing. The Site was officially placed on the National Priorities List of Superfund Sites on June 6, 1986."


"Construction of the remedy took place between 1992 and 1993. Following cleanup, EPA took deleted the site from the National Priorities List (NPL) in 1996."


From 2017-2019, the EPA continued to clean up the area, and repairing soil cap and drainage systems on the site. Even though the site was deleted from the National Priorites List, they are still operating and maintaining the site.


There were residents who remembered having experience with asbestos, and not being aware of how harmful the material was.

"Eighty-three-year-old Victor Romano recalls factory workers not being too concerned about inhaling the mineral. “Once in a while, you would see a guy that would have a handkerchief over his face, over his mouth, but they didn’t have respirators,” he says. “You just didn’t think about it, and you didn’t know.” Men returned home with their soiled clothes, and wives would launder them. Homes adjacent to the enormous piles of leftover waste—long known as the 'White Mountains'—were inundated with dust that collected on windowsills and porches and left a thick film on cars."

- Samson Reiny, "Living in the Town Asbestos Built."


The White Mountain, as every Ambler resident knew it as. It's interesting that there were children who were playing on it, even though they weren't supposed to hang out there.

"Kids played on the White Mountains. Jack Kettner, a friendly, burly man in his late 50s, grew up in Ambler and lives within a couple of blocks of the White Mountains. 'There were walkways along the piles, and we used to run along them and throw shingles at the boys from West Ambler—sort of like a sham battle,' he says. The kids would try to avoid falling into the quicksand-like, white-purplish slurry that formed in the middle of the mountain after rain. (The EPA’s Jim Feeney, who now oversees the site’s upkeep, says the slurry was composed of calcium carbonate, magnesium carbonate, and asbestos waste left over from insulation manufacturing at the nearby factory.)"

- Samson Reiny, "Living in the Town Asbestos Built."


Even though it was fun and games, there were consequences. It could be that the workers from K & M, and the residents in Ambler, were exposed to asbestos, and maybe died from it.

One man told me that the workers were allowed to bring home the cloth bags in which the asbestos was transported. The bags were washed and used as pillowcases.

- Peggy Johnston, Wissahickon Valley Historical Society

Another man told me that as a child, he was allowed to swim in the settling pond near the factory and to climb and play on the “White Mountain.”

- Peggy Johnston, Wissahickon Valley Historical Society

Google Satellite Plan: BoRit Absetos Superfund Site

NOTE: View Holly Ann Colello Landscape Architecture and Horticulture's design for the redevelopment project of the superfund site here!

Conclusions/Thoughts


Even though the K & M Co. helped Ambler thrived as a community, it caused some controversy with the materials they were using: asbestos. Here's my thoughts on this:


I think what people should get out from this is that Ambler is still one of the greatest towns to be in. Even though the asbestos exposure caused panic in the community, the people were able to get through with it without being scared. It doesn't seem to me that people were not too worried about the asbestos exposure. Only a few percentage maybe, but at least they continue to thrive.


Ambler is doing a great job keeping their communities safe and healthy. The legacy of the Keasbey & Mattison Company still lives to this day.


Ambler is making great progress in the asbestos cleanup.


SPECIAL NOTE: I want to say thank you to Peggy Johnston, a member of Wissahickon Valley History Society, for contributing to my blog!! She began to help out with my blog ever since April 2020. She'll be helping me out throughout my future posts :)

Bibliography


"AMBLER ASBESTOS PILES: AMBLER, PA: Cleanup Activities." United States Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed September 10, 2020. https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/SiteProfiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=second.Cleanup&id=0300445#bkground.


"Distance Calculator."DaftLogic.Accessed September 25, 2020. https://www.daftlogic.com/projects-google-maps-distance-calculator.htm.


Godshalk, Dutch. "THE ASBESTOS KING: The life & times of Dr. Richard V. Mattison, who built an empire in Ambler Borough." The Ambler Gazette. April 30, 2015. https://www.montgomerynews.com/amblergazette/news/the-asbestos-king-the-life-times-of-dr-richard-v-mattison-who-built-an-empire/article_e8f7ca48-ebcd-5a30-9d47-647e03f00811.html.


"Learn About Asbestos Production and EPA's Role Around Ambler, Pennsylvania." United States Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed September 10, 2020. https://www.epa.gov/ambler/learn-about-asbestos-production-and-epas-role-around-ambler-pennsylvania.


Mueller, A.H. Atlas of the North Penn Section of Montgomery County, Pa., Plate 26, 1916.


Quattrone, Frank D. Ambler. (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2004): 6-7.


Rainy, Samson. "Living in the Town Asbestos Built." Science History Institute. June 24, 2015. https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/living-in-the-town-asbestos-built.


Scott, J.D. North Pennsylvania Railroad 1886 Philadelphia - Bucks - Montgomery Counties, Ambler, 1886.


Strandon, Tara. "EPA Names BoRit Asbestos Superfund Site in Ambler as Promising for Redevelopment." Mesothelioma. Last modified January 26, 2018. https://www.mesothelioma.com/blog/epa-names-borit-asbestos-superfund-site-in-ambler-as-promising-for-redevelopment/.


Talese, Gay. Unto the Sons. (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2006): 201, 380-381.


#pahistory #ambler #keasbeymattisonco #philadelphia #philly #asbestos #EPA #superfund #whitemountain #richardmattison #henrykeasbey #CDC #publichealth #horticulture #landscape

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