Ask the Rangers at the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park about the Silk Worm exhibit. Once upon a time, farmers thought they could make a killing out of growing silk.
The silk industry was a county wide “get rich quick” scheme. Many people thought “How much work could it take to feed a bunch of worms? (A lot actually.)
The first newspaper entry I found mentioning silkworm culture in this county was in October of 1868. The next month included an article about where to obtain the best mulberry trees, which is what silkworms feed upon, and in the next week there was a note that E.W. Morse had them available. A number of articles described the cocooneries and mulberry orchards in Los Angeles.
It wasn’t until the 1880s that newspapers began mentioning this endeavor here in National City, when “Mrs. Aylseworth…has been trying an experiment in rearing silk worms at their pleasant hill in Paradise…” She had “several thousand worms” and they were already “securely within their silken cocoons”. Mrs. E. Aylesworth was also a well known temperance advocate.
Two years later Reverend M.B. Starr, who had a place called “Starr’s Glen” located in the upper Sweetwater reported “a complete success” in raising them. His operation succeeded without the need for any artificial heat, and he concluded that the industry was “adapted to this climate”.
Then an Italian immigrant, Felipe Pazza, purchased silkworm eggs from Mr. Combe, and mulberry leaves from Mr. Russell of Monument (a community that used to be by the Mexican border).
Newspaper entries on the subject were missing for about two decades, and then in the 1890s the subject resurfaced with the formation of the Ladies Silk Culture Association in 1891. Mrs. Carrie Williams was a particularly ardent proponent of the subject. She had her cocoonery on Logan Avenue, in San Diego, but provided supplies and advice to all who needed it.
By 1892, semi-annual reports were being filed, and 3 years later – 1895 – machinery was operating, and the products were being displayed in fairs.
By the turn of the century another of our own ladies, Miss Helen Dale of Chula Vista was enthusiastically described as “successfully feeding some silk worms: as an experiment”.
This topic continued to attract interest, in 1903, with the establishment of a 12 acre mulberry tree grove in South San Diego. The Charles and Ruth Mohnike family had been in the South Bay since the 1890s, residing in a large home located near the corner of Third and E. Always eager to try new endeavors, Charles jumped into the silk industry wholeheartedly by becoming vice president of the Southern Silk Company of San Diego. He planted mulberry trees, and interested his sons in this new enterprise.
What happened to silk growing?
It fizzled, but you can still see a few relics of this area at the Ranger’s Station:
The items were donated to Dr. Louis Strahlman in the 1930s after the silk industry in San Diego failed. All of Dr. Strahlman’s collection was then donated to the County of San Diego, Department of Parks and Recreation in 1976.
The Silk Cacoon
The exhibit additionally explains a bit about how silk was made. An arduous process, the plaque reads:
The silk from the silkworm’s cacoon is a single, continuous thread. It is made of a protein that is secreted from two salivary glands in the caterpillar’s head. To harvest silk, the silkworm is allowed to spin its cacoon and it is then put in boiling water to kill the pupa and help unravel the thread. Each cocoon contains a single silk threat that is about 300 to 900 meters long. About 3000 cacoons are needed to make a pound of silk.