Her hair against the pillowcase is pale, like the skeins of raw silk, shipped from Japan to this coal town. Lying in her bed in the nursing home, Dorothy Stewart, 90, remembers her last day working at the silk mill.
She left behind her apron. And the pair of slippers she wore on the factory floor. She put them on her winding machine. Leaving, she kept for herself one bobbin of silk.
"It wasn't one of the big ones. It was a smaller one," she says. She hid it as she walked out. Everyone was quiet, knowing it was the last day.
That was July 7, 1957. Down the road in the old mill, the calendars are still turned to that page. The long ranks of winding and twisting and doubling machines with their wheels and belts, their reels and bobbins, stand idle now. The roof leaks with a hushed ticking chime. Time for this place is running out.
"We're on our last moments," says longtime co-owner Herb Crawford, 70. He has a bad heart and has been cautioned about his trips to patch the roof of the cavernous brick building, full of dampness and the spirits of machine oil and silk protein.
"I'm too old to be doing this," he says sadly. "I can't do it another winter."
There have been many attempts to save the historic mill, built in 1907 with the help of the people here. Yet efforts have faltered to find a new job for the mill, at the heart of this western Maryland town on Georges Creek, once a hub of industry deep in Allegany County.
Crawford, a retired high school shop teacher, grew up at a time when the mill's hum filled the streets of Lonaconing. He bought the old place as an investment 26 years ago, hoping to convert it into a modern sewing factory or otherwise rent it out. But as the local economy ebbed, Crawford became the mill's caretaker instead.
He still hopes to find a buyer who will save it. The price, he says, is negotiable.
Although some in town call the mill a white elephant, Crawford remains entranced by its deep cellar full of payroll records and dye formulas, its solid iron machinery and million wooden spindles. Preservationists, historians and others who have been to the secluded mill, intact yet slowly deteriorating, have also been caught in its spell.
"It just speaks to you, in your dreams, almost," says Tim Magrath, western Maryland field representative to Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.).
"Once you've been to the mill, it's kind of like finding religion," agrees Glenn Eugster, who works on preservation projects for the National Park Service.
Over the years, Magrath and Eugster have joined with scholars, preservationists, teachers and business leaders to mull over ways to adapt the mill: With 48,000 square feet on three floors, it could accommodate restaurants, a business incubator, residences, an antiques mall. Some hope to turn it into a coal and silk heritage center that could pay tribute to the region's history, draw tourists to town and teach museum and research skills to local young people. Some leaders have set up a nonprofit organization to make that a reality.
But efforts to find the money to transform the mill have so far failed.
"Its strength is its weakness," Eugster says. "It's off the beaten path."
Indeed, that is probably why it has remained intact so long, and certainly why it is here. The late 19th and early 20th centuries' silk industry barons favored such remote spots for their mills. They knew these coal mining communities offered a ready supply of cheap female labor, and in the early days, child labor, too. The firebrand labor leader Mother Jones, who lent her support to the coal miners here in Lonaconing and throughout the region, also spoke out against child labor in the silk mills.
Children as young as 7 years old worked here at the mill in its early days, says Rebecca Trussell, a Frederick County-based textile historian who has steeped herself in the mill's trove of production records and has joined the effort to save it. Later, it was mostly the wives and teenage daughters of the coal miners who set their clocks to the mill whistle and matched their pace to the long rows of belt-driven machines. The company employed as many as 399 people at a time.
A few of those aging workers -- including Stewart and her sister Josephine Peebles, 92, themselves coal miner's daughters -- look back on those day as hopeful.
"We managed," says Peebles. "Listen -- We were altogether happy."
Peebles began working at the mill in 1926. She was only 14 but said she was 15.
"I wasn't old enough, but I made myself believe I was," she recalls.
Her starting job was soaking the skeins of silk and hanging them to dry. By the time she moved to the winding machines, she was bringing home $9 or $10 a week. The money helped feed her large family, especially when her father's work at the mine was slow.
"The miners didn't have steady work," she says.
She met her the man who would become her husband, Dixon, working at the mill, and still lives in a modest home two doors down from the place. Her co-workers were friends and neighbors who often came to her kitchen on their lunch break.
The workers had to be skilled and smart. They kept the long rows of machines running smoothly through a blend of intuition and a sense of physics.
"They reeled silk on a wooden-staved swift, and it would be twisted onto a bobbin," Trussell explains. "They knew the rate of speed of each of those winders. They had to produce enough twist to create a certain amount of volume over time."
If a filament of silk broke, the ends had to be quickly tied and snipped and set to winding again.
"You never stopped," recalls Stewart. "You'd dream about working."
In peacetime, they wound the long, shining filaments of silk for such luxuries as stockings and lingerie. In wartime, they wound silk and rayon for cartridge cloth and parachutes.
"We were on piece work," Peebles says. "You had to work fast to get any money."
The silk mill's fortunes began to change with the rise of less expensive synthetic fabrics. The opening of the Celanese Fiber Co.'s Amcelle plant in nearby Cresaptown added to the pressure. Then came the Great Depression and a downturn in the market for luxury goods. The mill experienced shutdowns because of the lack of orders.
During World War II, textile mill production surged in Lonaconing and nationwide, providing more than 1.3 million jobs.
But it was in the ensuing years, with orders dwindling, the equipment aging and workers asking for raises, that the end finally came.
Since 1957, the year the Lonaconing silk mill closed, more than half a million jobs in textile mills have disappeared across the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even the giant Celanese plant that once employed 12,000 finally closed in 1983, a casualty of changing tastes and a foreign buyout.
The region has never regained the industries or economic diversity lost in the postwar years. County leaders managed to attract a vast state prison complex to the old Celanese site.
After the mill closed, Stewart went to work at the Kelly-Springfield tire plant in Cumberland, now closed. Peebles worked as a waitress until she was 78.
And the mill stood still. The straw hat of Wes Duckworth, the mill's last superintendent, still sits in the office. The bottles of aspirin, the compacts of powder, the slippers and lunch pails left by the last workers still gather dust.
Crawford agonizes but says he will probably have to sell the place for salvage.
Preservationists are hoping to hold one more meeting sometime in October to envision the mill in a way it might once again help feed this small town.
"How do you take the past and turn it into an asset for the future?" asks Eugster. "How do we do it and make it sustainable?"