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The Fruit of Broken Dreams

SPECIAL FOR THE TIMES

Long before the current vogue for mulberries in California, waves of mulberry mania swept across America, based on the cultivation of mulberry leaves as fodder for silkworms.

Silk culture began in ancient China, homeland of the white mulberry (Morus alba), the chief food of silkworms; over the centuries it spread across Asia to southern Europe. In 1609, King James I ordered the planting of 100,000 mulberry trees around England in an attempt to develop a silk industry. Unfortunately, he chose black mulberries (M. nigra), which are too tough for silkworms, and the project collapsed.

At James’ instigation, early Virginia colonists tried feeding silkworms on the native American red mulberry (M. rubra), with similarly disappointing results. In the second half of the 18th century, as silk cultivators imported white mulberries and gained greater experience, a few ventures in Georgia and Connecticut succeeded in making hundreds of pounds of silk a year, but these attempts faded by 1800.

In 1826, a vigorous new variety of white mulberry with tender leaves, the multicaulis, arrived in America, exciting hopes that the secret of Chinese silk had been discovered. Many nurserymen gave up other business to grow millions of mulberry trees, leading to some of the wildest speculation that American agriculture has ever known.

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The price for 100 young trees increased from $3 in 1834 to $500 a few years later. Soon, the trees were worth too much to be used for silk culture; at the dizzying heights of the craze, one tree brought more than $100 at auction. In 1839, the bubble collapsed, ruining thousands of speculators and growers; a mysterious blight, hard winters and foreign competition wiped out the industry by 1844.

The legacy of the silk bubble was more mulberry trees to mingle with, and in some cases replace, the native species, but by 1850 farmers grew mulberries only to feed the fruits to hogs and poultry or to distract birds from more valuable crops.

California’s many mulberry booms also made little silk but much history. Starting in 1864, when a disease devastated the French and Italian silk industries, the idea that California could be developed into one of the major silk-producing centers of the world rapidly grew into an obsession.

The Legislature established a lucrative bounty for mulberry trees and silkworm cocoons. The payments created such a financial burden that the bounty was revoked in 1867, but the momentum continued; at the end of the 1860s, half a dozen cocooneries flourished around Los Angeles.

A San Gabriel silk promoter, David Hall, promised a profit of $2,800 for an acre of mulberries. “The new business is so confoundedly interesting, it’s almost impossible to think of anything else,” he wrote in 1868.

The leading silk booster, a Frenchman named Louis Prevost, set out a 50-acre nursery and cocoonery on South Main Street in Los Angeles. He enlisted Thomas Garey (later famous as a citrus pioneer) and other investors to organize the California Silk Centre Assn.

They bought 8,629 acres along the Santa Ana River, under Mount Rubidoux, planning to turn the dusty plain into a vast mulberry plantation called Silk City. Before the venture could proceed, Prevost died, and the plan foundered; but a new colony settled on the land in 1870, resulting in the founding of the city of Riverside.

In the following decades, scores of other attempts at silk culture around the state, from San Diego to Butte County, yielded hundreds of pounds of good raw silk, but all eventually failed.

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Although silk production sounds easy--you grow the trees, feed the worms, unreel the cocoons--it actually requires precise, mind-numbing labor to feed the worms and clean the cages. Silk boosters envisioned that the idle hands of women, children and invalids would tend the worms around the clock, but evidently the intended laborers thought otherwise.

Despite an ideal climate for growing mulberry trees, California producers could not compete with cheaper silk from Asia and southern Europe. Only the real estate promoters and mulberry nurserymen profited from the schemes.

The futility of silk ventures seemed clear by the 1920s, but in a flamboyant final episode a San Francisco entrepreneur named Glenn Hurst convinced investors that if they used the best mulberry varieties, modern techniques and automated machinery, silk production could be viable.

Starting in 1924, his company, American Silk Factors, raised more than a million dollars, largely from the movie industry. He bought 320 acres in San Marcos, near Escondido, planted 45,000 mulberry trees, and built a large air-conditioned factory to house the cocoonery and silk equipment.

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Madelaine Fulton, 85, whose father sold half of the land for the venture, still remembers visiting the silk factory in 1927 at the age of 12 and being astounded by the loud chomping of thousands of caterpillars devouring mulberry leaves.

Hurst paid more attention to selling stock than to making silk, however, and the 1929 crash, the ensuing Depression and the advent of synthetic fibers doomed his enterprise.

The venture went bankrupt in 1933 and, though Hurst’s son tried vainly to revive it during World War II, today only a few trees in the undeveloped land along Mulberry Drive remain from the vast planting.

In the end, California silk cultivators produced mostly disappointment, but if you see mulberry trees growing in the Southland today, they might be descendants of the ones planted by these dreamers.

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