The Lonaconing silk mill, located in Lonaconing, Maryland, is the one of the last intact silk mills in the United States. Formerly operated by the Klotz Throwing Company and General Textile Mills Company, the complex is situated within the National Lonaconing Historic District. Due to its intact machinery, the mill has been nominated by the George’s Creek Watershed Association for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
In the early 1900’s, a local banker, Duncan Sloan, overheard a casual conversation on a railroad passenger car that the Klotz Throwing Company was seeking a suitable site for a factory in western Maryland. Klotz was looking to erect a silk throwing mill that would wound raw silk into thread where it would then be shipped to silk manufacturers and woven into various textiles.2 6 The raw silk, imported from Italy and later other countries, would be first washed, dried and spun before being wound, or doubled, into skeins of thread.2 6
Sloan pitched the idea of Lonaconing as the prime location for Klotz due to the availability of the Cumberland & Pennsylvania Railroad that followed George’s Creek through town, and plentiful, cheap energy from nearby coal mines. Just five weeks later, Sloan managed to meet with George Klotz and J. H. Britton of New York.2 6 A public meeting was held at the Evans Opera House in Lonaconing shortly after and the town’s citizens agreed to accept the offer made by Klotz for a mill.
Klotz and Britton Mill
A committee of seven local businessmen sought bonds from the Lonaconing Savings Bank to finance the construction costs of the mill. The total cost of the equipment and building was estimated at $100,000, and the committee raised $47,000 towards the mill.6
In February 1901, Klotz sent several foremen from its Fredericksburg mills to instruct operatives in Lonaconing in a temporary mill in the Allegheny Furniture Building.7
A 250-feet by 400-feet lot was purchased and ground was broken for the new mill by the S. W. Wise Construction Company on August 13, 1905.2 6
Construction workers walked out of the job site over a wage dispute on February 7, 1907. When they returned, a 40-feet section of the chimney collapsed, injuring one laborer.6 The walkout did not affect the construction timetable and work on the mill, including equipment installation, was completed by April 7 when the plant opened.10
In the early years of the mill, raw silk and Douppinni, an expensive silk that was used in the production of wedding gowns, were thrown at the mill.6 The throwing process involved the twisting and winding of silk into a yarn that was then used by knitters and weavers. Occasionally, the silk thread was broken due to the twisting and winding of the thread onto four-inch bobbins and the operator would tie the broken strands together with a silk knot. Other employees were involved in the steaming, dying and stretching of the silk, while others worked in the shipping department, sending the processed silk product to market.
It was only a year after the plant was built that the company was able to begin repaying the investment from the residents of Lonaconing.6 The mill was expanded in 1916 and again in May 1919 8 due to increased demand. By 1922, Klotz was responsible for adding $100,000 to Lonaconing’s economy annually.
The Great Depression had some impact on the the silk industry. Wages decreased significantly due to slumping demand for silk products, leading to 111 workers being paid a total of $1,547 in February 1933.6 Due to financial considerations, Klotz was forced to reorganize as the General Textile Mills Company.4
Employment began to increase as the Great Depression waned, but a lack of orders sometimes kept the mill from operating for weeks.9 Towards the beginning of World War II, General Textile found its supply of raw silk disrupted due to the United States declaring war with a major supplier, Japan.6 Any remaining raw silk in the mill was used to produce parachute thread for the service members. General Textile closed for ten months between January and October 1945 10 when the government imposed trade sanctions against all Japanese imports, leading to a shortage of raw materials. When it did reopen, General Textile employed only 200 at reduced wages due to a lack of orders.
After the war had concluded, production began to pick back up, although silk was still hard to source. To compensate, General Textile switched to using rayon, a synthetic material that was cheaper to produce in bulk.6 An addition to the plant was finished in 1946 to run additional synthetic materials.
Employees at Klotz Throwing Company were unionized under the United Mine Workers (UMW) in 1917.6 The initial affiliation with the UMW reflected the many employees who had family members involved in the UMW via the many coal mines that operated in the area, but the union was eventually changed to the United Textile Workers of America (UTWA). The UTWA also represented the Cumberland Silk Mill, also owned by Klotz.
Employment had ebbed and flowed throughout the 20th century. In September 1920, Klotz employed 359 with an average payroll of $8,491.6 That had decreased to between 70 and 80 by the summer of 1941 and just 27 by August 16. It dipped to just five workers by the end of the year.
The number of workers increased to 30 by February 15, 1942 and 94 by late March, and with it, came the power of bargaining. Workers had requested an a nickel increase in wages 11 to bring it up to those of the nearby Celanese textile factory, and when it was denied, the employees went on strike, prompting General Textile to close the mill on June 23, 1957.
Only six workers remained on the payroll by the end of June.6 On July 7, with just five employees remaining, General Textile closed the Lonaconing mill.1 11 A skeleton crew of four employees remained on site for several years after to maintain the building and equipment.
The impact of the mill’s closure was devastating. Lonaconing, once the center of early industry in western Maryland, was in shambles. Deep underground coal mining had all but ceased and glass factories that once employed hundreds had begun to close.6
In 1978, Herbert Crawford and a partner purchased the former General Textile Mill when a company had expressed interest in restarting the factory’s operations.5 11 Crawford attempted over the years to secure economic development grants to reuse the complex as a silk mill, and at one point, turned down a $300,000 offer from a salvage buyer for the machinery.11
In later years, Crawford sought funding to preserve the interior as a museum, but a lack of funding and state initiative nixed any proposals.5 11
In 2007, the George’s Creek Watershed Association nominated the Lonaconing mill for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.1 3 It was listed in an Endangered Maryland publication in June, the first statewide list of historic properties that were threatened with demolition or collapse.4 The silk mill was described as “the only remaining silk mill in the United States with its machinery, company records and workers’ personal effects remaining unchanged from the time that the factory ceased operations.”