Since the surprising discovery of (non-native) white mulberry trees in my backyard in Whitehall, NY, I began to research their link to the silk industry, particularly the Champlain Silk Mills in Whitehall which flourished from the late 1800s through the early 1950s.
Silkworms arrived in Virginia as early as 1613 as the Chinese silk industry was expanding to Europe and the American colonies. The attempts at expansion weren’t hugely profitable until the early 1800s when the importation and cultivation of white mulberry trees (the leaves are the prime food source for the domesticated silkworm, Bombyx mori) almost became an industry of its own. In 1825, the first mulberry trees arrived on Long Island in New York state while silk mills began springing up throughout the northeast. Where did the Champlain Silk Mills get their raw silk? Were white mulberry trees planted to cultivate silkworms for the industry?
Whitehall’s Champlain Silk Mill was launched in 1887 by Frederick S. Dale, a silk manufacturer from Paterson, New Jersey, known as America’s Silk City. The Whitehall mill transformed raw silk into silk yarn and ribbon, providing employment for women which complemented the male-dominated railroad industry in town.
Despite the silk mill’s success, Dale’s other financial interests failed and he sold the business to Aubrey Meyer, also from Paterson, NJ. Meyer built an even more profitable business, constructing an addition on the south side of the original building.
In 1916, a separate building was constructed on Poultney Street (which later became EB Metals), with “a large, rolling green lawn, beautifully landscaped.”
Building No. 2 is long gone, but the brick Champlain Silk Mills smokestack remains to this day.
Whitehall was at its economic peak in the 1920s with Champlain Silk Mills employing over 1,000 people. Irish and French Canadian families immigrated from northern New York and Canada to work in the mill, living in houses along Champlain Avenue built for the workers. My French-Canadian grandparents and their family were part of the wave of immigrants from Quebec. They settled in one of the beautiful silk mill homes on Champlain Avenue and I saw first-hand the rewards of “The American Dream”.
By 1922 Meyers had relinquished ownership of the Champlain Silk Mills and seven years later the financial crash hit. In 1931, office manager Theodore Belanger rallied local citizens to buy stock in the mills and Champlain Spinners took over the property.
However, by 1951 the mill closed its doors due to limited access to raw silk from the wars in Asia and the textile industry’s move towards synthetic materials.
Building No. 2 eventually became EB Metals, which manufactured cigarette machines. (I worked there one summer as a teenager, saving up money to go to college.)
Building No. 1 remained vacant until a fire destroyed the building in 1966. I was only 9 years old, but I remember that day – it represented the end of an era for Whitehall.
I’m among the last generation to remember the Champlain Silk Mills. Although the mills were already closed, we continued to experience the legacy of Whitehall’s heyday – it was a great place to grow up. Several decades later however, the construction of large-scale malls in neighboring cities and two major highways took businesses away from our small town’s Main Street. To this day, Whitehall is still struggling to reinvent itself but it will get there, hopefully soon. Thankfully, my small grove of mulberry trees kept the faith all these years, finally emerging to remind us of our roots and that if we stay creative we will always find a way forward.
In all of my research so far, it seems that the Champlain Silk Mills imported the raw silk from Asia but there may have been some local efforts at sericulture. My next deep dive for this project is into production of silk, which will inform one of my sculptures.
See all articles on this project in my Mulberry Story-Box
What are your memories of The Champlain Silk Mills? Please share stories in the comments below!
CLICK for the background story of The White Mulberry Project
In 2023, Serena Kovalosky was awarded a New York State Rural & Traditional Arts Fellowship for the White Mulberry Project, administered by the Arts Council for Wyoming County in partnership with the New York State Council on the Arts. Funding for this project is made possible with support from the New York State Council on the Arts with support from the Governor’s office and the New York State Legislature.