Date of this Version
Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
"At last have made a wonderful discovery in valley, a magnificent tomb with seals intact": Howard Carter described the opening of Tut's tomb. Carter's experience is so familiar to me. I need only to change a few words: "Darkness and blank space—but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly . . . strange machines, bobbins, and silk—everywhere the gloss of silk .. . Packed tightly were scores of objects, any one of which would have filled us with excitement."
One hundred forty miles northwest of Washington. D.C., where Dans Mountain stands about 3.000 feet above Western Maryland's bituminous coal fields, the Georges Creek Coal and Iron Company established the town of Lonaconing in 1835. Seventy-five years later the population of mostly coal miners and their families exceeded 2,000. The Klots Throwing Company erected a silk mill in Lonaconing in 1905. which closed its doors in 1957, and has stood for nearly a hundred years to become both monument and tomb for the Queen of fibers. This field report describes early twentieth-century silk yarn production in situ.
Silk industry barons of the Gilded Age chose remote mountain locations for their mills, and the Allegheny Mountains sheltered the Lonaconing mill for nearly half a century. Dark windows in its red brick building obscure the treasure within: 48,000 square feet of mill floor supporting over 360 machines built for twisting, winding, and spinning silk filaments, with yam still wound on their bobbins and swifts; substantial steam and drying chambers and heavy iron centrifugal extractors, tons of parts, and millions of accessories. Provenance is etched on steel and cast in iron: "The Columbian" single- and double-deck Atwood winders; Toledo Scales; Westinghouse motors, and Grouse Hinds conduit; centrifugal pump and humidifying system by Buffalo Forge, and extractor from Tolhurst Foundry in Troy, New York. Paperwork is stacked in drawers, tacked to beams, and wedged between things: with soaking formulae, production notes, or just repair schedules. A calendar-sized board nailed to a beam has tiny lot-numbered skeins hung all over the surface; the gloss of rayon or the pearl of silk shine through fifty years of soot. The machine shop lathe reads "1861." Accessories read "1880."
Work benches, tables, and chests of drawers are stocked with sundry medicines like eyewash, mercurochrome, and spirits of ammonia. Even the workers' toilets suggest something of their world: eight stalls shared two rolls of paper, mounted on the outside. Faded, gaudy, umbrellas are tucked everywhere and women's shoes—perhaps thirty pair-—are hung on spindles and tossed into tag bins. They are all early fifties style, with pointed toes, chunky heels, and well-creased insteps, thrown aside by workers after eight or more hours of moving up and down the mill aisles. What took place here?