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.
Postcard, before the offices were built. (Source: bandkgreen.net)
The office stairs. Part of Herb’s morning walk.
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.
Check out my other pictures below:
Park Insurance Agency is no longer in business, nor would you be able to dial that phone number.
We know what the ladies’ favorite treats were! Found holding parts on a repair cart.
Note the large belt pulley in the center of the frame. Follow the axel it’s on and you’ll see several belts still attached to the drive, which was originally steam-driven.
Ground floor windows were built to be barred.
In the soft wood of the machine, an employee left their mark.
A wonderful porcelain drinking fountain on the first floor. Note how it’s wrapped.
A classic Eveready, borrowed from Herb’s office.
Fire buckets did not have flat bottoms so they could never be used for other buckety tasks, and were thus always handy in an actual fire.
A better view of the belt system that drives all the machinery in the plant.
Work never done.
The elevator near the offices seemed a day’s work away from being operational
It was as noisy then as it is colorful now…
I really like the porcelain guides for the silk threads, probably used because they could be polished for perfect, persistent, smoothness.
The office was redder than the rest of the building.
The office stairs. Part of Herb’s morning walk.
Aluminum spools replaced their wooden counterparts, later in the factory’s history.
One of a few rolling workbenches to keep the thousands of pulleys, cogs, and belts working properly.
These machines had embossed metal numbers marking their ends.
This machine was last overhauled in February 1955, and last turned out Crepe silk, probably dress material.
Standing atop the dust collector, the factory breaks down into diverging patterns, processes.
Leather shoes in a supply closet. They seem to me men’s shoes.
The workshop sat below the main working floor and had serious power going to it.
You can see why so few products had bright packaging. If the can here was brown, you’d never see it in a dark wood cabinet.
A side door for the shop area with ivy crawling toward it.
There were bins with hundreds of spools in them in the basement.
The porcelain hoops guided the silk threads through the device.
The note on the left announces that the spindles in the crates are dirty.
A closeup of one of the winding machines that found itself under a leaky section of roof.
This picture typifies the industrial ideal of the early 20th century. More metal than air. More efficiency than beauty. More profits than people.
The batch tag specifies some of the technical properties of the silk worked here.
The left wall is stacked high with wooden crates holding spools. Tags hang on machines describing the last batch of silk the mill ever produced.
Thousands of tags in a supply closet. Each has lots its meaning.
One of the many small treasures hiding in the mill…
I wonder when fluorescent lighting was added.
A romance novel left by some worker–lunch break reading–now sits under a grease stick.
Empty spools, thousands of them, were around the mill.
Funny how sensitive modern English speakers have become to gendered language. I doubt the workers here–almost all female–were offended by this posting for ‘Workmen’s Compensation’.
(1906). Enlargements and improvements. Textile World Record, 31, 166. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=n_XNAAAAMAAJ
Alderton, J. (2007, March 28). Silk mill on first statewide list of threatened historic properties. Cumberland Times-News. Retrieved from http://times-news.com/archive/x1540389774
Arnett, E., Brugger, R., & Papenfuse, E. (1999). Maryland: A new guide to the old line state. (pp. 588-9). JHU Press. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=lncOLHYhcrsC
Otto, M. (2004, Sep 7). Grasping for a thread of hope, long-shut silk mill's memories inspire preservation effort.Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A1413-2004Sep6
US Bureau of Labor. , & Neill, C. P. (1911). Report on condition of woman and child wage-earners in the united states. (p. 22). US Bureau of Labor. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=BcwJAAAAIAAJ