This article originally appeared in UE Magazine, Issue #4.
A Dispatch from Lonaconing, Maryland
I’ve met a few people from Maryland since my trip to Lonaconing. I usually ask if they’ve heard of the town. The answer is always, “What?” then, “No.”
There are two ways to survive in this world: shoot to the top or sink to the bottom. It works that way with history too, though the places I go to are always in that second category. Under the radar. Out of the way.
This is why the former Klotz Silk Throwing Mill is alive, and why it’s dying.
The Old Mill Makes New Friends
Things are changing now, though. Herb Crawford, the owner, has been letting photographers and historians in the last few years to help raise money for and promote the mill. He hopes that extra interest in the buildings will mean they can get new roofs.
I even saw the mill on the National Geographic Channel recently on a show called ‘Abandoned.’ (Thanks, Herb, for not selling off all the antiques they asked for.)
In the meantime, buckets fill the spaces between the silk winding machinery to catch the water before it rots the floorboards. For this museum in the making, the next winter could be its last. It’s a desperate time for the mill, its owner, and preservationists.
It was easy to feel the hurry as Herb set me loose with a handful of other history-minded documentarians in 2011. It was the kind of trip that made that voice in my head go, “Make the shots count—you may never be able to come back.”
So, I did.
The Lonaconing Experience
The machinery is original—still greased from when the mill shut down on July 7th, 1957. Under a can of oil next on the third floor, on a bench the workers would sit when on break, an early 50s romance novel lays open: “Neither her intimacies with Ely nor her repulsion of Johnny’s crude advances had equipped Deanna for the third man.”
Next to machine 189 (checked by M.U. on 2-7-1955) is a small rolling toolbox, ready to make 189 run smooth again. “She’s been making an odd clicking,” the girls would say. At peak employment the factory gave out 400 paychecks, mostly to women. Lonaconing was a coal-mining town—the husbands and sons went into the mines, the wives while daughters went to the mills.
The youngest known worker was a 7 year old girl—not an unlikely employee at the time, mind you.
The basement has boxes of DuPont Company Rayon—what the mill switched to after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Rayon is an artificial silk substitute. Japan was the world’s primary raw silk supplier, but, with a war on, obviously all trade stopped. Before the war the plant was producing silk lingerie and stockings—during the war it turned out parachute cord and cartridge cloth.
Fire buckets hang on every other pillar on every floor of the plant. Their rounded bottoms prevent them from being used as a normal bucket, and thus possible unready for a fire. Nearby, a 1957 calendar advertises the local branch of the Park Insurance Agency. Their phone number is 3-5131, if you are interested.
Compared to other factories I have covered, this one was open for a short time; just over half a century. Only 52 years of operation.
Another Industrial Victim of the Great Depression
It opened in 1905 as a sister mill to one in Cumberland, Maryland, and was at the time only the third such plant in the state. In the 1930s Klotz was reorganized into General Textile Mills, and operated under that name until it closed.
Silk was a luxury item, and so when the Great Depression hit there was not much of a demand. At the same time the coal industry was becoming less profitable and local mines were shutting down and laying off workers. Families moved out of the rural town seeking new opportunities, leaving the silk mill without a market or ready employment pool.
The company could no longer pay its workers, so there was a labor strike. A few workers remained to perform the upkeep for a number of years, but they left too, eventually. Nobody thought the mill would reopen. And it didn’t.
That is, until Herb let vintage-industry-obsessed artists like me run amok, which I was more than happy to do.
To say the least, it was an extremely unique experience for which I owe Herb, and my friend Sherman who brought this mill to me attention, great gratitude.