Mepham Paint

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MEPHAM COMPANY - THE PAINT MILL

(Courtesy of the Harcros /Elementis Company)

 

Halfway through a breezy spring morning in 1889, George S. Mepham emerged from a small slat-sided building on the St. Louis river front. He frowned at the red dust which billowed beneath the eaves of the building he had just left. Mepham was looking for an expansive site across the river because he needed to enlarge his mill and he knew that this would draw complaints from other businesses in the area.

Mepham decided that the future of the company lay in the new synthetic copperas - red pigments the furnace was turning out. The process consisted of converting iron sulfate to iron oxide by subjecting it to high heat. The sulfate was a product of the steel mills and could be procured for almost nothing. Unfortunately, this process liberated sulfur dioxide, an irritating gas, ant allowed some of the newly created iron oxide to escape into the air. The red dust covered everything on the ground within a radius of about one half a mile.

St. Louis newspapers such as the Spectator had been trumpeting the virtues of investing in East St. Louis, the fastest growing city in Illinois. Although the new plant would only make pigments and fillers, East St. Louisans erroneously called it the Paint Mill.

George's decision to open a new plant in East St. Louis caused a split with his partner, John Klein. Klein took the St. Louis operation and devoted it entirely to "whites" - barytes, silica and talc. Mepham would produce the "colors" (iron oxides, yellow ochres, umbers and siennas) and agreed not to produce any whites for a ten year period.

Fortunately, the industrial revolution was in full swing and everything had to be painted. It was not esthetics that dictated that many of America's barns, most of its boxcars, and nearly all its steel girders were painted red. The durability and low costs of red iron oxide paints made them favorites all over the country.

By 1910, it was apparent that the city was faced with daunting problems. A lawless element, driven from St. Louis. overtaxed the police and corrupted public officials. Because the city's sewers were below the level of the river, sewage had to be pumped up into the river. The failure of a single pump caused large sections of town to be flooded with sewage. Into this volatile mixture came the labor movement, bent upon gaining its fair share of industry's profits for their members.

Throughout June, 1917, clashes occurred between roving bands of out-of-work unionists and newly hired black workers brought in by industry to break organized labor. On July 2 labor unrest, racism and an ineffective municipal administration converged to produce the worst race riot in U. S. history.

The work force at Mepham had always been racially mixed and there was no violence at the non-union Mepham plant. However, tensions did run high and workers at 20th and Lynch, fearing sniper attacks from strikers, crawled from building to building during the height of the tension. Deeply worried, George Mepham joined others on a trip to Springfield to appeal for National Guard troops to maintain order.

World War I had a devastating effect on the mill. Railroads became clogged with military shipments and getting ore in and pigment out became virtually impossible. The best workers went off to war, leaving behind the very old, the very young, and the unfit. By the war's end in 1919, George Mepham was exhausted and ill. He and his wife had no heirs so he decided to sell.

He sold the plant to Charles Kaufman Williams, a friend and competitor who owned a pigment mill in Easton, Pennsylvania Mepham died in 1930 after suffering a stroke in 1929.

The C. K. Williams plant out east was crushing soapstone (so named because of its slippery feel). Like barytes, soapstone is used as an extender in paints and in the manufacture of paper. The land that produced soapstone also contained talc and they began to grind it as well. The talc went mostly to Fels Naphtha, who used it as a mild abrasive in their mechanic's soap.

Incredibly, Williams bought the plant without inspecting it. The price had been based entirely on plant performance. He soon learned that Mepham had matched the output of his relatively modem Easton plant by using the skills and ingenuity of employees who could keep antiquated equipment running. Refurbishment became the number one priority.

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The next task was to secure a steady, low-cost supply of good, natural ores. Williams sent his manager, Larry Ayers, to farms all over southeast Missouri to secure mineral rights. Soon Ayers had rights to thousands of acres of baryte ore which rendered the fields untillable. Ayers also sought ore sources for the company's many colored pigments. From 1921 to 1940, the plant ground Bentonite and Kaolin clays, silica, China Clay, calcite, Belgian chalk, gypsum, Peruvian ochre, red clay, umber, brown Fuller's earth, black shale, feldspar, and yellow. brown and red iron oxides.

The nearby steel mills produced a cheap, inexhaustible supply of iron sulfate in the form of pickle liquor which was a mixture of iron sulfate and sulfuric acid. However, it could only be carried in lead-lined tanks mounted on trucks. Eventually, the plant began to convert the sulfur oxides back into sulfuric acid which could be sold for numerous industrial uses.

In 1929. the present brick office building was constructed on the site of the original Wooden office building. In addition to the office staff. it housed both chemistry and color laboratories until the 1980s. Around 1933, the first reduction furnace for converting iron oxide into powdered iron was installed in the original oxide building. Powdered iron became an important element in the manufacture of efficient transformers in the radio industry, and was the forerunner of magnetic iron oxides used on audio and video tape.

By 1939, the plant gave way to wartime conversion and a mill for grinding lamp black and carbon black was installed. The yellow plant went into production in 1940. It used a process called precipitation to manufacture iron oxide Pigments other than red. Throughout World War II, the entire output of the yellow plant went to the manufacture of camouflage paints.

Charles Williams died in 1944 at the age of 84, and his son Morris became president of the company. Morris had his hands full with the Easton plant and running the East St. Louis plant was left to Larry Ayers. Larry lured his brother Joe back into the firm. Joe, who had left to run his own business in California, led the research efforts at the plant which developed the precipitation process and he was one of the first to see the potential for magnetic oxides. He eventually became the holder of 64 patents.

A major new facility was constructed in 1952 east of the yellow plant to manufacture a new line of synthetic pigments called Kroma Reds. The new reds - clear, bright, controllable and stable., foretold the end of the era of natural pigments. Ore piles shrank steadily until they virtually disappeared. In that same year, a new Engineering Building and machine shop were built just south of the Kroma plant.

In 1956, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing sued C. K. Williams for patent infringement and threatened to "put them out of business." 3M had acquired a patent for a magnetic oxide which was used on audio tapes. C. K. Williams developed its own process for making a similar oxide. 3M contended that their patent covered the C. K. Williams product. After a five year court bode which cost the company roughly $700,000, the litigation was resolved in favor of C. K. Williams. This opened the doors to millions in later sales.

In the late '50s, Senator Estes Kefauver led a senate inquiry into the pharmaceutical industry, charging excessive profits. As industry bashing became a favorite pastime of politicians, Pfizer Pharmaceutical began to consider diversification. In 1962, they went on an acquisition binge and bought twelve companies. This just happened to coincide with a desire on the part of Larry Ayers and Morris Williams to sell. The sale was consummated in 1964, but Pfizer's impact on day-to-day operations was minimal for a long time.

The company experienced a boom year in 1966 as magnetic audio tapes began to replace vinyl records. The growth was further stimulated in the late '70s with video tape and VCRs becoming popular. In the early '80s, however, near disaster struck. The Japanese entered the video tape market and their companies chose to buy the oxides used in their manufacture from their countrymen.

The Pfizer plant threatened to become a white elephant. Fortunately, Koreans entered the tape market in large numbers in 1983 and they bought their materials from the East St. Louis plant. However, the Japanese continued to dominate the market and in 1991, the magnetic part of production was sold to ISK, a Japanese firm. The company then began to concentrate on new and improved iron oxide particles and this has proved to be invaluable. The East St. Louis plant is now the only U. S. producer of bleached barytes.

By the end of the Reagan presidency, pharmaceuticals were no longer under siege by the government and Pfizer executives realized that their paint pigment plant had little to do with the rest of their health care line. The decision to sell was made in 1988, but it wasn't until 1990 that a British firm, Harrisons and Crosfield (Harcros), became the new owners after months of negotiations. Bill Wilkinson, vice-president of Pfizer pigments, became president of a new Harcros division. Unlike Pfizer, Harcros regards pigment production as part of their core business. Harcros changed the name to Elementis Inc. in Jan. of 1998.

There are a few interesting sidelights that should be told before concluding the story. Everyone who worked at the old plant knew it had a ghost. At the hot end of the plant, where the kilns and furnaces were located, doors were always left open which produced drafts of wind that gusted through the dim-lit corridors. This sometimes produced eerie sounds and shadow patterns that were attributed to a ghost named Nollie. Nollie's ghost was last seen in the decade of the Fifties and seems to have moved on, deciding to haunt another place.

There were all kinds of other stories about the paint mill, mostly stemming from the fumes and red dust that residents of the surrounding area frequently complained about. Some called the place the Pink Pigeon due to the Iron Oxide which rubbed off on the birds that roosted there. Another rumor that circulated was the wild story that some runaway fumes from the acid plant completely dissolved the wash hanging on the clothes line of a resident living down wind from the plant. Improved production methods, filters and EPA mandates have worked to produce a cleaner and more attractive work environment.

Currently, the Elementis plant is the only major industry left in a town that was once filled with factories. Despite the economic malaise the city has fallen into, the future still looks bright for the old paint mill.

 

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