Friday’s grand opening of the history of the American Silk Mills exhibit at the James Madison Museum of Orange County Heritage turned into a reunion and an expansion of local connections spanning the globe.
The exhibit is the result of eight years of research and planning by Professor Mary Knighton of the College of Literature at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo. Studying William Faulkner, who visited Japan, helped Knighton discover how silk became Japan’s first great industry after Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 visit reopened its international trade. America quickly became the chief market for Japanese silk, leading to close commercial and cultural relations between the two emerging industrial giants. It also created a bond between Japanese and American working women, who provided most of the silk mill’s labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In her remarks at Friday’s opening, Knighton said her main objective in assembling the exhibit was to connect the local story of the silk mill in Orange to the national story.
Knighton’s research gradually uncovered the links leading from Japan’s silk worms and mulberry trees to the origins of the American Silk Mills, Inc. of the New York City/New Jersey region, through Lancaster, Pa., and ultimately to the corporation’s mill on Madison Road in Orange. Along the way, she met New York City writer and researcher Elizabeth Dobell, the granddaughter of the Orange mill’s original owner and onetime owner of Gaston Hall in Somerset, Milton Rubin. Several of the exhibit’s artifacts were owned by Dobell’s family. Dobell made her first-ever visit to Orange for the opening of the exhibit.
“It’s very moving to be part of this,” she said. “It’s so nice to be welcomed here.” She added that she too is “learning a lot” from an exhibit so complete it includes a Japanese DVD explaining the many steps in the manufacture of silk, starting with the voracious appetites of silk worms devouring mulberry leaves until they can spin their silken cocoons.
“Mary is wonderful,” Dobell said Friday. “I’m so thrilled and lucky that Mary found me and I could learn more about the silk mill. I had always heard about grandpa going to Orange on the weekends. Anything you remember, good or bad about my grandfather, I’d love to hear it,” she told those at Friday’s opening reception.
Knighton credited former newspaper editor and owner Duff Green, whose photographs and stories span the life of the mill—from 1929 to 1988.
“Without him, we would not have the level of detail in this exhibit and could not have completed these panels,” she offered.
Green noted that Edna Tucker, the 1928 Orange High School valedictorian, ran the “doubling machine” used to strengthen the thin silk threads from the cocoons to make them viable for clothing. He reminded the audience of approximately 60 people that a single thread could stretch from the mill to the courthouse, and some observers quipped that two pounds of silk would extend all the way to Philadelphia.
Historian and author Frank Walker said Orange went through its own period as a Southern mill town. “When you flip over Southern mill towns, the other side says, ‘cheap labor,’” he said. “The backbone of all Southern mill towns and their mills were the women. The ladies of the looms made these mills run.”
Knighton noted the mill on Madison Road reached its greatest prosperity while making silk parachutes for the U.S. military during World War II. The government considered this work important enough to exempt the mill’s production manager, Connor Philips of Gordonsville, from the military draft.
Knighton added that the mill also was recognized for its role in developing synthetic fibers, making silken garments “more viable,” while helping transform a clothing industry mostly using blended fibers today. This transformation also helped extend the life of the silk mill for six decades.
The silk mill has a local and deep connection, Knighton said. “The reason for this exhibit is so more people will come forward and tell their stories here who haven’t had a venue to do that.”
In fact, a display case in the exhibit is reserved for members of the community to share their photos and memorabilia throughout the yearlong exhibit.
“When you have a story, you may think it’s just a little story, but it’s usually not,” Knighton noted. “It has a tissue of connection and in this case, a global one.”
The exhibit will be on display through the end of September 2020.
The James Madison Museum of Orange County Heritage is located at 129 Caroline St. in the Town of Orange. Hours of operation are Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 672-1776 or visit www.thejamesmadisonmuseum.net.