Silkville, Kansas…The Silk Capital of America.
Silkville, Kansas was started in 1868 by Frenchman Ernest Valeton De Boissiere after he purchased around 3,500 acres of land in Franklin County with the idea of creating a socialistic, utopian community, based on communal living. Silkville was never a real town although many people refer to it today as a “ghost town.” It was a privately owned commune based on socialistic principles. Workers would be paid according to their productivity and each one had to put down a $100 deposit, provide for their own needs and pay rent for their rooms two months in advance in order to be part of the commune.
Mr. Boissiere was a native of Bordeaux, France and believed that the climate in Kansas was perfect for growing mulberry trees, whose leaves are the food of choice for silkworms. After being banished from France by Napolean III, the wealthy De Boissiere wanted to build his idea of the ideal community and ended up purchasing land just outside of Williamsburg, Kansas, Mr. De Bossiere planted thousands of white mulberry trees on 70 acres of his land and imported silkworms being determined to make Silkville the “Silk Capital of America”. He also built a large chateau that had 60 rooms including several dining rooms, 40 family rooms and a large library containing around 2,500 books. This "chateau” was the center piece of Silkville and was used to house the workers and be heart of his commune. Close to the chateau he also erected several other stone buildings including a silk barn where cocoons could be cared for as well as buildings where looms could be used for weaving the silk. Many other improvements and buildings were built on the large acreage, including a stone school house which still stands today as well 15 miles of stone fence, some of which remains today.
The idea of producing silk in Kansas was not unique to Mr. De Boissiere. In fact several counties in Kansas at that time promoted the planting of mulberry trees to be used for raising silkworms. The idea was popular enough that a Silk Commission was formed to encourage the growth of this new industry.
Estimates differ as to how many people lived at Silkville. Some say it never had more than 40-50 workers, many of which came from France and whom were skilled silk dyers and weavers. Others say the Chateau housed upwards of 100 people. The workers lived in the large three story stone “chateau” in a sort of communal arrangement. Mr. De Bossiere strongly disapproved of any type of religion and was against marriage to the point that either one would be grounds to be expelled from the commune. Most of the surrounding area was settled by Methodist’s or Baptist’s and there were rumors that the residents of Silkville practiced “free love” and stories of wild sex orgies in Silkville were widely spread, even if unproven. During its heyday Silkville had workers from all over the world with the majority being from France and Sweden. Many of the workers did not stay long at the commune, instead preferring to invest in their own private property rather than communal living.
Before long the land at Silkville was producing a very high quality silk and by 1872 Silkville had three looms operating that were capable of producing 224 yards of silk ribbon a day. In 1876 the silk won prizes at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition being judged superior to silk samples from France and Japan. Thus Silkville earned the title of the “The Silk Producing Capital of America”.
Besides silk, Silkville also produced cheese, wine and other dairy products. By 1871 there were some 8,000 mulberry trees growing as well as some 2,000 peach trees and 1,000 grape vines. Eventually the onslaught of cheaper foreign silk signaled the end to the silk production and the commune began to decline in the mid 1880’s. Most of the workers moved on to other higher paying jobs elsewhere and in 1892 De Boissiere turned the estate over to the Odd Fellows Lodge and moved back to France, where he died in 1894.
The “chateau” was used for a short time as an orphanage but a fire in 1916 gutted the inside. Today a much smaller white, hip-roofed farm house is all that is left of the “chateau” along with some of the original stone buildings, including two that were thought to be the original “silk barns”. Other remnants of Silkville still left are the Silkville School and some of the old stone fences that surrounded the area. The original tract of land was later sold and became a private farm with close to 3,000 acres remaining under one ownership. Today it is a working ranch named the Silkville Ranch.
The success of silk production in Silkville led to the Kansas Legislature appropriating $13,000 to establish a silk station. The first location was at Larned, Kansas in 1887. Later it was changed to Peabody, Kansas. By 1888 Kansas was producing about one-fifth of the silk cocoons in America. After that silk production began to decline to low profits and in 1897 the Kansas Legislature discontinued the silk culture promotions.
Enough remains of Silkville today to make it worth seeing. It is private property so be respectful and enjoy imagining what it would have like during its heyday.
Resources and Additional Information:
Silkville Kansas Map