If you ever find yourself on East Ontario street along the 95 corridor in Port Richmond, Philadelphia you’re probably lost… or looking for scrap metal. But on the rare occurrence that you are neither of those things, you have actually stumbled upon a piece of history. You see, tucked away on what looks like a residential street you will find the first animal oil refinery in the country, Neatsfoot Oil Refinery. Yes THE Neatsfoot Oil. The same stuff you used as a kid on your baseball gloves and the same stuff you put on your boots as an adult. There is something NEAT about Neatsfoot Oil and it has nothing to do with triglycerides (::insert nerdy animal oil joke here::) but has EVERYTHING to do with the people running the show.
Neatsfoot Oil Refinery is one of the original threads of the cloth that is Philly manufacturing. Established in 1873 by Abram Berg, Neatsfoot actually got its start selling whale oil. At the time, Berg’s company was the largest renderer of animal parts in the city; collecting the city’s dead horses and butcher shop leftovers. Fast forward to today – the process is a little less grim, utilizing animal fat from meat packing plants. Neatsfoot has also stepped into the world of cosmetics by refining the mink oil primarily used in make up. As it turns out, the triglycerides found in minks are extremely similar to that of humans, which is why the oil is used in makeup. Who knew? The Berg’s did. Of course I wouldn’t suspect anything less from the direct descendants of Albert Einstein, their great great uncle.
The refinery is still family owned to this day. With Chris, the stepson and COO heading their international sales division and our tour guide, AJ Berg, is the Plant Manager. If you ever see a guy with sunglasses on a rainy day, you know you’ve found AJ. He walked us through the many layers of the plant that I didn’t even know were necessary in a refining process. We toured the lab where they test EVERY shipment of product that is used in the refining process. He took us on the catwalk between vats of animal oil that were as large as a swimming pool. The oil is then heated at 500 degrees and then pumped into another tank containing other refining components like water. The whole process is painstaking and is enough to make anyone’s head explode.
“The life blood of this company is pipes, pumps and tanks.”- AJ Berg
But beyond the rusty pipes and holding tanks is a family run business rich in history. Neatsfoot is actually derived from Welsh/Old English and refers to the oil extracted from horse shins, where the company got its start. The road to success wasn’t always pleasant. Like most businesses, Neatsfoot has had its fair share of woes. The fire of 1970 nearly wiped out the plant; cutting their real estate nearly in half. It claimed AJ’s favorite part of the property, a large warehouse where he used to work on and build antique cars. Some of which are in museums as we speak.
So if you find yourself in Port Richmond and want to see a little slice of history, stop by Neatsfoot Oil… just don’t tell Bernie I sent you.
Written by Kristin DeBias