Credit Photographs by Dave Romero
Three years ago I moved to the panhandle of western Maryland. It’s a wild, mountainous region. There are some lovely Victorian town centers, and also hardscrabble hamlets tucked into the valleys that are comprised largely of low-slung ranch houses fronted by chain-link fences and rusted pickup trucks. The past has a way of lingering in such places; there is no economic development to sweep it away, so it just sits there.
A while ago I met another transplant to the area, a photographer named David Romero. He told me of a relic of sorts that he had stumbled across several years earlier, in the former coal-mining town of Lonaconing. Klots Throwing Company, later General Textile Mills, began operating a plant there in 1907, processing silk imported from Japan and China into yarn. At its height, hundreds of people, mostly women, worked in the mill, steaming, dying, stretching, and throwing silk, while metal gears ground and the threads sang through the air. The plant shut down in 1957, and never reopened or repurposed. Romero said he had been wanting to go back for another, fuller session to document the mummified factory in photographs, and asked if I would like to tag along.
Herb Crawford, the building’s owner, was sitting on his riding lawnmower in front of the pink-brick hulk, waiting for us when we drove up. Besides a few broken windows, the building looked pretty spiffy from the outside. Romero pulled out a bottle of Crown Royal whiskey and handed it to Crawford: a thank-you for opening up the place. “I prefer Blue Label, but O.K.,” Crawford said.
Crawford, who is eighty-two years old, is a lifelong resident of the area. For thirty years he taught auto-body repair at the career center in Cresaptown. He told me he remembered the silk mill at its height, during his childhood. “You could hear it from Main Street. It sounded like millions of crickets in the fall of the year.” By 1979, when the place was put up for sale, it had sat empty for twenty-two years; Crawford bought it. He had got word of a sewing company in New York that wanted to relocate. “I was going to be a home-town hero,” he said. But the deal fell through, and no others materialized. Slotted into a remote fold in the Appalachian Mountains, with a population of eleven hundred and forty-four, Lonaconing turns out not to be a place for big entrepreneurial dreams. Meanwhile, preservationists started coming by, telling Crawford the mill was something precious. “I got attached to it,” he said.
Crawford threw open the factory door. The area immediately before us was flooded by sunlight: ancient machines with bobbins sitting pertly on their spindles, row after row of them, ready to whirl. Beyond, all was darkness. Two tiny towheaded neighborhood kids, a boy and girl, had been hanging out with Crawford outside; as soon as the door was opened they scutted straight into the back, into the darkness; squeals of laughter emanated.
One by one, Crawford threw the ancient circuit breakers. Pools of light formed. And lo, we were surrounded by midcentury American industrial greatness. Banks of machinery, connected by gears and belts, stretched into the distance. The end had come suddenly: workers had left behind shoes, lunch pails, umbrellas, a bottle of aspirin. They left behind, in fact, a moment frozen in time. A calendar on the wall, compliments of A. F. Green Insurance, was for October, 1957. Sputnik was rocketing skyward. People huddled around their TVs to see the first episode of ”Leave It to Beaver.”
Wandering such a place is a form of excavation. A sign pointed the way to the “Gent’s Toilet”; antique fire pails hung at the ends of each row of yarn winders. Clumps of fine blond thread cascaded down from hooks, looking like Lady Godiva wigs. Spread out on a table, a letter from O. E. Hoey of the Camden Manufacturing Company, dated April 7, 1949, informed the mill’s manager that his company’s product “will make your silk more obedient.”
The mill’s demise presages issues that still tear at local economies. It reached its peak in the nineteen-twenties. With the Second World War, supplies from Japan dwindled, and by the war’s end synthetics had largely replaced silk. The mill tried switching to rayon, but its equipment was antiquated and the facility couldn’t compete with more modern plants. More to the point, perhaps, the company’s rationale for choosing the location no longer applied. Lonaconing was a coal-mining town; the original idea had been that the miners’ wives would ensure a steady supply of cheap labor. But the mines had closed by the early nineteen-forties, and the women who worked at the factory wanted higher wages. There had been a history of labor disputes (a woman once smacked the factory’s director, Duncan Sloan, with her purse), and at least one strike had ended without workers getting the pay raise they had demanded. After the sixty-seven workers who were left in 1957 voted to strike again, the company locked the door. (It lived on, as Gentex Corporation, which makes helmets and protective gear.)
Over the years, Crawford has discovered that he has the heart of a preservationist. But the past doesn’t stay preserved without serious effort. The roof is beginning to cave in; the machinery in the basement is coated in rust. For thirty-seven years, Crawford has not been able to figure out what to do with his giant albatross. He was happy when, in May, a company paid him to film scenes for a movie—starring Dick Van Dyke, no less, as an angel who helps a girl living in a nineteen-hundreds mill town—in the structure. Crawford would like more of that. He said he’d like the state of Maryland to take the place from him and turn it into a museum.
Then again, maybe he wouldn’t. Preservationists have met with him, to no avail. He has had offers to buy the place. A few years ago, he said, a salvage man from Seattle offered him four hundred thousand dollars, but he couldn’t bring himself to take the deal. “He told me when he was done there wouldn’t be a brick left,” Crawford said. “I’d hate to do that. This place is the last of its kind. It’s a piece of U.S. history.” Then he paused and said, “I’d have probably done it for five hundred.”
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