98-year-old Western Maryland silk mill is focus of preservation effort

Spinning the thread of history


LONACONING -- At the end of their shift July 7, 1957, the women at the silk mill stopped winding the soft thread. They walked out as usual, leaving behind their aprons, face powder, even a few shoes. The superintendent hung up his straw hat.

None of them ever returned.

And nearly 50 years after the General Textile Mills factory closed overnight, it looks the same, stopped in time, a haunting archive of the industrial life that once flourished in remote mountain towns like this one in Western Maryland.

Inside the century-old building, amid the dampness and dust, the old-fashioned twisting and spinning machines stand silent. Workbenches are pushed beneath the heavy machinery, with its symmetrical rows of wooden spindles and bobbins.

Fire pails hang from hooks on the factory floor. Handwritten ledgers list the names of "Bobbin Boys," the young runners. In the front office, next to metal file cabinets full of old invoices, is an IBM typewriter. In the cellar is an April 7, 1949, dye recipe. And scattered about, just as the last mill workers left them, are lunch bags, umbrellas, workplace shoes - and the superintendent's hat.

"Everything's here. I'd really like to see it preserved," says Herb Crawford, 71, a retired automotive teacher who bought the mill with a partner in 1978.

His dream is to turn it into a museum. He wants to showcase the mill's history, from the 1907 opening through its heyday, when coal miners' wives and children worked long shifts to produce the reams of fine silk yarn that was shipped to New York's garment district and worldwide.

Despite strong interest from state and national historic groups, though, Crawford has been unable to breathe new life into the mill. He and his partner want to recoup their initial investment. But the coal region has fallen on hard times, and no buyer has come forward.

Now the three-story brick building is beginning to crumble. Many windows are broken. Paint is flaking. The roof leaks. Crawford climbs up regularly to patch the roof. But he had a heart attack a few years ago, and his wife wants him to stop.

"I've pumped my life into this. I'm getting to be an old guy," he says, "and I just can't keep doing it."

He's worried that the mill won't survive the winter. So are others captivated by its history.

Artists Tomiyo Sasaki and Ernest Gosella, Manhattan transplants who moved to Cumberland recently, have spent the past month shooting photos and making calls to government agencies, trying to rescue the roof.

Sasaki first learned of the mill's existence when she saw a local library display of Japanese shipping labels, called "chop marks," from the raw silk packages that once went across the world by boat and train to Lonaconing. Fascinated, she sought out Crawford.

"I thought, `It's so beautiful,' says Sasaki, 61, "and there's hardly anything like that.'"

Preservationists concur. The National Trust for Historic Preservation believes Lonaconing's silk mill is the last intact one in the country, according to Rebecca M. Trussell, a Frederick County decorative arts historian who has archived many of the mill's records. The National Park Service has tried to figure out a preservation plan. The Library of Congress is also interested.

Maryland's two senators have made the long trek to this blue-collar town on the edge of Appalachia to see the mill. Crawford has given tours to historians, artists and antiques dealers.

Most leave impressed. Glenn Eugster, who works on historic projects for the National Park Service, remembers his own reaction: "Wow. This building is more important than people give it credit for."

But so far, no one has figured out the right use for the 48,000-square-foot building. Lots of proposals have been bandied about - offices, light industry, a restaurant like the Spaghetti Factory.

Lately, there's new interest and ideas. Mike Lewis, a local history teacher who works for the Department of Juvenile Services, has suggested a school. He has even set up a nonprofit organization that will work on a possible purchase of the structure. Trussell, too, would like to use the mill to help troubled youths; she has worked with some of them to archive the old receipts, dye formulas and payroll records.

Sasaki has another notion: artist lofts for glass blowers and weavers. Part of the mill would remain a museum, she says. As the daughter of Japanese immigrants, she believes it would appeal to Asian tourists, as well as others interested in American industry.

It is precisely because the mill is so secluded that it has been saved. But that's now proving to be its handicap, says Eugster.

"The silk mill has been protected for the same reason we've had trouble finding the right use," he says.

Few people stumble across the factory, half-hidden by bushes along Georges Creek, hours from the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Investors are skeptical, given the withered local economy. Nonprofits have shied away from the $750,000 asking price for the building.

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