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Silk and the city Susan Walter | Sat, Oct 27 2012 12:00 PM

Have you ever heard of sericulture?

Here is an outline of the people, trees, and worms that were part of developing – aha! – a silk industry.

The first Union-Tribune newspaper entry I found mentioning silkworms was in October of 1868.  The next month included an article detailing where to obtain the best mulberry trees (which is what silkworms eat), and the following week there was a note that E.W. Morse had them available.

In the 1880s the newspaper mentioned this endeavor here.  National City’s “Mrs. Aylseworth…has been trying an experiment in rearing silk worms at their pleasant hill in Paradise…”  She had “several thousand worms” and they were already “securely within their silken cocoons.”

Two years later Reverend M.B. Starr in the upper Sweetwater reported “a complete success” in raising them.  His operation succeeded with no need for artificial heat, and he concluded that sericulture was “adapted to this climate.”
The next year the Union placed a notice that they had copies of a manual from the State Board of Silk Culture, free for anyone interested in the subject.

A Sweetwater Valley rancher, Louis D. Combe, was also making a go at it.  He had “20,000 worms feeding in his cocoonery located at the old adobe ranch house” and had plans to “reel [the] silk himself” with information he was expecting from Italy.

At the same time, an Italian immigrant, Felipe Pazza, purchased silkworm eggs from Mr. Combe, and mulberry leaves from Mr. Russell of Monument (a community that used to be by the Mexican border).

Newspaper entries on the subject were missing for about two decades, and then resurfaced with the formation of the Ladies Silk Culture Association in 1891.  Mrs. Carrie Williams was a particularly ardent proponent of the subject.  She had her cocoonery on Logan Avenue, in San Diego, but provided supplies and advice to all who needed it.
By 1892, semi-annual reports were being filed; three years later machinery was operating in San Diego and San Marcos, and local silken products were being displayed in fairs.

By the turn of the century another Silk Association was established, and “a miniature silk works” was in place.  This caused a considerable stir and New York interests began investigating the county for the site of a mill that could produce silk dress goods.  An exhibit at the Fair, displaying “all stages of the culture” was planned.
Another of our Chula Vista ladies, Miss Helen Dale, was enthusiastically described “successfully feeding some silk worms: as an experiment.”

J. P. Everts (or John C. Evertz, depending on the source) patented a “silk reeling machine” which “brought in the first skein of silk”.  More encouragement was provided when Congressman Needham stated he would “try to get an appropriation of $10,000 for the silk industry.”

This topic continued to attract interest, in 1903, with the planting of a 12-acre mulberry tree grove in South San Diego and plans for a “permanent silk farm to be established.”  Two photographs dated “circa 1903” at the San Diego History Center show silk machines located in San Diego.  Apparently there was a dearth of mulberry leaves, as lettuce was being substituted for silkworm food, to Mrs. Williams’ dismay.  At any rate plans were afoot to exhibit sericultural products at the World’s Fair in Saint Louis.

The Charles and Ruth Mohnike family had been in Chula Vista since the 1890s, residing in a large home located at the corner of Third Avenue and E Street.  Always eager to try new endeavors, Charles jumped into the silk industry wholeheartedly by becoming vice president of the Southern Silk Company of San Diego.  He planted an orchard of mulberry trees, and interested his sons in this new enterprise (here, below, is one of my favorite historical passages):

“An eleven year old Mohnike boy began raising silk worms in his bedroom as a business venture.  As their number increased they took up more and more space in his crowded room....  [He] found a solution by taking the worms to the trees.  The birds had a feast on the fat, juicy worms.  But the children who kept watching for cocoons to appear were continually puzzled when they didn’t.”

Other members of the Southern Silk Company included president E. Strahlmann, treasurer G. Aubrey Davidson, and Chula Vista resident M.C. Dibble, who resided on Fourth (now Second) Avenue.

In spite of these efforts, ultimately sericulture failed here.  American labor, time and experience just could not compete with the Japanese.  All local efforts ceased by 1920.

An original silk spinning reel, cocoons, and silk from this sericulture adventure is still extant locally.  It is part of the Strahlmann collection, on display in the Tijuana River Park at 2721 Monument Road, San Diego. For more information cal (619) 428-2946).

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