This post originally appeared in The Ambler Gazette | April 30, 2015

Ambler >> It was an early Sunday morning in February 1882, the air brisk, with 6 inches of fallen snow covering Morris Road where it intersects with Butler Avenue, when a well-dressed, 30-year-old man, heavily bearded, came upon a modest village called Ambler.

Beyond the intersection, the man, his pockets filled with limestone, spied a train depot and trudged toward it, surveying the area during his walk, taking careful note of all that did — or did not — surround him: the vacant mills, the small homes, the clean waters of the Wissahickon Creek.

As he waited for the next train to arrive, the man’s gaze rested on a piece of ground adjacent to the station, a level area, wide and bare. His eyes fixed on the plot, the man gave himself over to deep thought, as he was known to do. He waited for the train, wandered a bit and thought.

Fewer than 300 people populated Ambler when the man laid eyes on it. It was a village in decline. But what he saw was a small, ripe section of America, with a clean source of coursing water and a railroad running right through its heart — a town that he could reshape according to his vision.

After time and consideration, he said to himself, “This is a very good place to start a factory.”

So he bought the land, and he built the factory.

***

That, according to various accounts, is how Dr. Richard Vanselous Mattison, of Bucks County, came to choose Ambler as the home for his asbestos empire. The parcel of land the doctor spied from the train depot would make rise to the Keasbey & Mattison Co., and, in time, the American press would bestow upon him the title of “Asbestos King.”

Ambler would become his kingdom.

Raised the son of a Quaker farmer, Mattison grew up in destitution, but he managed to attend the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy on a scholarship, soon earning a second degree from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School — though he never actually practiced medicine.

Rather than pursue a life of doctoring, Mattison began his career in a small laboratory in Philadelphia, tinkering, mixing, testing and experimenting at length, until, after years of toiling, he developed several curatives which, he claimed, were useful in treating all manner of mental and physical exhaustion.

The most popular of the doctor’s concoctions — most of which were sold all over the United States and even throughout Europe — were Alkalithia, Cafetonique and Bromo Caffeine, which was marketed “FOR BRAIN WORKERS,” according to the label adhered to its small, royal blue bottle.

It should be noted that even though the doctor’s remedies sold well, they were rarely — if ever — referred to as actual medicine. Perhaps this hints at why Mattison’s ambitions didn’t linger long in the pharmaceutical game — that, and a life-changing discovery in his lab.

As the story goes, 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.

It wasn’t long before he was exploring the properties of asbestos, a whitish, unburnable substance. With enough asbestos, the doctor realized he could develop uncountable insulating and fireproof materials — fabrics, millboards, curtains, shingles — the possibilities were endless. Entire homes and theaters could in part be made of reputedly incombustible asbestos materials.

But to manufacture such products, the doctor needed a means 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.

He would also need money.

***

There was someone else with Mattison on that day in February 1882, trudging through the snow toward Ambler, inspecting the humble town and its train depot. The man’s name was Henry G. Keasbey, and he had for some time been Mattison’s silent, though integral, business partner.

Keasbey, who studied with Mattison at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, was the descendent of a wealthy New Jersey family and seemed to have had little actual desire to run Keasbey & Mattison. By 1892, not a decade after moving their operation to Ambler, Keasbey retired and set off to live in France, leaving his partner to run the show alone.

Mattison, it seems, preferred it that way.

Over time, the doctor expanded the Keasbey & Mattison plant — his aspirations growing larger every year — until, little by little, the company was selling, on an international scale, an immense number of asbestos products, from theater curtains, to uniforms for firefighters and oven mitts for bakers, to asbestos-lined helmets for soldiers in World War I.

The asbestos industry, in many ways pioneered by Mattison, was in bloom, and Ambler became the center of it all, a once dilapidated village now in flux; it was flourishing, with new homes rising up around the K&M plant like concentric ripples in disturbed waters.

The factory represented growth and thriving life.

These were the years preceding much — if any — knowledge of the cancerous qualities of asbestos, the dust of which, when inhaled, embeds its small fibers in the lungs, giving way years later to a host of ailments, including mesothelioma. Promising words were often heaped on asbestos, the magical substance, with Mattison even making the Titanic-like claim that his Shingle Plant, because it was made of asbestos materials, was entirely fireproof.

In 1989, the factory would be destroyed by a fire.

It seems that Mattison could not conceive of the limitations and toxic properties of asbestos — his own home, after all, was built of K&M products — but the dangers were there, and the people most vulnerable to them were the immigrant workers, many from Maida, Italy, who would build and populate the factory and surrounding homes.

They were the ones working with the substance day in and day out, touching it, inhaling it, kicking up plumes of it at home as they removed their work clothes. Their wives, too, would breathe asbestos smoke as they tended to their husbands’ laundry. Children, they say, would play in it.

Enticed into the factory life by a recruiter named Carmine Lobianco — a former custodial worker in Mattison’s small Philadelphia laboratory who had earned the doctor’s respect — Italian stoneworkers and laborers sailed to America en masse to work and raise their families in Ambler.

They lived within walking distance of the K&M plant, earning wages from Mattison and then paying much of it back to him for water, gas, electricity and food, as well as the homes in which they lived. Everything belonged to the enigmatic Dr. Richard Mattison, making him both a venerated and vilified presence in Ambler.

Roughly 400 residences total belonged to Mattison, from the humble, barracks-like abodes designated to the lower-level factory workers, to the more lavish homes reserved for the K&M executives, built farther up Butler Avenue, atop the sloping hill.

The finest home, however, was Lindenwold, an estate complete with a lake and an immense, turreted mansion that overlooked most of the community, gated and patrolled day and night by sentries. This was Mattison’s estate, a home truly suited to a king. And, like any king, he transformed the mansion into a proper castle.

It’s now most commonly known as The Villa.

***

At 6 feet, 4 inches tall, long-legged and broad-shouldered, with a massive, scraggly beard, Dr. Richard Mattison was towering, immense in body and spirit. And, as he amassed his fortune over the years, the trappings of Mattison’s life loomed large as well.

But nothing loomed larger than the castle.

The Lindenwold home was built as a Victorian mansion in 1890, but underwent a significant transformation in 1912, when the doctor decided to erect a stone fortress around the building, modeling the edifice after great Gothic structures like The Windsor Castle in London.

Mattison lived in the castle with his second wife, Mary, for more than 20 years, until 1931, when The Great Depression changed the doctor’s circumstances and forced him to move into a smaller, though still comfortable home at No. 1 Lindenwold. In 1936, the property was sold to the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, and it soon began operating as an orphanage.

Those years in the castle, however, were Mattison’s most successful. He continued to build Ambler, not only developing the town’s infrastructure, lining the streets with lights, establishing water and gas companies and presiding over the First National Bank of Ambler, but fostering a more rounded artistic culture in the borough by erecting a bandstand and the Ambler Opera House.

In everything he did and in the myriad ways he presided over the town, Mattison became a figure of folklore, a mythic presence in Ambler, aloof and eccentric, peculiar even, and occasionally authoritarian.

The extremely tall magnate apparently owned a specially made automobile with a heightened roof encased in glass — imagine the Popemobile — with enough headspace that he could sit comfortably in the backseat without removing his top hat.

From this backseat perch, he would greet his workers in the morning, cordially calling to them; many of the workers would respond in the only English they knew: “Good morning, Dr. Mattison.”

During a dispute with borough officials regarding power rates, the doctor, who owned Ambler’s electric company, had arranged for the street lights along Butler Avenue to remain off at night. That is, unless Mattison was out driving. Whenever he took to the road in his bizarre car, the lamps on Butler would blink on, igniting one by one as he passed, like dim halos hopping along beside him in the dark.

Over the last hundred or so years, these sorts of anecdotes about Mattison have perhaps been shaped more from myth than hard facts, but they serve to show how divisive the doctor was, as well as the hold he had over Ambler, for better or worse.

The words most written about Richard Mattison — words found in excerpts from old news articles or noted by history buffs poring through Ambler’s rich and textured past — are three mere words.

“Loved or hated.”

To see them written just the one time, these words seem benign, even overly simplistic, an easy way to hint at a person’s complexity. But to see the sentiment “loved or hated” arise so often — popping up again and again in texts — paints a more detailed picture of Mattison, an elusive leader, a giver and an oppressor, a walking contradiction.

It seems Mattison was a man behind a veil, never truly known.

Attempts to write about the doctor — probably even this very attempt — only stab at his essence, accruing facts and details that surrounded him without ever really capturing who he was. Not even his face is well-known, with his bushy, crag of beard rumored to mask unseemly scarring.

The rumor there is that one night in 1882, while still occupying his laboratory in Philadelphia, Mattison, ever the watcher, was attempting to peer into the window of his competitor Cruse-Kemper Co.’s building, to better understand why the lights were on so late at night — what were they doing in there? — when a trapdoor in the sidewalk gave way, the doctor falling through the shaft and hitting his chin on a ledge on the way down, fracturing his jaw in three places.

His face disfigured, Mattison grew an unruly beard. It was another façade, not unlike the stones encasing his Lindenwold mansion.

Even so, citizens caught fleeting glimpses of the man, whose life, though blessed with great wealth and influence, was also plagued by public tragedies.

When his 4-year-old daughter, Esther, died of typhoid fever in 1887, Mattison did not hide his grief. He mourned for her publicly and built the Trinity Memorial Church — a magnificent, Gothic cathedral — in her honor, obsessively altering the design until it was, in his eyes, a perfect tribute to his fallen girl.

Beginning with Esther’s death, a series of misfortunes hit the doctor one after the next, including the mysterious death of his first wife — also named Esther — in 1919. Not long after, in 1920, Mattison remarried to Mary Seger, who was almost immediately crippled in a car accident in Philadelphia.

The hardest blow, however, came from Henry G. Keasbey, the doctor’s silent partner, who had remained pretty much entirely apart from K&M business life since 1892.

In 1928, Keasbey filed a lawsuit against Mattison, alleging the doctor used company funds on profitable endeavors — not least of which was building approximately 400 residences in Ambler and listing himself as sole proprietor — without cutting his partner in on the earnings. Both men, once friends, sought a quick end to the dispute rather than a drawn-out fight in the courts.

So Mattison gave Keasbey $4 million, buying him out of the business.

Not a year later, the stock market crashed.

***

Move forward a few years, and Mattison, half-blind and withering — removed as president of the Keasbey & Mattison Co. in 1931 — was living out his final days across the street from Lindenwold, the castle visible from his window, a monument to his former power.

The Great Depression crumbled many of the doctor’s once-promising business ventures, which, coupled with the untimely loss of $4 million to appease Keasbey, quickened K&M’s bankruptcy, forcing Mattison out of his home and his seat of authority.

But he wasn’t a man destroyed.

Mattison enjoyed some quiet years at No. 1 Lindenwold, which was still a lovely home, if not quite the size and shape of The Windsor Castle. He spent more time with Mary, and finally became better acquainted with his brother, Asher’s, children, even ensuring that his childhood home would belong to them after he passed.

Richard Mattison died of a heart attack in November 1936. He was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in North Philadelphia.

To this day, the doctor’s impressions can be seen all over Ambler Borough, within old images adorning the lobby walls of Ambler Theater, or in some street signs reading Mattison Avenue, or in the many homes the doctor built, still standing today, and the K&M shingles that line their roofs.

Most emblematic of Mattison’s legacy, though, are the White Mountains, massive heaps of asbestos capped by the Environmental Protection Agency, with questions of health and environmental consequences still swirling around them.

It’s hard for many people to think of Dr. Mattison without reducing him to the piles of asbestos at the edge of town, the perennial elephants in the room, called into existence by the Keasbey & Mattison plant. But there was more to the man, and when looking at his life in a larger context, maybe local historian Bernadette Dougherty put it best.

“If you take the word ‘asbestos’ out,” she said, “it’s really a good story.”

A BIT OF THANKS:

This story drew heavily from the extremely detailed nonfiction work “Unto the Sons” by famed author Gay Talese, and it would likely not exist at all if not for Talese’s remarkable passion and attention to detail. It is a book well-worth reading.

The article also depended on information provided by “Images of America: Ambler” by Frank D. Quattrone; “A History of Trinity Episcopal Church” sponsored by Trinity Episcopal Church; and the various writings and photographs of Newton M. Howard.

Additional support and information was offered by The Chemical Heritage Foundation, The University of Pennsylvania, The Wissahickon Valley Historical Society, The Upper Dublin Township Historical Society, the Montgomery County Historical Society and Ambler Borough Tax Collector Bernadette Dougherty, who penned segments of “The Second Hundred Years: A History of Montgomery County.”

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