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Greene History Notes: The soda fountain king

Nineteenth century photo of John Mathews’ Monument in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn.
January 9, 2018 11:35 am Updated: January 9, 2018 11:57 am

Daniel Zuckerman’s article in last week’s Daily Mail about Dunix, the latest property in Greene County to be nominated for the National Register of Historic Places, peaked my interest. I wanted to learn more about the Mathews family who owned the property for a time. The family made many significant improvements to the property in Cornwallville during their tenure.

John Mathews (1808-1870), who became known as “The Soda Fountain King,” was born in England and immigrated to America where he became an inventor and manufacturer. His greatest achievements were the inventions of machinery for carbonization and counter soda fountain apparatus for dispensing carbonated drinks.

The nomination form for the register describes Mathew’s process for making soda water as: “A simple system consisting of a cast-iron box lined with lead in which carbonic acid gas was formed through the chemical reaction of sulfuric acid on marble dust. After passing through water for purification, the gas was transferred into a tank partially filled with cool water, which was then rocked by hand until the water became impregnated with the gas and was suitably bubbly. The process concluded with the addition of salts which allowed for the imitation of the popular mineral waters of the day.”

John Mathews actually had nothing to do with Dunix. It was his son George who is responsible. He and his brother carried on the family business after his father’s death.

George began visiting the Catskill Mountain region after his father died and acquired the nominated property. George’s son John Henry also used the property extensively and it remained in the family into the 20th century.

The nomination form also says the following about the name: “It was the Matthews family which gave the property its unusual name, Dunix, which is thought to in essence mean ‘do nothing.’”

The most interesting thing I discovered in my research of John Mathews involves his final resting place.

He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn. His monument was designed by his son-in-law, German born artist and sculptor, Karl Muller.

It cost $30,000 in 1870, equivalent to more than half a million dollars today. At that price, you could build a very nice house today.

At the time it was completed the monument won an award as the Mortuary Monument of the Year.

The monument includes the large granite plinth (base) inscribed MATTHEWS in 6 inch high “V”- cut block letters.

On this base are polished red granite column shafts between carved marble bases and foliated capitals (with miniature angel heads at each corner) supporting a marble platform.

Within this structure is sheltered a carved marble sarcophagus bearing a life-size Matthews, depicted as a bearded man lying shrouded, perhaps in his last moments. Above him, on the underside of the platform, are carved some of the salient images from his career.

There are numerous other details on the monument too numerous to mention in this short column.

I encourage readers to study the accompanying picture and/or do more research about the John Mathews monument at the Green-Wood Cemetery.

The Mathews monument is in deteriorated condition now, but not beyond restoration. It is after all almost 150 years old.

Green-Wood Cemetery has established a fund that seeks donations to restore a selection of endangered monuments. The Mathews monument is on the list.

The estimated cost in 2010 was $150,000. If you ever visit the monument of John Mathews, remember to bring a can of your favorite soda or seltzer water so you can toast “The Soda Fountain King.”

Reach David Dorpfeld at