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Littlewood Walk and Silk Society

The song says it never rains in California, and it seems it never rains on our Piedmont Recreation Department's Walking on Wednesdays group either. This past Wednesday was no exception. It was a warm, sunny day. The weather may have encouraged a very large gathering of 43 walkers and one K-9 best friend to meet at the Exedra at our regular start time.

There were a couple of announcements. The group was reminded that for our walk next Wednesday we are having a pre-Halloween tour of the Mountain View Cemetery with docent Jane Leroe. The second announcement was there was going to be an organizational meeting right after the walk to discuss the formation of a new Recreation Department movie appreciation group.

As you know, our group has an objective of going to every safe-walking street in Piedmont during the year, and there are only a few we haven't gotten to. One was Littlewood Drive. Going to Littlewood also offered the opportunity to share Piedmont Historical Society's history of Piedmont's first and probably last manufacturing industry, silk fiber production.

We headed off, crossing Highland Avenue and starting up Mountain Avenue. Along the way we passed front yards ready for Halloween with scary house decorations, and also one with a Ukrainian flag. Our long line of walkers stopped in the shade where Caperton Avenue runs into Mountain. This spot also gave us the opportunity to look around and see in a front yard a larger

than life statue of a distinguished looking gentleman dressed in what looks like a suit made of leaves. Karin Fetherston also pointed out that this house has a large, wonderful assortment of pumpkins, gourds, and other fall vegetables on its front steps. It was suggested we might come back after Halloween for a soup lunch.

We continued our climb on Mountain to Littlewood. Just before Mountain runs into Sea View Avenue a stately home was pointed out that was used in the 2006 Will Smith movie, The Pursuit of Happyness (sic). It was also noted that across the street was a home that once got its street address changed from Mountain to Sea View.

Going a little further up Mountain took us to Dudley Avenue, and then up to Littlewood. A group photo was taken there and Piedmont silk farm's history was told. At the end the end of the 19th century there were only three times of cloth - cotton, wool and silk. The U.S. government thought silk could be produced in America, and funded groups to create experimental silk producing stations. It was believed that silk production could provide employment for women, reduce unemployment, and increase family income.

In the early 1880s the Ladies' Silk Culture Society purchased 15 acres of land at the top and eastern side of Mountain Avenue, where Dudley and Littlewood Avenues are today. The society planted mulberry trees, whose leaves are silk worms' food, and built a two-story, eight-room cocoonery. The locals called it the "Silk Farm." It is worth noting that the trees and this history were the inspiration for the name of today's Mulberry's Market in Piedmont. By 1885 the grove was thriving, and an additional seven acres were obtained. About 100 women were employed at the Silk Farm.

There was more interesting information in the article. During their lives, silkworms consume 50 times their weight in mulberry leaves; which the women harvested, chopped, and fed to the worms in trays four times a day. The worms reached maturity in 35 days and spun their cocoons. At the Silk Farm the cocoons were fumigated to kill the pupa, softened in hot water, unreeled as separate silken fibers. One cocoon could produce a continuous silk filament 200 to 300 feet long, which is almost the length of a football field. Several filaments were spun together to form one silk thread.

Natalie Nussbaum and Fangfang Lai said they had visited silk farms on trips to China. Mark Davis also shared that silkworms are surprisingly fast, and in a race two of them once finished in a tie.

Unfortunately, the Silk Farm didn't prosper. The canyon was not warm enough for the worms and the women would not work for less than a dollar a day, while Chinese workers were only paid six cents a day. So, in 1895 the farm closed.

We descended Littlewood and its canyon to where the Silk Farm's mulberry trees were once planted. However, there were no surviving mulberry trees to be seen and give witness to the street's history, but there were some palm trees. The article also shared that there are mulberry trees at Hampton Park near the preschool building, which might be the destination of a future Wednesday walk.

We came to the dead-end of Littlewood, but a long driveway continues on. Just before a home's gate at the driveway's end is a surprising, old, red, London telephone booth. Some of us had seen it on past visits, but there was still no explanation for its presences.

We did an about face and made the climb back up Littlewood. It had gotten warm, and we were pleased the rest of the return to the city center was all downhill or flat. For a little variety, we went back via Poplar Way, which doesn't seem to have any poplar trees either. Then Lakeview, Sheridan, and Highland Avenues took us to the city center. The two mile walk was completed in a little over an hour. The fun Piedmont Silk Farm history, as well as the good company of new and old walker friends, were enjoyed by all.


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