The ill-fated SC silkworm experiment of 1866


Prior to the War Between the States South Carolina’s Fairfield County was among the most prosperous areas in the state and the nation.

A good part of this wealth, it should be noted, was in the form of slaves.

According to U.S. Census data, Fairfield County population’s in 1860 included 15,534 slaves. A decade later not only were all those individuals freed, but the county’s population of blacks had decreased by 9 percent, to approximately 14,100.

In addition to the above loss of “property,” Union troops had done severe damage to the county seat of Winnsboro, burning much of the city in the waning days of February 1865, shortly after having laid waste Columbia, S.C., to the west.

So by the following year, with many of the county’s able-bodied white males dead or crippled from the war, a significant percentage of former slaves having moved from the area and general destitution evident throughout the region, residents were desperate.

One plan hatched was to try to create a silk industry in Fairfield County.

Katharine Theus Obear, writing in 1940 at age 88 in Through the Years in Old Winnsboro, recalled that a supply of silkworms were acquired and distributed to individuals in the county.

“I can’t remember how I got them, but I had twelve,” Obear wrote, recalling back to when she was but 12 years old. “Twelve little black threads, three-fourths of an inch long, which I put in an open pasteboard box. They looked hopeless.”

Obear wrote that she went over to the house of Confederate Brig. Gen. John Bratton, a Winnsboro native, to secure mulberry leaves to feed the silkworms.

“It was surprising to see the threads crawl to the leaves to begin nibbling and it was more surprising to see them grow,” she wrote. “When grown they were about the size of my little finger, striped yellow and black. … Not one died.

“In the fall I was distressed to see two or three look slow and droopy, and then one morning I found each one wrapped in a silken shroud,” Obear added. “One by one they enwrapped themselves, looking like twelve little yellow bird’s eggs.”

Obear wrote that she put the chrysalises in the coldest place she could find, but by January butterflies had emerged from the chrysalises and in a few days laid hundreds of eggs on sheets of paper put out for them.

Unfortunately, even though the eggs were placed in the coolest place Obear could locate, the eggs hatched too soon, before any mulberry leaves had begun to sprout.

Without food, the silkworms quickly died: It was the same all over the county.

Thus ended the great Fairfield County silk experiment of 1866-67.

(Top: Silkworms in action.)


4 thoughts on “The ill-fated SC silkworm experiment of 1866

  1. Sad for them. Those must have been terrible times for them. I grew silkworms in my 4th grade classroom one year. It’s a good thing I had a gigantic classroom, and plenty of mulberry leaves! The little sack of eggs I received from the science professor of the class I was taking seemed innocuous enough. As they started to grow, they graduated to a larger pan, then eventually paper stretched across the back of the classroom. We had to move desks, and scrunch everyone together. Towards the end of their growing season they covered half the room on the floor, and every inch of shelf space we had. available. I didn’t save the eggs for the next year. 🙂

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