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The Thompson-Ames Historical Society
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9/27/07 - Gilford's Role in the New England Silk Industry

Written by Fred Kacprzynski

Are you aware Gilford once played a role in silkworm culture? It was an intriguing, largely forgotten chapter of New England farming history.

Silkworm culture was introduced to Gilford by Benjamin Rowe about 1840 and continued to the 1860?s. Soon after he started, a number of local farms followed his example. In Gilford silkworm culture most often involved the raising of silkworm larvae. Once silkworms hatched from the egg, the silkworm or larvae go through four molts as they grow. During each molt, the old skin is cast off and a new, larger one is produced. The tiny larvae grow the best as they are fed on the new soft leaves of the mulberry tree and then to larger leaves as they grow. The silkworms(larvae) do nothing but eat for nearly 30 days. The larvae then spin a silk cocoon as protection for their next stage, the pupa. Further changes inside the pupa result in an emerging moth.

The cocoons are shades of white, cream and yellow but the glistening shine of the silk in the cocoon gives an impression of silver and shades of gold. Once formed, cocoons were shipped to Boston and the Northampton, Massachusetts area where they were unwrapped to create the raw silk fiber. The cocoon is formed from a single fine filament about 2,000 feet long. The filaments from 10-12 cocoons are drawn from cocoons in water bowls and combined to form a single thread. The yarn is now raw silk. This raw silk is twisted into a strand sufficiently strong for weaving or knitting. Different methods of twisting the threads are used for different fabrics and a single thread is used for sheer fabrics.

Is there any evidence left of this brief chapter in Gilford's farming history? Why yes, there is! There are up to four venerable Mulberry trees known in the Town of Gilford, relics of our local silkworm culture. In 1826 a new species of Mulberry tree, Morus multicaulis was introduced from China that seemed to have promise for success. This tree was heavily marketed throughout the Northeast. Presumably some Gilford farmers took a chance on this new 'crop' and purchased these trees to raise silkworms themselves. These relic trees are assumed to be Morus multicaulis, however this has not been verified. These relic mulberries exist on the original Benjamin Rowe farm in the Village, on what is known as the B.F. Parker House on Old Lakeshore Road, (The Gunstock Parish p. 397), at the floor of Rowe Mountain in back of the Frohock Place on Cherry Valley Road, (p 38 The Gilford Story) and on the Daniel Locke farm on Lockes Hill Road near Glendale, (The Gunstock Parish p. 105).

Located on the South side of the entrance road to the Elementary School near the Rowe House, the Benjamin Rowe Mulberry tree is most intimately familiar to the people of Gilford. You may see the Rowe Mulberry tree overhanging the sidewalk, alongside some apple trees. Have you ever imagined the nearly 170 years of Gilford life that tree has witnessed as you duck to pass under it? To some the tree is merely a minor impediment on a walk through the Village. To others the tree represents another small opportunity to weave artifacts of the past into the greater fabric of Gilford's story.

There is also the aspect in observing seasonable changes in the tree itself. One change that does not happen anymore is the bearing of fruit. The Rowe house Mulberry used to be one of two in that location. Mulberry requires both a female and male tree to produce fruit. For years the present tree produced large quantities of fruit. Several local people commented on the enjoyment of watching the many birds feeding on the mulberry fruits in season. I can imagine the Rowe family and others seeing and commenting on the very same thing in the latter half of the 1800's. Since one of the trees was removed for the Town sewage project there has been no mulberry fruit for the birds. A small enjoyment for some of our community was inadvertently taken away. A Gilford resident has offered assistance to replace the lost tree so that we may experience what others have for nearly 170 years.

Gilford's Thompson-Ames Historical Society, a nonprofit organization dating from 1943 is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the cultural history of Gilford. Even such a seemingly small thing as understanding the presence of a relic mulberry tree is an integral part of the greater Gilford narrative. Gilford's Thompson-Ames Historical Society welcomes comments on, or suggestions for, articles. You can e-mail us at Thomames@worldpath.net and visit our web site at gilfordhistoricalsociety.org.