Monday, April 20, 2015

Silk Weaving in Westbrook


     Westbrook’s mill history began with the making of paper in the mid 19th century.  Although my ancestors worked in several of Westbrook’s mills and was the motivation for their emigration from Canada at the turn of the century, I found one ancestor and one mill, in particular, fascinating to focus on here.  Inspired by silk weaver Ferdinand Albert, I wanted to learn more about the industry he worked in and the history of his chosen work location, the Haskell Silk Mill.


     In 1858, James Haskell moved from Massachusetts to Maine to acquire a cotton mill at Saccarappa. At that time, it was called The Westbrook Manufacturing Company.  Innovations in the industry caused him to refocus his business plans to manufacturing silk, and the Haskell Silk Mill was formed.  He hired two experts with industry expertise, Ernest Gearharts and Ernest Rathgrab, and sons, Frank and Edwin, served as managers.

 
     Long before the Haskell family opened their first silk mill in Westbrook in 1874, American silk manufacturing existed as a handcraft.  Just as today’s tech giants look to the next big thing to transform people’s lives; the Haskell men, living in the industrial age, wanted to use advancements in industry technology to open the market for silk products.

     New inventions unique for producing silk were made available, to which the Haskell entrepreneurs took full advantage. With the implementation of these new machines, the business prospered and Haskell’s customer base expanded to garment makers and stores nationwide.  In this regard, the mill brought some notoriety to Westbrook as the Haskell Silk Mill gained a reputation as a leader in the silk business. 

Silk Machines in use at Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturing Company in Manchester, Connecticut, ca. 1925

     As stated on the Maine Memory Network website, a project of the Maine Historical Society, reporting on silk manufacturing in Westbrook: “by the late 19th century, Haskell and others relied primarily on Japanese raw silk (filament), turning out previously unimaginable quantities of affordable silk goods and ending American reliance on expensive imports.”  The supply of Japanese raw silk made silk weaving a viable trade. Silk products came to be enjoyed by all classes of people rather than being considered as a luxury item for the wealthy.

     While silk manufacturing never reached the magnitude of the cotton and woolen industries, Haskell’s business in Westbrook thrived for over fifty years offering fine quality silk products to customers all over the country.  Moreover, due to the successful manufacturing and marketing efforts of the Haskell businessmen, Westbrook benefited economically and enjoyed having one of their local businesses be a leader in the industry throughout the tenure of the mill’s operation.  In 1930, the mill closed due to market instability and the emergence of a man-made fiber called rayon.  


     The occupation of my great grandfather, Ferdinand Albert, had always intrigued me and now I know why. Silk weavers were highly skilled workers and their expertise contributed to the success of one of Westbrook’s most respected and successful businesses.

Note:  A version of this article was submitted as an entry in the 2015 Westbrook Historical Society's writing contest.

Photo references:  The directory image courtesy of Walker Library in Westbrook.  The Haskell mill images courtesy of the Maine Memory Network.  The Cheney mill image courtesy of the University of Connecticut. 


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