Where time spun to a stop Lonaconing: The closing of the silk mill in 1957 was so abrupt that many items inside have lain virtually untouched since. Now there are hopes of reopening it, perhaps as a museum.

February 09, 1997|By Debbie M. Price | Debbie M. Price,SUN STAFF

LONACONING -- The way the story goes, workers wanted a nickel raise and that was just too much for the company to pay. The natural-silk industry was declining, threatened by competition from the new synthetic fibers, and so, on July 7, 1957, the mill shut its doors forever.

The 300 employees found themselves abruptly out of work -- so abruptly that some left their shoes and aprons behind on the factory floor. Along with the rows and rows of iron spinners and doublers, and the star-shaped winders and the wooden bobbins and the soaking tubs and all the other appurtenances of an early silk mill, they remain just as they were left, virtually untouched for almost 40 years.

They are the symbols of dreams for this little Western Maryland town -- dreams of the past and dreams of breathing life back into the mill and Lonaconing.

General Textile Mills, which operated the silk mill, is no more, but the red-brick building next to the railroad tracks near Jackson Run in Lonaconing stands a ghost factory, silently awaiting the flick of a switch to set its idled machinery humming.

"Theoretically, if someone spent some time and money on these machines, you could spin silk here," says Herbert Crawford, a local schoolteacher who bought the factory in 1978 with a business partner.

Over the years, Crawford, 62, has had plans and designs for making use of the old factory and perhaps even making a fortune there. None has worked out.

Plan fell through

Initially, Crawford planned to convert the building into a modern sewing factory, but the hoped-for economic-development grants never came.

Then there was the unfulfilled rumor that the Chinese government was willing to pay $2.5 million for the equipment.

Crawford talks wistfully of the missed chance to sell the machinery for $300,000 to a salvage buyer. Now he is hoping vTC and dreaming again, this time of turning the place into a museum, perhaps coupled with shops and maybe even light industry.

All he needs is money.

Crawford has approached the George's Creek Promotion Council, which works to bring economic development to the little mountain towns south and west of Cumberland and would like to acquire the building with government grants.

The Maryland Historical Trust gave Crawford a $40,000 grant in 1995 to repair the roof with the expectation that the building would end up being publicly owned.

'A lot of interest'

Bill Devlin, president of the promotion council, talks of turning the mill into a tourist attraction linked with Canal Place, a restoration of the western terminus of the C&O Canal in Cumberland, and the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, which runs between Cumberland and nearby Frostburg.

"We've had a lot of interest and enthusiasm," says Devlin. "But no money."

To enter the silk mill is to step back to a time when folks who lived along George's Creek in the hills of Allegany County walked to work, lunch pails in hand, to stand eight hours a day in front of the spinning, or "throwing," machines.

The silk, spun by worms in China and Japan, arrived at the port of Seattle and was shipped across the country to East Coast mills in "silk trains."

Bales of thick skeins that looked remarkably like large braids of blond hair were unloaded from the tracks in front of the factory, where the work of turning the silk worms' fiber into weaveable thread began.

Thomas N. Berry grew up around the silk mills his father ran. For a time, Berry's father, Peter E. Berry, oversaw the mill in Lonaconing, which was built in 1906 by the Klots Throwing Co. and came into the possession of General Textile Mills in the 1930s.

Now 81 and a lawyer still working in Allegany County, Berry has never lost his love of silk milling.

"Natural silks made beautiful material, and women could have a real silk dress made for $35, which was quite a lot, but the dress wore forever," he says. "Then along came the artificial silks and women could buy a store-bought dress for $8 to $10. They could have three cheap dresses for the cost of one good silk dress. Artificial silk wore out, but they didn't care."

As Berry takes a visitor through the factory, it is easy to imagine the workers shaking out the skeins and placing them on the spreaders to find the thread ends, which they wound around the wooden bobbins.

The worker had to be alert to make sure the thread didn't run out or break. The spinners, powered first by belts from overhead motors and then modernized in the 1920s with their own motors, ran with a steady clackety-clack.

Crawford estimates that there are 250 spinners in the factory and more than 2 million bobbins left on the machines and stacked in crates. Crawford sells the bobbins for $29.95 at craft shows with little danger of exhausting the supply.

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