Vermonters have never been timid when faced with agricultural innovation. In the early 19th century, the great forests of the Green Mountains were cleared to make pastures for Merino sheep. Within 15 years the production of Vermont wool more than tripled until the limitless prairies to the west rendered our hillside farms less than thrifty. As Arthur Cole remarked in his 1926 paper “Agricultural Crazes”: “The spirit of the farmers themselves made the United States particularly susceptible to orgies of speculation when a strange plant or animal was first brought to public attention. The susceptibility was in fact so great in those days the agriculture of the period attained a distinctive character on that account.”
Cole called these events “crazes, manias, and fevers,” and what transpired with silkworms in the 1830s and 1840s in Vermont rivaled the 17th century Dutch tulip boom in excitement and speculation.
The prospect of producing silk in lofts filled with leaf eating caterpillars proved irresistible to many Vermonters and, throughout New England, sericulture (silkworm husbandry) became a popular endeavor. Reduced to its elementals, a silkworm farm needed a modest amount of indoor space – often an unused bedroom with shelves for the livestock; and a modest amount of outdoor acreage for the production of mulberry trees, the leaves of which comprise the sole subsistence of the larvae of bombyx mori, the most desirable of the silk worm moths. Various accounts of a room full of munching caterpillars likened the sound to a light summer rain on a leafy forest canopy.
The agricultural newspapers of the day promoted this enterprise, and printed advertisements for the sale of silk worm eggs and mulberry trees; and the State of Vermont was so excited with the prospect of the exotic crop, that the legislature passed a bill to reward producers with a bounty to encourage production. The 1835 act “to encourage the growing of silk” authorized the State Treasurer to pay “the sum of ten cents for each pound of cocoons raised or grown within this state, as a bonus or premium to the person or persons raising same.” The premiere issue of The Vermont Farmer, published in Windsor, devoted its entire first two pages to a summary of William Kenrick’s “The American Silk Growers’ Guide” (1836). By 1839 this pocket-sized manual was in its second edition and offered detailed instructions for every aspect of producing silk.
It takes about one month for the silk worms to mature and much of their care, the Silk Growers Manual insisted could be accomplished by children. “A child of from nine to twelve years of age will gather seventy-five pounds of leaves in a day, and one hundred pounds of leaves will produce one pound of reeled silk. And a child, in six weeks, will gather at this rate, leaves sufficient for twenty-seven pounds of reeled silk.”
At maturity, silk worms spin their cocoons which are collected and processed by reeling, spinning, dying, and winding on spools. These processes are labor-intensive and, therefore, expensive; but at this point the raw silk is ready to be manufactured into a finished product.
The starting point for sericulture in New England was in Connecticut, specifically the towns of Mansfield and New Haven. Nathaniel Aspinwall was joined by Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University in New Haven, in the cultivation of mulberry trees and, according to historian Bob Wyss.
Stiles experimented with silkworms and production, going so far as to name some of his worms with monikers such as General Wolfe and Oliver Cromwell. In the 1780s he formed a company that promoted silk production through churches throughout the state. He shipped seeds and planting instructions to fellow ministers at Connecticut parishes. The ministers were to plant the seeds and cultivate the young trees.
Since the days of Ethan Allen, Vermont has had a long association with settlers from Connecticut, so it did not take long for the enthusiasm for silk to manifest itself in the Green Mountains. The Vermont legislature even emulated the Nutmeg State’s financial incentive to promote the practice. As nascent entrepreneurs conjured visions of untold wealth and unregulated child labor, speculation was rampant. Fortunes were made selling mulberry seeds and silkworm eggs, but precious little wealth was accrued in the production of actual silk.
Even a staid exemplar of traditional New England values such as Daniel Webster could not resist the siren song of the silk growers as he planted thousands of mulberry trees on his Massachusetts farm. In fact, the real story of silk mania is the tale of the rise and fall of the mulberry tree. The mulberry trees which sold for $3 per hundred in 1834 were, within a few years’ time, offered for as much as $500 per hundred. By 1839, however, oversupply and the harsh realities of silk growing, drove the price down to $1 per hundred. One often told tale recounted how, after the crash, speculators “chartered a vessel notoriously unseaworthy, loaded her with mulberry shrubs and sent the vessel to Indiana by way of New Orleans, heavily insured. To their great disappointment, the cargo arrived safely.”
Perhaps no Vermont community embraced the fad more enthusiastically than Bellows Falls. One report indicates that growers produced over 2 million pounds of cocoons in 1840. Lyman Simpson Hayes’ History of Rockingham recounts the venture.
The largest venture in this vicinity was made about 1838, when a number of citizens of Bellows Falls attempted it and continued the business four or five years. The company set out very thickly all over the land now known as the “ New Terrace,” a variety of mulberry trees, the leaves of which are the principal food of the silk-worm. The trees varied in height from two to twenty feet, looking at a distance something like an orchard of apple trees of various sizes.
A large building with the siding boards on hinges, resembling a tobacco barn, stood near the brow of the present New Terrace at a point near the street leading from School street. Here were the tables and shelves upon which the leaves were spread, and on which the worms were placed to feed.
In about 31 days from the hatching of the insects, during which time they fed upon the mulberry leaves, they formed the cocoon, which took but three days. A day or two later they were carefully picked and the moths killed by boiling or steaming. The cocoons were then unwound and the threads prepared for use. In this locality the winding and spinning was largely done by the small old-fashioned flax wheel then in so common use, and there are still in town a number of articles made wholly from silk At one time the enterprise looked so favorable that the company was offered $20,000 for its mulberry trees, upon the successful culture of which all depended, but the owners were so enthusiastic that they refused, and a year or two later a large proportion of the trees were killed by severe weather, the parties lost the amounts they had invested, and silk culture was never attempted here again.
Similar tales of woe were recorded in other Vermont towns. J.H.C. Campbell of Boston published his memoirs in the Montpelier Argus as “Harry’s Boy.” He recounted his early years on a farm in Townshend where feeding silk worms was one of his principal obligations.
The farmers along the banks of the West River were infatuated by the gilded and tinseled accounts of quick fortunes piled up by the adventurous explorers in this new branch of industry. The best room in the house was often taken for this purpose, and it was no strange sight at the breakfast table to find more than one person who was adorned by a representative of the silk interest.
During these months of the silk worm mania every branch of honest labor was prostrated in the insane rush to make this portion of the world a silk-producing land. It never occurred to the honest picker of mulberry leaves who kept his children from the district school to assist him in supplying the greedy worms with food, that there was anything in the climate to distract from the strength of the silk which looked so yellow and beautiful in the newly made cocoon.
The severe Vermont winters often killed the plantings of mulberry trees and many Vermont farmers bitterly abandoned their experiment. Interestingly, a few persevered and there are occasional reports of sericulture in northern Vermont even into the late 19th century. A report in Montpelier’s Watchman for Aug. 5, 1891, indicated that Mrs. George Gregory, of East Burke, was the last person in Vermont to produce raw silk from caterpillars. She had, said the Watchman, “about a thousand silk worms busily engaged in turning green mulberry leaves into the raw material from which silk is made.”
The silk industry lasted longer in southern New England, especially in Florence, Massachusetts (a village in the town of Northampton) where a multi-racial, abolitionist, communal society, The Northampton Association of Education and Industry, established a company that became one of the world’s largest suppliers of silk thread. The Corticelli Silk Company thrived until 1930, using raw material imported from Japan.
The promoters of sericulture were not forthcoming about the intensive labor involved in silk production and as the realities of hard work and harsh weather collaborated to torpedo the nascent industry, unsold mulberry trees were removed from nursery stock. As quickly as fortunes were made, they were soon lost.
Mulberry trees, once the means to fortune, were quietly burned in trash heaps as chastened entrepreneurs returned to their dairies for twice-daily milking and making hay all summer long.
Paul Heller is a writer and historian who lives in Barre.