Remembering Petaluma’s old silk mill

The classic old Petaluma Silk Mill building, empty and forlorn for more than a decade while plans were made and abandoned for its preservation, has a facelift and a future. It will be open for business early next month as a Hampton Inn hotel.

It’s been a dozen years since Sunset Line & Twine locked the doors on that 66-year-old business, which was only a piece of the building’s long history.

The distinctive red brick Georgian Colonial Revival building, a National Historic Landmark, was constructed as the Carlson-Currier Silk Mills in 1892, and has earned itself a place in the region’s history -– architectural, industrial and agricultural.

That’s right, agriculture.

At the end of the 19th century farmers were coming from all directions, ready to exploit the fabled fertile fields of the valleys north of San Francisco Bay. They raised dairy cows and chickens and sheep and planted hops and apples and prunes and grapes. Some lasted for 100 years and more. Some are still very much around and some were strictly experimental, exotic to the point of unbelievable and disappeared without a trace.

Try this one: One of the “exotic” crops harvested with some success in the late 1870s was the opium poppy.

Sericulture was another trial-and-error adventure. In the 1890s, entrepreneur Adolph Spreckels, who made sweet money with his sugar refineries, planted fields of mulberry bushes, which is where silk worms live their lives, producing the raw material for the delicate fabric.

I don’t know what went wrong, whether it was the mulberries or the worms that didn’t like our climate, but the brief fling with sericulture ended.

The splendid silk mill not only survived, it prospered. And it earned Petaluma a secure spot in transportation and automotive history.

It was my friend and neighbor John Agnew, from the family that owned Sunset Line & Twine, who shared an old copy of a Commercial Car Journal magazine with an article about the first coast-to-coast delivery by truck.

In 1912, the American Locomotive Company, a pioneer in trucking, had an order to deliver Parrot Brand Olive Silk Soap to Carlson-Currier mills in Petaluma.

To promote the new service, they made the trip pointedly transcontinental, hauling the soap picked up in Philadelphia to New York on the Atlantic Ocean and then turning west toward Petaluma and the Pacific Ocean.

The photos in Agnew’s magazine show how hard it was: stretches with no visible road, chain-driven wheels hanging from a broken bridge, engineering a makeshift bridge to cross a flooding stream.

But 95 days from when it left New York, the ALC truck delivered the soap order intact to the brick building on Jefferson Street.

And then, I like to think, they went to the nearest watering hole and had a drink. Maybe two.

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