Saturday, December 20, 2014

The silken past of Stirling

Paterson may be nationally known as Silk City, but if you wander around New Jersey long enough, you'll find other places with legacies of weaving the lustrous fabric. A historic marker on Route 206 noting a silk truck hijacking and resulting murder led us to the story of Newton's silken past, and now another informative plaque further proves that the Great Falls area didn't have an exclusive on mills.

A few weeks ago I was meeting a friend for lunch in the Long Hill community of Stirling when I came upon this description of the village.


Given the placid, sometimes rural charm of much of Morris County, it was a bit of a surprise to discover that Stirling had been an industrial town. Looking around, I saw only a small business area surrounded by suburban houses. We've been to plenty of factory towns, and Stirling doesn't look like one. If there was a story to be told, I'd have to do some digging.

As it turns out, the hamlet of Stirling owes its existence to the foresight of an insurance company and a railroad. Shortly after the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York announced interest in investing in Morris County land in the late 1860s, the Passaic Valley and Peapack Railroad purchased land in present day Stirling for the construction of a railroad station and right of way. Trains started running in 1872, and the line would eventually extend to the Delaware River, raising the prospect of Pennsylvania coal being shipped through the new community. Organizers named the community for William Alexander, Lord Stirling, the Revolutionary War notable who'd once owned land in the area.

Reliable transportation made it easy to bring in raw materials and labor, and ship out finished product, but first a town needed to be built. Bit by bit, the village came together, starting with eight houses and a railroad depot, followed by a Presbyterian church. The first factory was built on Railroad Avenue to make buttons; it eventually employed 125 people. By 1885 the plant was silenced, victim of an economic downturn, and the entire village, houses and all, was put on the market.

The Stirling silk mill
Silk came to Stirling in 1886 when Jersey City mill owner Claude Chaffanjon bought the factory and surrounding buildings and homes. Having immigrated to the United States years earlier, he brought skilled Italian and French weavers to work in the mill; as was the custom in Europe, many others came with looms of their own and weaved in their homes. The boon in population and industrial output brought growth in the community, too: Chaffanjon donated land for a new Catholic church, and an additional public school was built.

Chaffanjon's stay in Stirling was brief; within a year he'd sold the factory to Julius Schlachter, who brought German and Swiss weavers to town. In 1896 the mill burned down, replaced a year later by a new building. Within 25 years of the opening of the original mill, Stirling's population had become a veritable map of Europe, with Armenians, Germans, Italians, French, Hungarians and Russians mixed with the local born population. Their children generally attended school up to the eighth grade, foregoing high school to follow their parents' path into the mills. When Stirling Silk went bankrupt in 1908, it was bought by the Swiss company Schwartzenbach-Huber.

Though 30 miles away from the state's silk hub, the mill at Stirling wasn't immune to the labor unrest that struck Paterson. A June 1915 New York Times article notes that months of unrest followed management's decision to enact a new wage scale, and that several looms were being sent to other Schwartzenbach-Huber locations in Bayonne and Pennsylvania, presumably where labor was more compliant.

Nor was the Stirling plant protected from a wave of silk thefts that swept the region in the early 1920s. The fabric was a hot commodity - foreign suppliers were still recovering from the ravages of World War II, making U.S.-manufactured silk that much more desirable on the open market. A few months after thieves hijacked a silk mill truck on present-day Route 206 in Sussex County, thieves struck Schwartzenbach-Huber. On November 24, 1924 three masked and armed bandits broke into the factory and beat a 60 year old night watchman unconscious when he confronted them. After restraining him with cloth, they pulled a getaway truck up to the shipping dock and loaded it with 50 cases of silk worth a total of $35,000.

Stirling's silk days have been over for the better part of a century. Schwartzenbach-Huber had sold the mill and housing in 1928, but the weaving trades continued in much smaller companies around the village up to about 1940. As for the old silk mill itself, it burned to the ground in 1974 in its incarnation as a polyurethane foam factory.



No comments:

Post a Comment