I was driving south and west of Ottawa, Kansas, toward a destination I knew was not there anymore. The once-thriving community of Silkville was long gone. I knew there would be only ranch land with grazing Hereford cattle, but I wanted to see for myself where this fascinating story had taken place. Just beyond the small town of Williamsburg there was a sign, Silkville Ranch.
In the late 1860s Ernest V. Boissiere purchased more than 3,000 acres of land in Franklin County. He was a wealthy Frenchman who had been banished from France by Napoleon III who thought Boissiere was too close to dissidents and the writer, Victor Hugo, who for a time was also exiled from France. Boissiere had learned about the climate of Kansas and determined it was similar to the silk-producing section of France. He made arrangements for forty French immigrants to work with Americans to promote his silk-producing industry. Workers constructed an elaborate manor house which accommodated one hundred persons who ate at a common table. He established a library of 2,500 books, the largest in Kansas at that time. One writer described Boissiere as a portly man in his fifties who loved books, music, and helping the underprivileged.
Silkville was never a town, yet it contained everything necessary for a self-sufficient working communitya blacksmith shop, winery, farming services, and an orchard. It was also a flag stop on the Santa Fe Railroad.
Workers planted seventy acres of Russian mulberry trees to feed the silkworms. Later, however, Boissiere discovered that the leaves of the Kansas Osage Orange, commonly called hedge trees, were better food than the mulberry leaves and the Osage Orange better withstood the heat and dry weather. Boissiere obtained silkworm eggs from New Orleans and France, but when he became disenchanted with the quality he procured select eggs from Japan. By the year 1872 the looms at Silkville had a capacity of making 224 yards of silk ribbon a day, and interest in silk products spread throughout Kansas. The Kansas Legislature provided funds for promoting silk products in forty-six counties in Kansas. Boissiere exhibited his manufactured silk products at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia where his products were awarded first prize over entries from all over the world.
In time Boissiere began to find the competition for silk products from The Orient was growing. Silk could be imported cheaper than his workers could make it in Silkville. His workers could make higher wages elsewhere, and some of the French women left to marry American farmers. All this and perhaps unsound financial foundation of the industry at Silkville caused the entrepreneur's dream to come to an end. In 1878 Boissiere deeded the land to the Odd Fellow's Lodge in Ottawa and went back to France reportedly with only $205 in his pocket.
In the 1950s the John Netherland family purchased the land and it became the Silkville Ranch. Only two stone barns remain. There are a few of the old mulberry trees left, but an obvious attempt to clear the land for grazing left some tall jagged stumps standing like ghosts of another time.
As I stood near one of the old stone barns, four young cowboys came galloping on horseback across the land and disappeared into the barn. The young men paid little attention to me, though they were not discourteous. When I posed the question, "Do you know anything about the original Silkville?" their answer was vague and brief, "Hmmm, something about growing silkworms."
Though I knew the name of the ranch caretaker, I did not try to contact him. This was again a working landa land with a sense of peace and belonging. I came away from the windswept cattle ranch with a feeling of respect. My only lingering wish was that I knew some of the stories of those who helped Mr. Boissiere accomplish his dream. Though the adventure was short-lived, it was a real-life story with all the fascination of the fictional "Wizard of Oz."