Mulberry Tree

Leaves of a Mulberry Tree

It all starts with a little worm and a few mulberry leaves — silk, that is. It is said that the city of Canton, Georgia, was named for one of China’s great silk producing centers.

Lloyd Marlin’s The History of Cherokee County credits William Grisham and Judge Joseph Donaldson with being among the two earliest residents of Canton, notwithstanding the Cherokee, of course. According to Marlin, Grisham and Donaldson, both from South Carolina, had been engaged in the silk industry on coming to the area in the 1830′s, and became prominently identified with silk culture in Canton. Judge Donaldson is said to have brought 100,000 silkworms to Cherokee County. Grisham’s home, a stately Colonial structure that remains in the possession of descendants in Canton today, reportedly had one room which was used for his silk business-”one little room where he raised the silkworms and spun silk cloth”. And Marlin also notes that both men put out many mulberry trees for the nurture of their silkworms. At the time of publication of Marlin’s book in 1932, he stated that there were still a number of mulberry trees in Canton.

There are more than 20 cities named Canton in the Eastern part of the United States. Most were settled in the late 1700′s and named or incorporated between 1801 and 1833. Why was the name Canton so popular? History records that there was a strong interest in developing a strong silk culture in the New World, with visions of the riches to be attained from the highly prized silk cloth. Early colonists from England settled on the seacoast of Georgia more than 100 years prior to the settling of Cherokee County, hoping that the climate of Georgia would be fitting the mulberry trees and silkworms. Unfortunately, it was not a successful venture.

In the early 1830′s, the State of Maine encouraged “Mainers” to engage in the cultivation of silkworms, hoping that domestic production of silk might result in an industry that could compete with Chinese silk (or even the silk magnaneries of France or the factories of England). In 1836, the Legislature authorized the payment of bounties of five-cents for silkworm cocoons raised and fifty-cents for every pound of silk “reeled” from the cocoons. This was in an effort to further encourage the production of silk. Unfortunately, early silkworms were known to only eat the leaves of mulberry trees, and the trees did not thrive in the cold climate of Maine.

It is unclear whether Georgia offered any such incentives, but there seemed to be a widespread interest in silk culture in the young country at the time that Cherokee County was settled. And mulberry trees were the key to success. The white mulberry is native to China. It became naturalized in Europe centuries ago. This tree was introduced into America for silkworm culture in the early colonial times, and it was naturalized and hybridized with the native red mulberry. The red or American mulberry is native to the Eastern United States. These trees grow from 30 to 80 feet in height. Red mulberry trees rarely live more than 75 years.

Are there any mulberry trees propagated from these original ones that now remain in Cherokee County? The Cherokee County Historical Society would like to find them and investigate the possibility of getting seeds or sprig buddings for the new native plants garden at the Rock Barn.

William Grisham and Judge Joseph Donaldson are among the two earliest residents of Canton, notwithstanding the Cherokee, of course. According to Marlin’s history, Grisham and Donaldson, both from South Carolina, had been engaged in the silk industry on coming to the area in the 1830′s, and became prominently identified with silk culture in Canton. Judge Donaldson is said to have brought 100,000 silkworms to Cherokee County. Grisham’s home, a stately Colonial structure that remains in the possession of descendants in Canton today, reportedly had one room which was used for his silk business-”one little room where he raised the silkworms and spun silk cloth”. And Marlin also notes that both men put out many mulberry trees for the nurture of their silkworms. At the time of publication of Marlin’s book in 1932, he stated that there were still a number of mulberry trees in Canton.

There are more than 20 cities named Canton in the Eastern part of the United States. Most were settled in the late 1700′s and named or incorporated between 1801 and 1833. Why was the name Canton so popular? History records that there was a strong interest in developing a strong silk culture in the New World, with visions of the riches to be attained from the highly prized silk cloth. Early colonists from England settled on the seacoast of Georgia more than 100 years prior to the settling of Cherokee County, hoping that the climate of Georgia would be fitting the mulberry trees and silkworms. Unfortunately, it was not a successful venture.

In the early 1830′s, the State of Maine encouraged “Mainers” to engage in the cultivation of silkworms, hoping that domestic production of silk might result in an industry that could compete with Chinese silk (or even the silk magnaneries of France or the factories of England). In 1836, the Legislature authorized the payment of bounties of five-cents for silkworm cocoons raised and fifty-cents for every pound of silk “reeled” from the cocoons. This was in an effort to further encourage the production of silk. Unfortunately, early silkworms were known to only eat the leaves of mulberry trees, and the trees did not thrive in the cold climate of Maine.

Silk Facts:
The silkworm is the caterpillar of a moth which is completely domesticated and can no longer exist without the help of man. The art of raising silkworms is called sericulture. The cocoon in which the silkworm encloses itself in order to change into a silk moth is like a little bobbin which can contain 1.5 km of thread. For the same relative diameter, this thread is as tough as steel wire. One kilogram of cocoons gives 200 grams of thread-and you need about 3,000 cocoons for the average silk kimono!

“I followed my family’s migration trail from Cherokee County, Georgia, to Garland County, Arkansas. There I found a family manuscript with photograph of a hand-embroidered sampler stitched by Gilly James Godfrey (27 Dec 1803 York District, SC-11 Sep 1875 Montgomery Co, AR). The manuscript noted that Gilly spun the silk threads from silk that she produced herself, from her own worms.”

By Sylvia Caldwell Rankin
Originally published in The Crescent Chronicle
A publication of the Cherokee County Historical Society

Sources: Washington State University-Tree Fruit Research & Extension Service, Khzana-e-Bharat, Georgia Department of Community Affairs, The History of Cherokee County by Lloyd Marlin, Carl Vinson Institute of Government, The State of Maine