MANVILLE, N.J. (AP) _ More than 55 years ago, this community adopted the name of the company whose asbestos products gave it life, and as it turns out, disease and death.

On Friday, Manville Corp.'s 74-year-old flagship factory closes its doors for economic reasons, leaving behind memories of steady employment, but also unanswered questions about obligations of employers who manufacture hazardous products.

For 50 years after what was then the Johns-Manville Corp. opened the plant in 1912, the town thrived. Modest, neatly kept houses fanned out around the factory, and the area, a section of Hillsborough, changed its name in 1929 in tribute to the company.

At its height in the 1960s, the plant employed 4,500 people, including 40 percent of the town's work force. Its 180 acres in central New Jersey eventually encompassed 13 buildings.

Residents in this classic factory town of 12,000 remember watching children open their mouths skyward to catch falling ''snow,'' white asbestos dust released from the plant.

Workers came to be called ''snowmen'' because of the fibers that covered their bodies.

Those fibers have been linked to cancer and asbestosis, an often deadly lung disease caused by chronic inhalation of asbestos fibers. In 1982, Manville Corp., a financially healthy company, filed for bankruptcy protection, saying that the thousands of damage suits against it, if successful, could force it to become bankrupt.

More than 900 of those lawsuits were filed by former employees at the plant or their families.

The company expects to emerge from its reorganization late this year, having created a $2.5 billion trust fund to pay asbestos victims or their heirs.

Anna Kisaday, 73, who lived one block from the plant from 1935 to 1978, remembers how the pumpkins, tomatoes and lettuce in her garden were blanketed with the dust.

''Who were we to stop them?'' she asked.

Still, stressing the jobs the plant created, she criticizes workers who sued the company.

''We're all going to die from something,'' she said.

''There is a sense of powerlessness that there's not much you can do,'' said Eugene Clark, chairman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Stephens Point, and a Manville native.

Nonetheless, many are bitter.

''They've killed a lot of people, made a lot of people ill,'' said 57-year- old Thaddeus Kowalski, a former president of Local 800 of the United Paperworkers International Union here.

Kowalski left the plant in 1966 after 19 years, partly because he contracted asbestosis.

He particularly faults the company for not warning of the perils of asbestos, once widely used in piping and insulation.

However, Ray Gomez, a spokesman for Denver-based Manville, said safety policies were in place to protect workers.

If policies were not followed, he said, that was because of plant, not corporate, practices.

''There was no organized cover-up by the industry or Manville,'' he said.

Most of Manville's workers came here to escape from Pennsylvania's coal regions, where employees faced cave-ins and breathed clogged air.

''They got a new lease on life here,'' said Edward Purcyzki, the former health officer and water superintendent for 31 years in this 2.2-square-mile town of 15 churches and 21 bars.

The plant benefited as well. Morale and productivity were the highest of any of the company's facilities, Gomez said.

''It's a very sad day for us,'' he said of the closing.

''People made a good living here,'' said Joseph Mondrone, Local 800's current president who worked for 38 years as a plant mason and has asbestosis.

The plant's workforce has been dwindling for years with the decline of the asbestos products industry.

''The impact of the plant closing is nowhere as severe as it would have been 20 years ago,'' said John Parks, a Manville employee relations manager for 30 years who came out of retirement to oversee the closing.

As the use of asbestos products began dropping, the company branched out into new areas and it now calls itself a building and forest-products company.

By early 1986, it was using only 10 percent of its 2-million-square-foot manufacturing facility.

Asbestos products were last made here a few years ago. By the end of 1985, the company stopped making the products anywhere.