More than one utopian dreamer has chosen Kansas as the place to found his grand experiment. A list of state ghost towns would be full of communities founded on some form of idealism—Victoria, the Vegetarian Colony, Silkville….
Silkville? Yes. One of those little towns started out with silk farming as its principal industry.
This experiment began around 1869 along Old Highway 50, about 3 miles southwest of Williamsburg, Kansas. The founder, Ernest Valeton de Boissiere, was a Frenchman disenchanted with the politics of his native country. His outspokenly socialistic views had earned him the disfavor of French President Louis Napoleon, and he had sought refuge in America after receiving a hint from the government that it might be a good idea to “go abroad for his health.”
De Boissiere took the advice. He came to America sometime around 1852. A school and orphanage for black children in New Orleans was his first visionary project in his new country, but he met with more opposition than he cared for and began looking for someplace else to experiment with reforms. In his travels, he happened to visit Kansas and was favorably impressed by the climate. It reminded him enough of the silkworm-raising regions of France to convince him that this should be the site of his next venture—a utopian community founded on silk farming.
Accordingly, de Boissiere bought 3,500 acres in Franklin County in 1868. He planted about 70 acres with mulberry trees to feed the silkworms, and the rest served as pasture for dairy cattle. De Boissiere also began seeking French settlers for his colonies, people who were tired of the political turmoil in their home country. Over 40 settlers answered his summons and, on paying a deposit, were admitted to the community.
The colonists were to share equally in the labor and the profits of the silk farm. They would all be provided with room and board, provided they paid their rent two months in advance. They were to each seek the interests of the others and to treat one another as they expected to be treated themselves.
It sounded wonderfully simple, but after a while things seemed to go wrong. Although de Boissiere made interesting discoveries about silk production in Kansas (for instance, that silkworms can thrive on Osage orange leaves), he simply could not compete with cheaper silk from Asia. He fell back on his more successful cheese business to support the community, but that did not work either. For one thing, the girls of the community were in the habit of marrying local farmers and moving out, depriving him of valuable workers. Similarly, many of the men seemed to have a deeply rooted instinct to either find jobs with better wages or to take advantage of the Homestead Act to start their own farms. Either way it was difficult to maintain a stable population of dedicated colonists at Silkville.
De Boissiere knew his experiment was a failure, and in 1884 he returned to France. Silkville struggled on without him for a time, but it was no use. The colonists abandoned silk culture in 1886. They continued to raise livestock until 1892, when de Boissiere deeded the property to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows to be used as an orphanage. He died two years later.
Today there isn’t much to see of Silkville. Most of the buildings were destroyed in a fire in 1916. A sign reading “Silkville Ranch” and de Boissiere’s one-room schoolhouse for the children of the colony still stand by Old Highway 50. Also still in existence on the nearby ranch are some mulberry trees, two stone barns, and a house made of the remains of the colony living quarters.
The best-laid plans of mice and men….