THE STRASBURG “SILK MILL”/” TEXTILE MILL”
THE “FAMILY BUSINESS”
It is difficult to describe the gratitude that I felt and the memories that were brought back to mind when I first received the original invitation to participate in the events planned by The Strasburg Heritage Association and again one year later as a result of the Covid-19 related postponement of the original event. Since then, I have done my best, with the help of my family, in particular, my son and daughter, Jason and Sarah, to gather our memorabilia and thoughts on my grandfather, Charlie Platt, my father, Nathan Platt, and their respective wives Rose, my grandfather Charlie’s wife of 67 years and Adele, my mom and my father’s wife of almost 40 years in order to make this presentation as interesting and informative as possible for each of you here today.
My grandfather and my father talked very little about their business, “The Mill.” For that reason, my knowledge about that business was, at best, incomplete and at worst inadequate to this task. Just as I was about to resign myself to working with the limited information that I had, I received from Kathy Kehoe articles she authored for The Strasburg Heritage Association Newsletter entitled, “A Little Folk History – The Strasburg Silk Mill” and “A Little Bit More Folk History – The Strasburg Textile Mill.” Those articles opened a window on my memory that had been shuttered for close to 50 years. When that window opened, I saw and remembered – even visualized some of the names and sources for Kathy’s articles including Mattie Cameron, Kathleen Robinson Stickley, Georgiana Hines, Lou Davidson, Nina Sherman, Buddy Sherman, and Calvin Ritenour. In addition, Luther Robinson, Harry Grimes, and Frank Smith were foreman, as well as Guy and Lyman Scott and Norvell Nicklaus.
I also remember Office Staff, Margaret Stickey and Ada Morris, as well as I believe Dorothy (last name unsure). Many of these persons not only worked at The Mill but became friends of my family often picnicking and socializing, bringing homegrown vegetables and fruit to our house and helping with personal family and community projects making “The Mill” truly a “Family Business.”
In fact, as I read Kathy Kehoe’s thoroughly researched artfully written articles with perspective and humor, I realized that although I have the honor and pleasure of presenting these remarks on the history of “The Mill,” the complete and real story is the story of all the people who worked there from 1933 to 1977, their lives in and out of that factory. Very simply put, they can’t be separated. I can’t tell those stories as thoroughly as they and their offspring can, or even as well as Kathy Kehoe has in her articles. That means, if anyone here wants to know more about “The Mill” and what it meant to this town and this community, the best sources for that history will be right here in Strasburg long after I leave.
What I can and will do, however, is talk about how “The Mill” became “The Strasburg Silk Mill” and then “The Strasburg Textile Mill” which means I will talk about the history and the vision of its Founder, my grandfather, Charles Platt and later, my father, Nathan Platt, as well as their spouses, their partners in life and business, my grandmother, Rose, Charles’ wife, and my mother Adele, Nathan’s wife. In doing so, I am lucky that my daughter, Sarah (named after my grandfather’s mother) “interviewed” my grandfather on at least two occasions and recorded those interviews. One of those interviews was after he turned the positive side of 100+ years.
My grandfather, Charlie, lived to be 105 years old. He kept his faculties until the end and lived independently until he was 101. In doing so, he outlived his wife, Rose, almost 20 years and his only son, my dad, who died of cancer in 1986, by over a decade. Those who knew my grandfather observed each of their deaths take a piece of his spirit out of him. Before their deaths, I can honestly say I never saw this man, whom I considered the strongest and most intelligent man I ever knew, cry. After those events, anytime either of those memories were recounted, tears could be spotted in his eyes. When he finally could no longer live independently, as a result of his knees finally giving out at the age of 101, (which he blamed on me and our family doctor for talking him out of knee replacement surgery at the age of 93), he did not handle his plight very well.
The lesson I learned from that was that someone like Charlie Platt who may have, as he did, had it a little rough earlier in life, but always succeeded in reading his personal, business, and professional goals, with of course the temporary setbacks, will not handle no longer being able to live and work independently well. At 101, he moved into the Extended/Assisted Living Facility at The Shenandoah Memorial Hospital which he helped build and whose Board he served on for many years. Those last 4 ½ years were not enjoyable for my grandfather and for me in watching over him.
That said, back to the more relevant history of “The Mill.” Charles Platt was born on November 6, 1893, in Tomashov, Poland, then a part of Russia, the eldest of six children, two brothers and three sisters. In August of 1913, at the age of 19, he came to America with 17 cents in his pocket and a 17-year-old newly pregnant wife on his arm. He came to America on stowage tickets ala Leonardo De Caprio. As he told my daughter, Sarah, when she interviewed him:
“It was bad living under a dictator. The Russian Revolution occurred in 1917
after the First World War. I left Poland three days before the First World War.
I didn’t want to give seven years of my life to the Russian army.”
Charles and Rose sailed from Rotterdam and were on the sea for 12 days. They landed at Ellis Island. As Charlie Platt said when my daughter asked him, “What did you think of America?” “I didn’t have a chance to think, I had to get settled. All I knew was I liked it better than Poland.”
Even though he said that, in fact he did have to think. The authorities at Ellis Island kept moving him and my grandmother to the back of the line because they couldn’t pronounce his name which was “Plachta.” So, he changed it to Platt to get what he needed to get done, which was processed and out. So began a pattern for my grandfather of doing exactly what he had to do in order to get what he needed to do to get done.
My grandfather, Charles, and my grandmother, Rose, were trained hand weavers of cloth. They had the equivalent of a 6th grade formal education, but neither felt nor were limited by that. Furthermore, they both spoke and understood four languages – Russian, German, Polish, and Yiddish when they got off the boat. Soon, they taught themselves English. They settled in The Lower East Side of New York City, where most European immigrants initially settled when they got off their boats. After they settled, they worked odd jobs together. Then they bought their first hand loom. Then they bought another. Initially, they made Ladies Hats, then they “diversified.”
About one year later, my grandfather and grandmother’s only child, my father, Nathan, was born on May 17, 1915. One year later in 1916, the Platt family moved to Patterson, New Jersey, They lived there for the next 17 years. During that time, my grandfather, Charles and grandmother, Rose, continued to build their business accumulating 12 more hand looms. At one point, Charlie Platt’s livelihood was interrupted by a strike of Union members. His solution to that was to daily travel to New York City to again work in a factory which made women’s hats, which he knew orthodox Jewish women were required to wear when they went out of their homes. When the strike ended, he went back to Patterson, New Jersey, and resumed his “small business” weaving cloth for curtains.
In 1929, my grandfather traveled back to Poland to visit his family. My grandmother traveled back to her original home three years later in 1932. That was the last time either would see their families, most of whom were lost in the Holocaust which made my father, Nathan’s later service in The European Theater in World War II as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army particularly poignant.
In 1933, my grandfather, with help from a New York Investor, Joseph Gluck, purchased what was then known as the Strasburg Silk Mill from Fred Bertschinger. The details of that transaction are to this day unclear even to his family. Very simply, he never talked about it. Knowing him, he probably didn’t think it important that we knew the details. Candidly, Kathy Kehoe found out more about it as a result of his research and her conversation with Linda Bertschinger, Fred Bertschinger’s granddaughter, than I or my brother ever knew. My grandfather and my father never talked about the purchase or the financing of it. The only reason we knew even a little bit about it was that we observed the dealings with the investor, Joseph Gluck and his family.
That relationship can best be described as volatile, but managed. My grandfather strategically ignored or placated the elder Mr. Gluck, including his rantings until eventually his more even tempered, soft-spoken sons who summered with my family took over.
The “Silk Mill” is universally remembered by all including my brother and my family, the family of 2 owners, the supervisors’ families and the families of all the people that worked there as above all noisy and hot. As Kathy Kehoe noted in her article “A Little Folk History – The Strasburg Silk Mill,” there are few facts written about “The Strasburg Textile Mill.” What we do know often is what we have gleaned from what Kathy describes as “Town Stories: and “Small Town Gossip.”
That said, I can personally attest to my grandfather, Charlie’s, ability indeed penchant for making up stories and telling, with a straight face, to whatever audience would listen to him whether it was at Carroll Bush’s Barber Shop where he took my brother and I for haircuts, or Tracy Lineburg’s Amoco Station across from The Mill. Those stories included my favorite, a total fabrication, that “The Platt’s” drove the Indians out of the Shenandoah Valley and built The Mill on what had been The Indian’s land. He also once told an acquaintance who asked him “why he was a Republican” that he was a Republican “because his father and grandfather were Republicans.” Until I overheard that tale, I did not realize that there were Republicans and Democrats in Russia and Poland.
That said, I can authenticate some of the stories. “The Great Silk Mill Robbery” is one of them. I remember my dad would walk up to The Mill from our house nightly to observe, and manage, if necessary, the evening shift-change which took place at 10:00p.m. every night and to make payroll. On the particular night which had to have been no earlier than the late 1940’s or early 50’s because my father was then managing The Mill, my father was not in town for some reason. So, my grandfather took over that duty.
Charles Platt was, that evening, hit over the head and robbed of the entire cash payroll which he was in the process of carrying from one part of the building to the other for distribution to the outgoing shift of employees. Pay at that time was in cash, which was distributed in envelopes. My grandfather was found shortly thereafter and hospitalized with a life-threatening head injury. Ultimately, he recovered but had a steel plate in his head until the day he died.
The robber was a former employee who had been incarcerated for a previous crime and given a job by my grandfather after talking dad into it when released.
POSTSRIPT: My grandfather, being my grandfather, naturally when he got out of the hospital and could get around, took it upon himself to “visit” with the robber at the jail. My father related that the conversation went something like this:
Charles Platt: You S.O.B. – I gave you a job after you got out of jail, and this is what I get in return?
Robber: I didn’t know it was you Mr. Charlie – I thought it was Mr. Nathan.
Charles Platt: You dumbass, that’s even worse…..
The other “story” that Kathy recalled was the multiple attempts by the Textile Workers of America Union which were defeated according to my father by a greater margin that the accounts from others.
The Mill stopped making silk at the beginning of World War II. During the War, The Mill shifted to synthetics, nylon, rayon, and acetate. IT made parachute rope cords and other war materials. After The War, The Strasburg Textile Mill made cloth for curtains and some women’s clothing.
Over the years, 1933-77, “The Mill” changed to the extent it was necessary to do so to survive in a dynamic capitalist economy. In 1945, my father, Nathan, my grandparents only child, his wife, my mother, Adele, moved to Strasburg and combined with my grandparents to further develop the “Family Business.” I was born on January 1, 1947, and my brother, Howard was born in 1951. We both worked in the mill for a couple of summers in our early teens – long enough to comparatively quickly conclude that we didn’t like the noise and the heat any better than any of the other employees and that we did not want to take over or be a part of the business either here in Strasburg or even in New York where what the Mill manufactured was sold on 7th Avenue by my father’s partners.
That, coupled with my desire even then to become a lawyer and my brother’s desire to become a sportswriter and announcer for a lot of reasons, including that both of those professions have working conditions that are less noisy and cooler temperatures, made it clear that the Mill was not in the future of the Platt Family. In addition, to that, my father and grandfather confronting that reality with the assistance of experts were advised that in order to compete in the Textile industry in the future, an over $1 million investment in new equipment (less noisy) and technology would be necessary. The alternative, which they chose, albeit with some mixed emotions, (particularly my grandfather) was to “retire.”
I remember those conversations. They were not easy conversations. The totally depreciated and technologically obsolete machinery was sold to a group in Haiti. The cost of moving those machines to Haiti from Strasburg exceeded its depreciated value. The building in which we stand was sold to the Wayside of Virginia and houses The Emporium. After they retired, they both remained in Strasburg, a community they both loved. My grandfather served as for many years on The Town Council. My father later took his place. I’ll always remember when my father informed my grandfather that the town was shifting from penny parking meters to nickel parking meters and my grandfather responded that “The record should be clear that this did not happen on my watch.”
In closing, I can’t say it any better than Kathy Kehoe did:
“The history of The Silk Mill still remains a part of the heritage of
many families in the Town of Strasburg.
Many residents made their living by working one of these shifts
at the Strasburg Textile Mill during a time when there were few
places to work to support a family. Employees worked alongside
their relatives and neighbors during the day or evening or through
the night until morning. Many of those employees came to work
there and stayed for years as their children and grandchildren
In today’s world, it is typical for workers to change jobs and
sometimes careers many times before retirement. But back
then, there weren’t as many jobs to choose from, and people
felt comfortable to stay with companies that they trusted.
The Silk Mill changed and adapted as the world changed
and so did the employees.
That said, I can’t help but look back when my daughter, Sarah, Charlie Platt’s great granddaughter, interviewed him and ended her interview with this simple question and his answer:
Sarah: What is the secret of your success and longevity?
Charlie Platt: No secret – Life changes – when it does, you have to change with it. No choice. If you don’t, you will fail at whatever you are trying to do. Always help the people that helped you.
Lessons lived and learned!
I, on behalf of the succeeding generations of the Platt Family, am so very proud and grateful that the families of our former employees trusted us and our company, and it is my distinct honor and pleasure to have been able to remember those times.
Thank you for listening and for your interest.