Life and Times of
William John Matheson
These pages by Jerry Wilkinson
- Off to work -
It appears that he returned to New York City about 1873 to begin a commercial career with the same or more determination and tenacity as he exhibited in school. Pursuing his ambition as a chemist he accepted whatever work was available; however, he soon found an opening with a chemical house representing a French manufacturer (A. Porrier, Paris, France) of organic products. In a short time William J. became the American agent for the French company, A. Porrier.
France and more so Germany were the leaders of producing pigments for all forms of artificial coloring. This of course includes textiles, paints and ceramic glazes, which are of worldwide importance. Some assume that William J. realized the importance of synthetics in the role of manufacturing. At the time the world depended on vegetable products such as the indigo plant (blues and reds), annatto (bright orange), barberry (yellow), Brazilwood (crimsons), madder (red-browns), cochineal (purples), logwood (greens and olives), fustic (yellow and orange), etc. Many colors can be made by mixing the above with themselves. A vast array of colors can be made when combined with the basic chemical and mineral elements and their oxides.
Synthetic pigments began with Perkin’s mauve in 1856 (the year that William was born) and evolved into thousands of hues. More important than the number of hues, the expanding industrial revolution of the 1800s could mass produce them artificially. William’s knowledge of this chemistry, applied manufacturing techniques and the later acquired knowledge of patent law would make him a world industrial leader.
About 1876 he became the American registered agent for Leopold Cassella & Company, the giant German chemical company. Quoting from the William J. Matheson portion of Who’s Who in New York City and State, “Began business in 1876 as a chemist in application of coal tar dyes, forming a connection with a large German firm of mf’rs [sic] of coal tar , of which he is now resident partner.”
Germany had become the foremost leader of dye manufacturers and Cassella was the “tiffany” of Germany. Germany dominated pigment manufacturing and controlled it through international patents until World War I . William moved swiftly and formed the William J. Matheson & Company to import and distribute Cassella products to the western world. William J. continued to form various and many other companies to support his industrial concepts.
It was downhill from then on; he maintained leadership in the aniline industry. Aniline (AN-i-lin) is entirely commercially produced from benzene by synthetic methods. It is a chemical used extensively in the dye, pharmaceutical, explosives, rubber, and many other industries. The aforementioned William Perkin was first to apply it to commercial use.
- To raise a family -
The details are not known, but in the flurry of business William J. found time to meet and marry Harriet Torrey of East Aurora, New York in 1881. Also not known is the reason for the wedding to take place in Geneva, Ohio on October 12, 1881.
Shortly afterwards their first child was born – Anna (Nan). Anna married Willis Wood at the Fort Hill House, the county home of her father. The two lived at 635 Park Avenue, New York City and used the Manor House on her father’s Long Island Estate for their country home. After her father’s death they moved to the Fort Hill House. Quoting from the book Huntington-Babylon, Town History “The Manor House is a part of the estate of the late William J. Matheson, as is also the Fort Hill House, the residence of Mr. Matheson’s daughter, Mrs. Willis D. Wood.” Willis Wood was a partner in the stock brokerage firm of Wood, Walker & Co. and he died in 1957 at the age of 84.
More information of the Long Island estate is found in The Origins of the Fort Hill Beach Association obtained from the Huntington Historical Society and explains the significance of the above quotation. It reveals that “William John Matheson, founder of Allied Chemical [Actually J. P. Morgan was the founder and William J. sold a company to it.], bought the Fort Hill estate in 1900 from the estate of Anne Coleman Alden. . . . In the 1880s she had also purchased the 215 additional acres attached to the Joseph Lloyd Manor House. . . . In all, the southwest corner of Lloyd Neck purchased by Matheson came to almost 330 acres, with close to a mile of waterfront on Cold Spring Harbor (including the causeway and the beach to the south) and a half-mile of waterfront on Lloyd Harbor. . . . Anna Matheson Wood, after her marriage to Willis D. Wood in 1905, modernized the Joseph Lloyd Manor House….Nan and Willis Wood lived with their three children in the Manor house until her father died. In 1930 they moved to Fort Hill and began to lease the Manor House to various tenants….” to almost 330 acres, with close to a mile of waterfront on Cold Spring Harbor (including the causeway and the beach to the south) and a half-mile of waterfront on Lloyd Harbor. . . . Anna Matheson Wood, after her marriage to Willis D. Wood in 1905, modernized the Joseph Lloyd Manor House….Nan and Willis Wood lived with their three children in the Manor house until her father died. In 1930 they moved to Fort Hill and began to lease the Manor House to various tenants….”
This was his summerhouse. There was a city address, which could have been a business address, listed as “184 Front Street, N.Y. City.”
Shortly after Anna was born William’s father, Finlay, passed away in 1883.
The refore, needless to say William was quite successful to afford his 1900 purchase of the Fort Hill estate. By 1901, his business had become so diverse as to include the manufacture of wood dyes, extracts and a large plant for the production of white lead, that it was decided to divide into separate companies. The outcome was the Matheson Lead Company for white lead, the Hemolin Company for wood dyes and The Cassella Company for the distribution of synthetic hydrocarbons.
In 1906, William J. was instrumental in organizing the Corn Products Manufacturing Company, which became a world factor in producing corn derivatives. One of the corn derivatives was karo or corn syrup. He was associated with factories in Canada, Great Britian and four in Germany. When the Department of Agriculture tried forcing them to change the name to glucose it was William J. who took it to the White House for a favorable verdict. President Theodore Roosevelt had his summer house, Sagamore Hill, just down the Long Island Sound from William’s Fort Hill. Principal Irvine of St. Andrews made reference to his pure crystalline glucose process when honoring William J. as an American chemist. From this incident came food product controls that were part of the Pure Pure Food and Drug Act.
Stepping back in years to 1886, his first of two sons were born – Hugh Merritt Matheson. Like father like son, time come for Hugh to prepare for college. For Hugh this was to be Yale University. For a preparatory school, Hugh chose the Adirondack School that happened to have a winter campus (Adirondack-Florida) at Coconut Grove, Florida.
From 1895 to 1902 the campus was known as Pine Knot Camp. In 1903, Headmaster Paul Ransom officially established the southern campus of the Adirondack-Florida School to include Pine Knot. It was the first migratory school in the United States, students spent the winters in Coconut Grove and the fall and spring in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. It was renamed as Ransom School in 1949 and merged with the Everglades School for Girls in 1955, hence the present name Ransom Everglades School.