Last Wednesday was a morning of surprises for the Piedmont Recreation Department’s Walking on Wednesdays group. They met as usual at the Exedra at their normal start time, but a set of enjoyable surprises followed. It was a glorious, fall day. The forecast had called for some morning clouds, but this was a picture perfect, sunny, mild morning. A good turnout of 27 walkers were on hand to enjoy the day.
One surprise for some walkers was the historical basis for the morning’s destination. There was an excellent article by Gail Lombardi of the Piedmont Historical Society in a recent issue of the Piedmont Post that told the surprising history of Piedmont’s Silk Farm end the end of the 19th century. Gail told her readers that at that time 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, an additional seven acres were obtained, and about 100 women were employed.
There was more surprising information in Gail’s 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. Several filaments were spun together to form one silk thread.
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. In 1895 the farm closed. All of this, except the discrepancy between Piedmont and China wages, was surprising for the walkers, and they wanted to see where all of this happened long ago. So, Littlewood Avenue was chosen as their destination for the day.
Off the group went, crossing Highland Avenue and going up Highland Court to its short, 89 foot long path to Mountain Avenue. The walkers continued their climb to Littlewood on Mountain, passing remnant Halloween house decorations and lovely gardens, one of which Alicia Rivera pointed out has many native plants. The group also noted the stately home that was used in the 2006 Will Smith movie, The Pursuit of Happyness (sic). Architect walker Jim Kellogg said the house was a Georgian colonial design.
The walkers then took Dudley Avenue up to Littlewood. They started down it and were surprised to find a tree removal crew cutting down a tall pine tree. Some of the lower branches were gone and there was an amazing man, strapped to the tree trunk high above with a chainsaw in hand. The group marveled at his skill and courage.
The group descended down Littlewood and its canyon to where the Silk Farm’s mulberry trees were once planted. The walkers were a little surprised there were no mulberry trees to be seen and give witness to the street’s history.
The walkers came to the dead-end of Littlewood and a private driveway that continues on. They asked a woman coming out of it if they could go up the driveway, and she said yes. Just before the large gate of the home at the driveway’s end is a surprising, old, red, London telephone booth. There was no explanation for it, and the group was about to take another group photo with this curiosity, when the homeowner, Michael Plitkins, came out to greet the walkers. He opened the gate and graciously invited the group to come in and see what he has created. It was another surprise. Michael has a company that creates unique structures and virtual soundscapes. He bought the house in 2014 and transformed the area at the front of it into an incredible tropical garden with a swimming pool, water slide, and pool house. Jungle sound effects enhance this imaginary, other world. Michael encouraged the group to walk around the entire garden. The also attached photo of him and some of the walkers was taken in front of the pool. Michael’s hospitality was surprising and much appreciated. One last, very pleasant surprise was near the edge of the pool. A young man working on his computer. He was Xavier Prospero, a 2015 Piedmont High grad, who is now working with Michael. Dick Carter coached Xavi when he was a PHS football player, and Dick was delighted to see him again.
This Littlewood Avenue side trip to Michael’s tropical wonderland had certainly not been planned, and it was time for the walkers to retrace their steps back to the Exedra. It had been a morning full of surprises, but it seems all of the group’s Wednesday walks have something new and different about them. It’s almost inevitable that the walkers will see unexpected things and meet kind, welcoming people on the streets of Piedmont. It probably should be no surprise.