The Silk Mill has deep roots in Petaluma’s history

The Silk Mill has deep roots in Petaluma’s history

Petaluma’s old Silk Mill, the beautiful brick building on Lakeville Street that’s desperately in need of restoration, has a history almost as deep as the city itself.

Constructed in 1892 by the Carlson-Currier Silk Mill Co., it was doubled in size in 1922. The building was purchased by Sunset Line and Twine Co. in 1941 and is currently planned for conversion to a 76-room hotel. The developers, BPR Properties, are experienced in historic preservation, as well as the hotel business in California.

In 1891, the Carlson-Courier Silk Mill Co. in San Francisco had just purchased California Silk Mills, a competitor, and thus had become the largest silk mill west of the Mississippi River. Later that year, the business suffered a major fire and the owners were actively scouting for a new, safer location to rebuild the plant.

Petaluma’s entrepreneur, John McNear, was, at the same time, trying to fulfill his own dream of making Petaluma the industrial capital of the west. He owned several blocks of land east of the Petaluma River, and wished to develop them.

McNear sailed to San Francisco to meet with Carlson-Currier. He offered to sell them a level piece of land with its own railroad spur just a half block from the Petaluma River for shipping. He would wholesale bricks to them so they could be “fire-proof,” and he would guarantee financing for them and promised a labor market that would “beat their doors down.”

How could Mr. McNear guarantee all this? He was a director of the railroad and the shipping line, as well as the bank. He owned the brick kiln and he held mortgages on many ranches, knew the ranchers needed second incomes, and would happily send their children to find work in town.

In 1891, Carlson and Currier came for a look. Carlson, being from Bremen, Germany, gazed east to the Petaluma Hills and stated that they reminded him of his homeland. McNear, never missing an opportunity, said that he would name the new street that he would build leading to the mill, Bremen Street, in honor of Carlson.

That was done, and that street name lasted, until anti-German sentiment broke out during World War I and the city changed the street name to honor President Woodrow Wilson.

Carlson-Courier Silk Mill Co. had purchased the land for $1,500 in gold coins, and they hired famed San Francisco architect, Charles Havens to design a 20,000-square-foot building that would duplicate the textile mills of England and of New England. They also specified that it include a large walk-in vault for their valuable silk.

In the 1700s, King George of England commissioned his architects to design an industrial building of brick with high ceilings, an open floor plan and many large windows — a plan that could be easily duplicated in the British Colonies.

The architecture became known as “Georgian Colonial.” So, the instructions to architect Havens were explicit, “Copy those mills in New England.” The construction in 1892 cost $36,000. The machinery, purchased from the east coast, cost $31,000.

In 1906, fire swept through the silk mill’s surrounding blocks and the adjoining buildings of a large tannery, and a three-story shoe factory burned to the ground. McNear’s dream of an industrial Petaluma went with them. After this close call, a much larger silk vault was built in the silk mill.

The mill flourished and, in 1912, became the destination of the first trans-continental delivery, by truck, of any product in the U.S. The trip took 94 days from Philadelphia to Petaluma. The cargo — three tons of silk soap. The truck had four cylinders and a chain drive. It was a harbinger of things to come.

In 1921, Carlson-Courier Co. merged with their main competitor, Belding Brothers-Heminway Co. They then hired Petaluma architect Brainerd Jones to double the size of the mill to 40,000 square feet.

Now, when you stand inside the mill and look a city block to the other end, you can’t see where the 1922 building adjoins the 1892 building. There’s only a slightly different tint to the brick McNear used.

In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt, upon the attack on Pearl Harbor, halted all trade from Asia. That cut off the importation of silk and the silk mill closed. Shortly thereafter, the building and its equipment was purchased by Sunset Line and Twine Co. of San Francisco and Sunset’s production of nylon and rayon fishing line, rope, twine and thread continued successfully until 2007. Much of its production used the 115-year-old machinery. Sunset became so sophisticated that it was under contract to NASA to make the parachute cord.

In 1986, Petaluma historian Lucy Kortum successfully pressed the effort through the U.S. Department of Interior to designate the silk mill a National Historic Landmark.

Since 2007, several restoration plans have been submitted to the city. The current BPR Properties proposal would not only restore this magnificent building, but also bring important hotel tax revenue to the city.

This project will appear before the Petaluma Historic and Cultural Preservation Committee on Feb. 23.

(Historian Skip Sommer is an Honorary Life Member of Heritage Homes and the Petaluma Historical Museum. Contact him at skipsommer@hotmail.com.)