‘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…before us was flooded by sunlight: ancient machines with bobbins sitting pertly on their spindles, row after row of them, ready to being whirling once again. 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. … ‘
(Source: thenewyorker.com. Text: Russell Shorto; photos: Dave Romero.)