This Town Was the ‘Silk Capital’ of the United States, 1890-1932: Belding, Michigan
The Ionia County town of Belding was once the top silk-producing place in the entire state.....and country.
Charles Broas settled here in 1839, built a mill, and immediately named the place ‘Broas Rapids’. Lucius Patterson purchased a piece of ownership in Broas’ mill property in 1842. Afterward in 1857, a post office opened titled ‘Patterson’s Mills’.
Born in Massachusetts, Hiram Belding bought Broas’ land in 1855 but didn’t have enough dough to pay for it. To help cover the cost, he and his brothers began making and selling silk goods in Connecticut. This proved to be so successful, in 1890 the brothers eventually built a silk factory in Michigan, which became the mecca of the area. With this success, it was inevitable for the town to be re-named once again…and ‘Belding’ it became in 1871. Hiram passed away in 1866 before he saw his company gain enormous success.
90% of the country’s silk market was from Belding. By 1920 they were cranking out over one million pounds of silk every year. The Belding employees were made up of 75% women, whose weekly salary was eight bucks. Noting this, the Belding brothers constructed boarding houses for the female workers, one of them being the Ashfield Boarding House near the corner of Ashfield and Harrison streets (The building is gone, but the concrete steps that led from the sidewalk up to the house are still there, deteriorating more each year. Another boarding house, the Belrockton, built in 1906, is now the home of the Belding Museum).
The boarding house cost for the ladies was only $2.50, the other $5.50 was used for goodies and the rest sent back home to mom and pop.
The Beldings didn’t want their employees to get bored or be unhappy during their free time, so they built an opera house to stage entertainment. One quirky event they held there were “Toe Socials”…it’s just what it implies. The ladies would stick their bare toes out from under a sheet and the males would choose a date from just looking at the toes. Why don’t we still do that?
As technology progressed, that meant the end of the silk mills. Once synthetic thread hit the scene, the silk factories were forced to shut down in 1932.
Although the Beldings had other silk factories in the country, the first one to be built in Belding was the Richardson Mill in 1886. Exactly one hundred years later in 1986, that same building – closed for fifty-four years – was turned into an apartment complex, the “Flats On The River”, which it remains to this day.
Take a look at the gallery below for photos of the silk factory, the town of Belding, and more…
Belding: The Silk Capital of Michigan