Lonaconing Silk Mill
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 1900s, Duncan Sloan, a banker, 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. Specifically, Klotz was looking to build 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 would be imported from Italy and other countries, washed, dried, and spun before being wound, or doubled, into skeins of thread.
Sloan pitched the idea of Lonaconing as the prime location for the silk mill to George Klotz and J.H. Britton. 2 6 The town was located along the Cumberland & Pennsylvania Railroad that followed George’s Creek through town and was adjacent to plentiful coal reserves to fuel steam-powered machinery in the mill. A public meeting was held at the local Evans Opera House shortly after and the town’s citizens agreed to accept the offer made by Klotz for a mill.
A committee of seven local businessmen sought bonds from the Lonaconing Savings Bank to finance the construction costs of the mill, estimated at $100,000 and was able to raise $47,000 towards the effort. 6 In February 1901, Klotz sent several foremen from its Fredericksburg mill to Lonaconing to erect a temporary mill in the Allegheny Furniture Building. 7 The ground was broken for a new permanent facility that was to be constructed 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. 6 The walkout did not affect the construction timetable and work on the new mill, including equipment installation, was completed on April 7. 10
In the early years of the mill, raw silk and Douppinni, expensive silk that was used in the production of wedding gowns, were thrown at the mill. 6 The 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 1918 due to increased demand. 8 By 1922, Klotz was responsible for adding $100,000 to Lonaconing’s economy annually.
The Great Depression had some impact on the silk industry, with wages decreasing 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, the Klotz Throwing Company reorganized 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 at full capacity for weeks. 9 General Textile found its supply of raw silk disrupted during World War II due to the United States declaring war with a major supplier, Japan. 6 The Lonaconing mill was forced to close between January and October 1945 10 after the federal government imposed trade sanctions against all Japanese imports, leading to a shortage of raw silk. When it did reopen, General Textile employed only 200 at reduced wages due to a lack of orders.
Production began to pick back up after the war, although raw 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 The company built an addition to the factory 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 same union via the many coal mines that operated in the area. The affiliation was later changed to the United Textile Workers of America (UTWA).
Employment was never steady in the silk mills. In September 1920, Klotz employed 359 workers with an average payroll of $8,491. 6 That had decreased to between 70 and 80 employees by mid-1941, 27 workers by August 16, and just five workers by the end of the year. But the mill boasted 30 laborers by February 1942 and 94 workers by late March.
After a nickel wage increase dispute led to a strike in 1942, 11 General Textile opted to close the Lonaconing operations on June 23, 1957. Only six workers remained on the payroll by the end of the month, 6 and on July 7, with just five employees remaining, the factory was shuttered. 1 11 A skeleton crew of four employees remained on site for several years after to maintain the building and equipment.
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.”