Recently, I was offered a very unique exploration opportunity. I was invited by “Photographer’s for Historic Preservation” to travel to Maryland and shoot an abandoned Silk Mill. A select group of photographers from all over the country were invited to legally shoot this location in exchange for donating to the owner to help preserve and repair his building. The silk mill was in operation from 1907-1957. Construction of the Mill was begun in 1905. Initially, silk was imported from Japan and China and the factory produced silk thread. During World War II, rayon was made. In the 1920s the payroll included over 300 people, but in later years fewer than 200 worked there, and by the 1950s antiquated machines in a small mill made competition with larger facilities difficult. In 1957 the mill closed. Since its closure, the owner has done his best to keep the building intact, but nature and vandals have taken their toll.
We arrived and met the owner, who told us of the struggles he had faced over the years keeping the building up physically and financially. Recently someone broke in and stole thousands of dollars of materials from the location. Leaking roofs, broken windows, and buckling floor boards needed to be fixed, to name just a few of the countless maintenance issues. We made our donation and entered the building.
The massive three story brick structure welcomed us into its former office where we were greeted by our first piece of history; a vintage fire extinguisher.
This strange hand grenade looking phial on the wall was filled with carbon tetrachloride, a chemical compound used in early fire extinguishers. If a fire broke out you hurled it at the fire and it would (hopefully) extinguish it. These types of fire extinguishers were discontinued due to the hazardous effects of the chemicals on the human body.
Stepping out of the tiny office room and into a vast workspace, we were treated to our first jaw dropping sight: hundreds of rows of silk spinning looms.
It was overwhelming. There’s no other word for it. It took a moment to get over the magnitude of what we were seeing. Then we scrambled to get out our cameras and start shooting!
It was hard to miss the bright red buckets hanging from the end of each row of looms, which had FIRE stamped on them in bold black lettering. This was a reminder of how far back in history we were stepping.
On the end of each row were a faded grimy tag and a label. We learned that each employee was responsible for a different row and they would tag their row (and the finished silk spools) with their label which had their employee number stamped on it.
The next sight, that quickly became commonplace, was the hundreds of thousands of bobbins that were still sitting in the machines, on the floors, on racks, and in decaying cardboard boxes.
It was apropos that everywhere I looked were thousands of little spindles, each resembling the core of a film canister that would have been used to wrap film from a camera. The catch line for the day was “These Bobbins are Dirty!” which became a running joke between Jared and me (such as, the two of us leaving a note to housekeeping in the hotel we stayed at complaining about the dirty bobbins in our room) But I digress…
As we walked around we wondered at the amazing relics of Americana the building still held. It was like time stood still here. The mill management had simply shut down the machinery leaving behind everything as it stood the moment they closed and locked the doors.
Vintage posters advertising workers compensation laws or safe driving habits were found in dusty corners.
A lunch menu advertising a local eatery was found defaced on the wall.
Even a dusty romance novel had been left behind!
And my personal favorite was a tattered old calendar featuring a picture by Norman Rockwell for the Boy Scouts. I found the old poster hanging face down against the wall in the basement. It wrinkled, bent and torn, but it was a beautiful sight.
The second floor held more looms, but they were taller and looked much different from the first floor ones. Some of them looked more like torture devices than manufacturing devices.
More pieces of history and Americana were strewn about on the second floor.
After about 3 hours we finally ventured down to the basement through a dark stairwell encased in peeling paint.
Still more treasures were to be found in the darkened depths of the mill.
An old scale loomed in the corner.
Vintage newspapers lay in a stack of boxes nearby.
Old labels from Japan which were once included in shipments of silk were found on an old work bench.
Another one of my favorite finds was an old empty oil barrel, ironically labeled with the words “Gulf Harmony Oil”! Many more looms, and vestiges of the mill haunted the darkened basement.
Jared and I spent some more time talking with the owner as we wrapped things up. (Andy had left earlier.) We thanked him profusely for allowing us legal access to his property for the sake of preservation and art. After 5 hours of shooting, we packed our things back into our car (including our complimentary “Dirty Bobbins”!!!) and bade farewell to the Silk Mill.