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The Story of the Lonaconing Silk Mill

Lonaconing, Maryland lies in the far western panhandle of that amazingly diverse state.  You should think “West Virginia” if you really want to understand the terrain.  It’s mountainous.  Coal is the mineral.  You shouldn’t be surprised by a bear crossing the road.  The economic situation is, perhaps not so good.  We recently had a chance to visit a most interesting, and historic location nestled in these mountains, the Lonaconing Silk Mill.  This was the last silk mill in the United States, in operation commencing in the early 1900’s.  It was an important employer in the area and it’s story mirrors that of so many businesses throughout the United States.  You can read more about the history of the mill here.  We had an opportunity to go through the Mill and photograph courtesy of someone I’ve mentioned quite a bit in the blog, Tony Sweet.  This wasn’t a workshop, just a photographic get together.  Many photographers are drawn to abandoned places.  The Silk Mill in that regard doesn’t disappointment.  The outside of the building is quite striking, with a reddish-orange tint.

This part of the Mill, which is most accessible (by appointment only let me stress) actually has a pleasant, warm appeal, from the outside.

Once you enter though, you’re in a different world, an abandoned one, one of big machines from another industrial time.

The workers, for about half a century, spun silk thread onto bobbins for shipment around the country.  This is what it was all about.

Time stopped for the Mill in June of 1957.

Since then, the story of the Mill has largely been one of decay.

It probably wouldn’t be fair to attribute this completely to neglect, however.  Thirty-three years ago, Herb Shepard bought the Mill, using personal funds, with the hope of preserving and restoring what he felt was an important site in the story of American industrial history.  In part, this had to do with his own feelings about those who worked there, he’s from the area and even though the factory closed more than 50 years ago, still remembers some of those who worked there, and knows something about their lives at the Mill.

Alas, though, his efforts so far have not been successful.  He’s received interest, but no real help from the political establishment.  Without on-going sources of funding, abandoned buildings decay structurally.  The roof is now leaking, windows are broken and nature is taking over.  Preservation work is tough.  What’s the old saying in real estate, “location, location, location.”  How many people would pass this way to see a restored silk mill, even if it was the last one in the United States? Preservation work is much like entrepreneurship.  (I’d argue that preservation work is inherently entrepreneurial, but that’s a discussion for another day.)  One important ingredient of successful entrepreneurial activity is that of timing.  You can be right about everything, but if you’re right at the wrong time, you may not be successful.

Editorial and technical notes:  (1) Abandoned buildings that are visited with some regularity by photographers can present a newcomer with an abundance of what are called “set ups.”  Set ups are staged to look as though they reflected the reality at the time, but in fact, reflect the photographers’ re-enactment of that reality. Was the calendar you see actually the one left there in 1957?  I don’t know.  In addition to the impact of photographers, Herb and others have actively tried to maintain some of the historical artifacts that were, in fact, a real part of the story.  I tried in these images, to stay away from any that were obvious set ups, but I can’t guarantee that I was successful. (2) Obviously, I switched color schemes when I went inside.  The interior of the building screamed black and white, but I also obviously used a tone, a very light sepia, on the images.  The use of this warm tone for black and white imagery was a suggestion made to me by Brooks Jenson, publisher of LensWork magazine.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike #

    Hi I was just looking at your web site !
    about the silk mill if I could get some info about the place and take a tour in the spring
    who can I talk to about this place !

    January 1, 2014
    • Hi

      Thanks for stopping by. The Silk Mill is certainly an interesting location. However, to the best of my knowledge, they don’t have tours per se. Most of the imagery coming from there is captured when a group of photographers make private arrangements with the owner to open up the Mill. There is a charge, and it is not cheap as it is his only source of income to maintain the building. The building, as you can imagine, is quite old and in pretty tough shape. He had to install security cameras and make a variety of other modifications just to keep the thing upright. If you do a web search you can track down pro photographers who lead such workshops from time to time. Tony Sweet and Denise Ippolito are two who have taken groups in. Check their web sites as well. Best of luck.
      James

      January 5, 2014

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