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Former mill site enters next chapter in storied history

November 26, 2014

The ongoing demolition of the abandoned buildings on the South Street Superfund site effectively marks the end to a long and storied chapter in local history that brought both good and bad to the town of Walpole over two centuries.

The west side of the street, which has been fenced off and abandoned for more than 20 years, has essentially been stigmatized as a toxic waste dump for the generation growing up in Walpole today. But while its long history has indeed included an association with toxic substances, the site was a major part of Walpole’s industrial history during its heyday.

Walpole town officials hope to redevelop both the east and west sides in the coming years for municipal use.

The site was used continuously by various industries and enterprises from the 1700s to around 1986.

There are few specific details of operations at the site during the 1700s, however there is some evidence of various mills and a forge being located there, all powered by the Neponset River that traverses the site.

Around 1811, John Blackburn started the Blackburn Privilege east of the site, where the Town Forest is today. Soon after, in 1812, the Union Privilege began operating on the west side. These were two of the 10 privileges established along the Neponset River in the 1800s.

The term “privilege” refers to a grant by the government allowing commercial use of the river for water supply and power.

Blackburn and his son, George, used their privilege to power the manufacture of both machinery and cotton yarn. Their facility eventually burned down, sometime in the late 1830s or early 1840s, and both father and son apparently moved on to other pursuits.

In 1846, Blackburn’s other son, John, teamed up with Ollis Clap and replaced the burned building with a new factory to manufacture stoves, machinery, and iron castings. This operation apparently ceased around 1854.

Meanwhile, in 1813, the Union Privilege, on the west side of the site, was taken over by Oliver Clap & Co, operated by Oliver and Warren Clap, Daniel Ellis, Daniel Payson, and Edward G. Cundal. This company eventually turned into the Union Manufacturing Company, dealing with cotton and wool textiles.

According to Willard DeLue’s “Story of Walpole,” published in 1925, their factory was “four and a half stories high and 60 X [by] 40 feet, being surmounted by a bell tower.”

Between about 1850 and 1872, Manning, Glover, & Company, owned by Charles Manning, Henry R. Glover, and Jerome B. Cram, used the site to manufacture curled hair mattresses and cotton batting and wicking. It is believed that this company occupied most of both the east and west sides of the site.

After 1872, Manning left the company, and it became Cram and Glover. The factory employed about 24 workers in 1875, according to DeLue.

The factory continued operation until 1881 when a fire destroyed most of the buildings, according to DeLue. After this time, the main operation at the site was the Union Carpet Lining Company. This business ceased in 1891 upon the death of its owner, Stephen Pember.

Industrial processes conducted at the site by this time involved some hazardous substances like chromium, arsenic, and mercury.

Between 1891 and 1900, there are no records indicating specifically what occurred at the site.

Around 1900, the Massachusetts Chemical Company, based in South Boston, bought the land on both sides of the street. Shortly after the acquisition, they apparently constructed some buildings, including what is now the abandoned factory located on the west side of the street. Mass. Chemical was in the business of manufacturing rubber heels and soles for shoes.

Mass Chemical sold the rubber to Foster Rubber Company of Boston, under the brand names “Catspaw,” “Foster,” and “Orthopedic.” Mass. Chemical held many patents for various rubber goods. Their products included the Walpole Rubber Heel for horses and Walpole Hot Water Bottles.

The Walpole Shoe Supply Company was organized in 1908 as an offshoot of Mass. Chemical to manufacture shoe supplies for the rubber.

In 1909, Mass. Chemical opened a factory in Granby, Quebec, Canada “to meet the large trade in Canada and avoid the duty on the goods manufactured at Walpole,” according to a company historical document. The Granby factory was called the Walpole Rubber Company, Ltd.

In 1910, the different parts of the company were brought under one name, the Walpole Rubber Company, with factories in Walpole and Granby, and sales offices in Boston and Montreal. It maintained offices all over the world, including in New York, Chicago, London, Paris, Berlin, and Brussels. Around 1910, it boasted of having total capital of $3 million (almost $80 million today), half of which was in the form of common stock. They claimed to own about 50 acres of land on South Street, with two dams that produced power from the Neponset River and mill ponds.

In 1911, an ad published in various publications including the Providence Evening News boasted that the Walpole Rubber Company was at the time “the largest maker of friction and rubber tapes in the world” with more than 10,000 pounds produced every day.

multibestos

A 1916 drawing of the thriving Standard Woven Fabric Company, later Multibestos, on South Street, which employed up to 300 workers at its height. The left side of the photo is the east side. (Image taken from the May 1916 edition of “The Motor Truck” magazine.)

The company’s historical documentation suggests that the buildings at the site in Walpole were state-of-the-art for the time period. Their largest building had automatic sprinklers, a separate brick walled staircase, and elevator wells.

In 1912, the company changed its name to the Walpole Tire and Rubber Company.

Unfortunately, the company went into receivership in 1913. One record indicates that this might have been a result of the failure of the Atlantic National Bank in Providence. The company maintained profitability but eventually was forced to sell off its assets.

One of the company’s dams sits abandoned today near the South Street site, in the town forest behind the High School. The same dam site had been used previously by Blackburn, and had been rebuilt by Mass. Chemical for hydroelectric power.

In 1915, the buildings on both sides of the street were taken over by the Standard Woven Fabric Company, a manufacturer of asbestos and brake linings. The company moved its existing factory from Framingham to the bigger facility in Walpole.

An article in the May 1916 edition of The Motor Truck magazine described the company’s new plant in Walpole as having “175,000 square feet of floor space … and 75 acres of land available for future expansion.”

“The aggregate value of the plant and real estate was put at well over $500,000,” according to the article. That is equal to more than $10 million in today’s dollars.

The company changed its name to Multibestos in 1920.

The company was a leading manufacturer of asbestos brake linings, gaskets, and asbestos-woven products, and secured a number of patents. During its height, in the 1920s, it employed as many as 300 people, according to DeLue. The company had offices and salesmen all over the country.

The boom times did come at a cost, though.

Multibestos, along with most other companies in its industry, did not take precautions to protect its workers from the effects of carcinogenic asbestos dust. Workers had direct contact with asbestos, without any ventilation or protective masks. Early on, this disregard for workers’ health may have been because the extent of potential health effects from asbestos was not fully understood by factory owners, workers, and health professionals. However, even as many of their workers were getting sick in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Multibestos still did little to protect their workers.

Up until its harmful effects were fully recognized, asbestos, a naturally-occurring mineral that comes from mines, was a hot commodity in many different products, particularly automobile brakes.

multibestos_1

Caption from September 25, 1917 edition of The Automobile Journal: Group of Standard Woven Fabric Co. Sales and Branch Managers at the Convention Recently Held at Company’s Plant, Walpole, Mass. Those in the picture: Bottom Row, Left to Right, H.F. Marquardt, C.K. Everett, T.J. Daley, F.W. Dilger, C.O. Anthony, R.D. Northup, D. Hollingsworth, H. Tipper. Middle Row, Left to Right, E.O. Christiansen, M.D. Davies, T. Howard, J.C. Donnelly, H.E. Fannon, R. Everett, S. Bell, M. Voorhees, D.E. Bailey, F.J. Gleason, M.J. Cornelius, T. Lamb, W.H. Williams, C.W. Blackman. Top Row, Left to Right, P. Gardiner, F.V. McGraw, W.J. Mahoney.

The experiences of John Lightbody, of Walpole, chronicled in Walpole Times articles in 1987 and 2004, show just how fatal the conditions at the factory turned out to be for the workers there. Lightbody was one of a number of workers during the 1930s who received compensation from Multibestos as a result of health effects of working in close contact with asbestos dust. The working conditions ended up costing him his life.

According to the Times accounts of his experience, Lightbody began working at the Multibestos factory in 1918. After about a month, he was assigned to the “small weave room” where 16 looms were used to weave asbestos. He worked for about eight years in that room, feeding asbestos “yarn” into the looms and repairing the machines.

Bags of raw asbestos were delivered to the Multibestos factory by train. The tracks ran under Common Street and along the Town Forest. The abandoned railroad easement is still located behind the east side of the site.

“A naturally fibrous mineral, asbestos came to the Multibestos factory in a form resembling yarn. This yarn was tightly wound onto big iron spools called beams. During the production process, the beams of asbestos would be unraveled and pulled onto the looms,” wrote the Times.

During the production process, friction created asbestos dust that covered everything in the room on a daily basis. Lightbody routinely came home with white dust all over his clothes.

The factory had no air circulation systems. Sometimes, employees could use ventilators but “they were so hard to breathe through that it was practically impossible to complete any physical labor while wearing one,” according to the Times.

At one time, a water system was installed in the factory to spray the dust down, but this practice was ended after only a few months. Workers attempted to wet down the asbestos yarn to control the dust, but this was ineffective because it rotted the yarn.

Within only five years of employment at Multibestos, Lightbody developed a cough that worsened as he got older. After the first year of his cough, he consulted medical professionals and was advised to stop working in close proximity to asbestos dust. The company allowed him to work a lower-paid job as a truck driver.

But in this new job, he still had contact with asbestos dust. One of his jobs was to take the dust that had been swept off the factory floors and truck them to a dump on another part of the property. He would sweep the dust out of the back of his truck.

Multibestos truck drivers like Lightbody earned between $20 and $30 per week. During the 1920s, this was a decent salary – equating to about $200 per week in today’s dollars. Workers in the weave room usually earned more money.

In 1933, Lightbody’s health began to worsen, including dramatic weight loss, constant coughing, and generally poor eating and sleeping. He quit his job that year.

The next year, he and the company both appeared in a hearing in front of the state’s Industrial Accident Board (IAB) so that he could argue for disability pay. Doctors testifying on behalf of Lightbody said that “he suffered from a mild case of tuberculosis which had been aggravated to a disabling condition as a result of his exposure to asbestos,” according to the Times.

Doctors testifying on behalf of Multibestos argued that Lightbody’s symptoms were solely because of tuberculosis.

The IAB eventually ruled in Lightbody’s favor, but his compensation was less than he would have received if he still worked at the factory. He received $680.24 in retroactive pay, and $15.46 per week afterward. He also was unable to ever work again.

Lightbody passed away at age 49 in 1938, leaving young children behind. His wife, Clara, had passed away in 1934, and his family speculates that her cause of death, cancer, came about from contact with asbestos dust while cleaning her husband’s clothes.

Around the same time Lightbody and other workers were seeking compensation from Multibestos for their ailments, in the depths of the Great Depression, the company was also running into financial difficulty. The company, owned by Dewey and Almy Chemical Company, sought four different tax abatements from the town starting with its 1932 taxes, and continuing to 1935. The company claimed it was unprofitable and that the tax burden was “excessive,” according to news accounts from the time. The company was prepared to leave Walpole if they didn’t get the abatements.

The abatements were controversial in town at the time, with some arguing that it set a precedent for other companies to claim similar abatements. The factory’s significant impact on the local economy, however, apparently convinced Town Meeting to approve the abatements to preserve the local jobs.

Instead of paying an annual tax of about $15,000 in each of those years, the company paid about $7,000 in each year. This is about $121,000 in today’s dollars, compared to $260,000 that the town would have gotten without the abatement. This is an illustration of just how much Multibestos contributed to the tax base, at a time when industry was a fundamental part of the town’s economy.

In the end, the company shut down anyway, in 1935. The assets and company name were sold to the Raybestos Co. of Connecticut, which still exists today.

About 90 workers filed disability claims against the Multibestos company when they left Walpole in 1935, and they were given large lump sum payments of between $1,000 and $2,000.

According to 1987 testimony to Walpole Selectmen by asbestos author and expert Paul Brodeur, at least 1,000 workers from Multibestos in Walpole died from asbestos-related diseases, and as many as 3,000 workers may have been exposed to asbestos dust during the factory’s 20 year run in Walpole. However, many asbestos-related diseases were misdiagnosed, and some diseases take up to 40 years to materialize from asbestos, meaning that the exact death toll may be hard to determine.

In his 2005 book “Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects,” author Barry Castleman suggested that Multibestos’ parent company knew the risks of the working conditions. Castleman wrote that Bradley Dewey, the president of Dewey and Almy, “was interested in the subject of asbestosis and corresponded with a state official and others about it.”

According to Castleman, “Dewey was … convinced that asbestosis was ‘a very serious and sometimes fatal disease.'”

An article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune from 2003 indicates that Liberty Mutual, which insured Multibestos between 1916 and 1931, at one time suspected a possible link between asbestos and poor workers’ health.

In the article, headlined “Health studies drew little action,” journalist Greg Gordon wrote that Liberty Mutual conducted a study in 1929 at the Multibestos plant and “reported one employee dead, apparently of an asbestos disease, a number of others so sick they were unable to perform ‘even slight exertion’ and three with ‘hemorrhages from the lungs.'”

Gordon writes that there is “no record of the study being published.”

Correspondence in files from the Mass. Executive Office of Environmental Affairs suggests that, starting around 1929, the Multibestos factory was the “subject of special attention by the Department of Labor and Industries Division of Occupation Hygiene due to a high incidence of asbestosis complaints resulting in both workman’s compensation claims and related legal actions.” The company also owned a plant in Cambridge, which was the subject of similar concerns.

Several decades after Multibestos’ closure, in 1988, the Mass. Department of Public Health, in collaboration with the Walpole Board of Health, conducted a survey intended to determine the extent of the health effects. The study showed that “exposure to site-related asbestos was limited to a small percentage of those individuals either living in the same residence as those occupationally exposed to asbestos or those living within a half-mile radius of the site.”

Some Multibestos workers, and their family members, did not seem to be affected by the factory conditions and lived long lives. One former Multibestos worker, Peter Turco, later became a member of the Walpole Board of Assessors and passed away in 1989 at age 78.

Frank Erker, who is believed to have been the last remaining former Multibestos worker living in Walpole, died at age 99 in 2014. Erker worked for three years at a warehouse on the site, starting at age 18, in 1932. He told The Walpole Times in 1987 that he did not have much direct contact with asbestos dust.

Lightbody’s son, Steele Lightbody, still lives on Washington St. in Walpole and appears to be in good health at 90 years old despite being in contact with some of the dust his father brought home early in his life. He lost his mother at age 10, and his father at 14.

Countless other children and grandchildren of former Multibestos workers are still alive and are living around the country, their precise health conditions unknown.

After Multibestos’ relocation to Connecticut, the South Street site was taken over by Industrial Properties, Inc. IPI sold different parcels of the site to several different parties, including the Kendall Company, and companies owned by members of the Shaffer family like the BIM Investment Corporation.

Kendall used the old factory on the west side primarily for storage until they began using it for a cotton mercerizing operation in 1947.

As part of Kendall’s operation, fibers were washed and bleached prior to fabric production, and waste was discharged into two lagoons on the property.

Their operation on the west side lasted until the mid-1980s. Kendall stopped using the first lagoon as a disposal area in 1982, while use of the second lagoon stopped in 1985.

Kendall sold their land to investment companies owned by members of the Shaffer family, shortly after ending operation. The factory has been abandoned ever since, standing as a symbol of the demise of Walpole’s industrial strength – which came at the expense of many workers and their families.

The east side of the site was used starting in 1935 by various other smaller businesses. These included the Holiday Coffee Company, and a wastepaper recycling plant, known as P. Shaffer and Company, that took over one of Multibestos’ former buildings.

The Shaffer Company’s building burned down in a significant blaze in 1957 that required about 150 firefighters, including from surrounding towns. High school football players had to leave the practice field nearby to assist. The fire was so devastating that nearby homes on Gleason Court were also destroyed.

A front page Walpole Times article shortly after the fire reported that “workers were pulled to safety only minutes before every window in the building belched forth giant, licking tongues of fire.”

The Times account says that the building contained “waste paper and rags, bailed tightly and stocked closely.” These exploded soon after the fire started.

About 60 workers were employed at the plant at that time, according to the Times.

A view of South Street factories, sometime between 1937 and 1957.

A view of South Street factories, the date is unclear but is believed to be sometime between 1935 and 1957. (Source: Walpole Historical Society, reprinted with permission.)

After the fire, the buildings on the east side remained vacant until they were demolished and buried on site around 1972. Since that time, the site has been occupied by smaller buildings primarily used as warehouse space for companies like Stop & Shop and Jacobsen Brothers Movers. The only business still in operation at the site is Cosmec, which operates a small machine shop with a few employees.

Multibestos’ massive dump on the west side, along the Neponset River, remained uncovered for decades, and many residents of town recalled playing there as children. The dump, which included piles of old brake linings and stringy fibers, was not reported to the EPA until 1986 by a Board of Health member.

Soon after the dump was discovered, the EPA and the DEP both ordered cleanup funded by the “responsible parties” to the contamination, which was initially made up of three parties – Shaffer Realty Trust, and BIM Investment Trust, both of which owned and still own the property; and W.R. Grace, Inc., which had acquired Dewey and Almy in the 1950s.

Kendall, which later became part of Tyco Healthcare and then Covidien, also agreed to be designated a “responsible party” during the late 1990s.

The site was added to the EPA’s Superfund National Priorities List in 1994.

As part of the cleanup, in 1992, a 400-foot aluminum culvert was installed to cover the Neponset River that runs through the site. Soils at the site that contained more than 1 percent of asbestos were excavated and consolidated into a smaller area, parallel to the river and culvert, and sealed with a 30-inch soil cap. The soil cap was covered by vegetation to prevent erosion. A fence was installed to protect the site, and the mound itself, from disturbance.

This culvert and pile of soil remains at the site today, and will stay in place after the town takes over the property. The town plans to build a parking lot next to it, and will be responsible for maintaining the grass on top of the cap and culvert. The EPA and the Board of Health both say that the site poses no health risk to the community. The mound legally can not be disturbed due to a deed restriction.

The EPA determined during the early 1990s that on-site soils, sediments, and groundwater were “contaminated with inorganic chemicals, including asbestos, lead, arsenic, and nickel, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and non-volatile organic compounds.” For the last 20 years, the site has been gradually cleaned up, with significant progress made within the past year.

The “responsible parties” will fund the demolition of the abandoned factory building on the west side. The buildings on the east side will be demolished soon as well, funded by both the town and the “responsible parties.” Health Director Robin Chapell told Town Meeting in October that the “responsible parties” are now tied to specific benchmarks to ensure the cleanup process continues as scheduled.

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