Today in Piedmont History: Plowing for Mulberry Trees

Wonder where Mulberry's got its name? Piedmont was once home to a silk industry, with large plantings of the mulberry trees favored by silkworms.

On Feb. 21, 1888, a Mr. Gray finished plowing and cultivating a newly cleared patch of land near the top of Oakland Avenue. The land, like the acreage around it, was soon planted to mulberry trees.

As the city of Piedmont's website explains, "There was a mulberry orchard with over 6,000 trees and a two-story building that was the Ladies Silk Culture Society. Over 100 women worked spinning thread from the cocoons of silk worms that grew on the mulberry trees. The silk worms were very hungry, however, and soon there were not enough mulberry trees to feed them."

The headquarters of the society were on Mountain Avenue, and a large sign proclaiming "U.S. Silk Culture Experimental Station" hung over the door, according to a December, 1952, article in the California Historical Society Quarterly.

Piedmont's silk industry began in 1880 and ended in 1895. While it lasted, though, it was a serious and thriving business. The following report of a meeting of the society, complete with Mr. Gray's plowing schedule, comes from the Pacific Rural Press, Volume 35, Number 15, 14 April 1888.


The Ladies' Silk-Culture Society held their monthly meeting Thursday, April 5th, at the rooms of the State Board of Horticulture. There were present Dr. Gibbons in the chair, and Mmes. Ewer, Mayer, Pratt and Williams.

Bills to the amount of $121.82 were ordered paid.

W. G. W. Harford, manager of the silkculture station at Piedmont, reported as follows: "I beg to state that the month of January was mainly devoted to clearing more ground for the plow, which work was continued with but few interruptions up to Feb. 16th. The exact area of the newly cleared land I have not yet determined, but I need not tell you that it enlarges the boundaries of the cultivated land to a very considerable extent. Mr. Gray commenced plowing and cultivating on the 18th, and finished the entire piece on the 21st of February. With the exception of a small patch of ground on the rocky point above the nursery, the entire field is planted with trees and cuttings. This would also have been set with trees had time permitted. Daring odd intervals a couple of small patches have been cleared at the house and devoted ohiefiy to mulberry trees."

There are now planted on the premises at Piedmont 11,721 mulberry trees and cuttings, representing the following varieties: Nagasaki, 4321; Lhoo, 93, and 715 unknown varieties from Japan. Mrs. H. B. Williams presented 2085 of unknown varieties, and there are 1933 Rosea, 454 Alba and 2120 Multicaulis mulberry trees, from which the society intend to experiment in order to determine the best kinds to plant in California.

The president stated to the meeting that about 1000 young trees had been distributed to applicants, and that there will be seed or young worms at the disposal of the society for those who may desire to obtain them.

The Ladies' Society is entirely distinct from the State Board of Silk Culture. The Piedmont station is supported by a $5000 appropriation by the Legislature, and the monthly expenditure is something over $400.

The meeting adjourned to Thursday, May 3d.

This article comes from the California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cdnc. The collection has digitzed more than 400,000 images from newspapers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Images dated between 1846 and 1922 are in the public domain and not subject to copyright.

Spelling, capitalization and punctuation have been kept as they appeared in the original article.

Learn more about Piedmont's history and view the city's collection of historical photos at http://www.ci.piedmont.ca.us/history.shtml

Sharon Metzler Dow February 21, 2012 at 03:46 PM
This information about a silk industry thriving in Piedmont is important from many points of view. It's amazing to imagine that silk was made locally; also, that this provided jobs for 100 women. Considering that this business was named the Ladies Silk Culture Society, I find it strange that the author chose to describe at length the work of men plowing and planting, instead of informing us about the work of the women spinning the thread. What was the final product? Silk cloth? or Silk thread? What did the final product look like? Spools? What size? How many in what period of time? What were the sales and profits? This was the period of La Belle Epoque, so demand for silk for ladies' fashions would have been high. Also during that time, interest in science was high and interest in engaging the poor in livelihoods. This is a fascinating topic revealing different aspects of the era. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. Sharon Metzler Dow Oakland


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