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Cudmore: Silk Mills and a knitting mill explosion

Cudmore: Silk Mills and a knitting mill explosion

A factory explosion in 1883 claimed one life and made news across New York state.

Former employees of Starin Silk Mills in Fultonville started the earliest silk-making factory in Amsterdam on Elk Street in 1891, according to historian Hugh Donlon. 

Natural silk comes from a fiber produced by caterpillars spinning cocoons. The threads are boiled and woven into textiles.

The Elk Street mill was taken over by Julius Kayser Company in 1906 and employed a thousand people at its peak. A year-long strike in 1920 was a factor in Kayser’s decision to leave Amsterdam in 1924.

Donlon said another company, Fownes Brothers, also wove silk at its plant on Amsterdam’s Grove Street. 

John and Thomas Fownes founded their glove-making company in Worcester, England, in 1777. Fownes established glove mills in Amsterdam and Gloversville in 1903.

My grandfather, Harry Cudmore, came from Torrington, England, to Amsterdam in 1911 to weave silk at Fownes’ mill on Grove Street. The Cudmores settled in a two-family home on Eagle Street in the East End, three houses away from Harry and Bryna Demsky, whose son became the actor Kirk Douglas. 

My grandfather’s sister Beatrice, who had come from England years before, and her husband, painter Bob Brown, owned the house where the Cudmores lived and resided on the other side.

Donlon said that fabrics other than silk became more popular for gloves by the time Fownes was acquired by the Sherr Company in 1935.

Starting in the 1940s, two of my father’s sisters, Gladys Cudmore Morrell and Vera Cudmore, worked in the shipping room at Fownes. We could always count on gloves for Christmas. 

My grandfather, whose wife had died in 1934, lived with my aunts in a second-floor flat on Forbes near the intersection with Dean Street.

As my grandfather had done, my aunts walked to work. Sometimes they stopped for refreshment at the Ivy Leaf, a basement tavern which also served hearty meals at Forbes and Schuyler Streets. 

In his working days, grandfather Harry frequently stopped at Shaughnessy’s Tavern at East Main and Eagle Streets on his way home from Fownes’ Grove Street mill.

In the late 1950’s Fownes shifted manufacturing from the United States to the Far East. After Mohawk Carpet ceased manufacturing in Amsterdam, Fownes acquired Mohawk’s multi-story mill on Elk Street for a glove distribution center, replacing a Mohawk sign with a Fownes sign (visible from the Thruway) on top of the building.

In 2010, Fownes moved its distribution center from Amsterdam to Mayfield. In 2016, three men were charged with creating a large marijuana growing operation on the top floor of the Elk Street building.

EXPLOSION AT A KNITTING MILL

A factory explosion in 1883 claimed one life and made news across New York state. Watchman Michael Keegan, 41, smelled gas while making his rounds at the Blaisdell knitting mill in Rock City.

Rock City, named for rock quarries there, was a village settled by the early 1800s. The name was changed to Rockton a few years after the explosion and the village was annexed by the city of Amsterdam in 1901.

The Fort Plain Register reported, “The mill was lighted with a gasoline machine and feeling convinced that the machine was leaking, [Keegan] took his lantern and started for the [basement] room in which it was kept. He had just entered the room when the escaping gas ignited from the lantern and exploded with a loud report.”

Knocked down by the blast, Keegan managed to crawl upstairs, open a window and tumble out into the snow. It was about 4 a.m. on Feb. 12. 

Keegan died two days after the explosion. He was 41, and left a wife and three children.

Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 518-346-6657 or [email protected].

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