For many years I have been hearing about, and seeing images from, an abandoned silk mill in the Western part of Maryland. I won’t tell you how I thought it was in the Eastern part up until the time I set my GPS, but that is for a completely different blog. One that is for people who have no sense of geography or direction . . . but I digress.
And, as you can guess from the title, it was an outing with the infamous Carla. She was organizing a trip with her camera club and just happened to slip me in on the email. (It’s good to know people in high places!) Well, I couldn’t say no, could I? If you are into abandoned buildings for any reason, this is a MUST see. The mill is a complete time capsule circa 1957 complete with broken windows, cobwebs, and dust.
When I walk around the mill I see the images in my head that were made by Lewis Hine of child labor. At the same time the song from the musical "Working" played on a loop of these lyrics:
"Millwork ain't easy, millwork ain't hard,
Millwork it ain't nothing
But an awful boring job.
I'm waiting for a daydream
To take me through the morning
And put me in my coffee break
Where I can have a sandwich and remember
Then it's me and my machine
For the rest of the morning
For the rest of the afternoon
And for the rest of my life . . . "
The story of the mill, in my opinion, is more of a tragic tale of small town losing their economic base than that of a shocking find on the trail to abandoned buildings. The mill opened in the small town of Lonaconing Maryland, population around 1,500, in April of 1907. The location was perfect as the transportation infrastructure for the small town was already in place. Local iron and coal companies had built railroads in the 1840’s in order to connect with the B&O and the Chesapeake and Ohio canal railroads.
It’s interesting to see the diversity of industries represented in this area, as at the time it seemed to be more aligned with coal than fine silk, but hey if it’s going to add some jobs then why not? Here is an excerpt from the Abandoned Online website that describes the mill:
In the early years of the mill, raw silk and Douppinni, an expensive silk that was used in the production of wedding gowns, were thrown at the mill. The throwing process involved the twisting and winding of silk into a yarn that was then used by knitters and weavers. Occasionally, the silk thread was broken due to the twisting and winding of the thread onto four-inch bobbins and the operator would tie the broken strands together with a silk knot. Other employees were involved in the steaming, dying and stretching of the silk, while others worked in the shipping department, sending the processed silk product to market.
As can be expected, the great depression had an impact on the industry and the mill went through a lot of ups and downs through those years. Unfortunately when the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor their actions directly affected the silk mill as the raw materials were shipped in from Japan and clearly that source would be cut off at the start of the war. What was left of the raw silk in the mill was used to produce parachute thread for the war effort.
After the war, even though trade had opened up, the raw silk was still difficult to source so they switched to rayon which was a synthetic material much cheaper to produce. (Makes me a little scratchy just writing that . . . but I’ll try and keep my personal opinion out of this.)
And with the rayon, and I’m sure it wasn’t just because of the rayon, began the decline of the mill. Again, from Abandoned Online:
Employment had ebbed and flowed throughout the 20th century. In September 1920, Klotz employed 359 with an average payroll of $8,491.6 That had decreased to between 70 and 80 by the summer of 1941 and just 27 by August 16. It dipped to just five workers by the end of the year.
The number of workers increased to 30 by February 15, 1942 and 94 by late March, and with it, came the power of bargaining. Workers had requested a nickel increase in wages to bring it up to those of the nearby Celanese textile factory, and when it was denied, the employees went on strike, prompting General Textile to close the mill on June 23, 1957.
Only six workers remained on the payroll by the end of June. On July 7, with just five employees remaining, General Textile closed the Lonaconing mill. A skeleton crew of four employees remained on site for several years after to maintain the building and equipment.
The impact of the mill’s closure was devastating. Lonaconing, once the center of early industry in western Maryland, was in shambles. Deep underground coal mining had all but ceased and glass factories that once employed hundreds had begun to close.
Now, when you enter the doors, you can see how it was left. The bins where employees left their personal items still contain things like shoes and containers of noxema skin cream. The dust and mold remains intact and just covered with additional cobwebs. There are oil drums, manufacturing machinery, as well as spool after empty spool.
The mill was purchased in 1978 by Herbert Crawford. He purchased it with the hope of bringing it back to life, but that never happened. It is now listed as one of Americas 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. It is described as “the only remaining silk mill in the US with its machinery, company records and workers personal effects remaining unchanged from the time that the factory ceased operations.”
Well, that last part isn’t quite true since Herb now opens it up on occasion to looky loos and photographers. And if you know photographers you know how much they like to re-arrange things for the perfect composition.
It is an extraordinary place. And I can’t stress enough what it’s like to stand in a time capsule like this. I hope Herb is able to get the funding he needs to repair the droopy roof because if he doesn’t get it done soon a roof collapse probably means no more entry and that would be a very sad day for many photographers. Me and Carla included.