BELDING, Mich. – In conversations with people around the area, many are completely unfamiliar with the fact that the city of Belding was once on the worldwide map known for silk. In the early 1900s they made and manufactured silk fabric and spools of silk thread. The real boom was probably from around 1905 – 1920 or so.
It was the Belding Brothers that came from the East Coast of the United States that eventually began selling silk door-to-door. Once it became popular, four separate silk mills were constructed, one of which was the famous clock tower. Those mills also required plenty of female workers, so the brothers built all female dormitories to accommodate its employees. Dorms such as the Richardson, the Ashfield, and the Belrockton were built to house about 150 girls. Each mill employed about 1,000 workers. The girls would work hard, long, eight to ten hour days. The mills would close for the lunch, the girls would return to the dorms for a meal, then continue the shift until the dinner hour.
The Belrockton dorm is now a museum loaded with several different historical items and stories. Built in 1906, it has three levels that include actual dorms that remain almost untouched from over a century ago. It also houses Civil War and World War One and Two items, a mock church, schoolhouse, doctors office, general store, and many other artifacts from the era that deal with the once famous silk industry here in West Michigan.
Unfortunately, time would take its toll and silk would eventually be replaced by nylon. The industry fell to the wayside (at least here locally) and closed down. In fact, the famous (and iconic) clock tower was one of the last structures standing of the time. It too, however, succumbed to its demise after producing appliances in the more recent years for Electrolux. The clock and tower were actually being dismantled as we shot this story.
In addition to being the silk capital of the world, the Belding Brothers were also responsible for producing iceboxes. For those that don’t remember, it was usually a wooden storage box where homeowners would put items to keep cold. The iceman would deliver a large chunk of ice, which would usually last for a two to three days keeping things cool. Later, when technology allowed, electric refrigerators became the latest and greatest things. Perhaps it was fitting that Electrolux also left their more recent mark in Belding too.
If you’re interested in visiting the Belrockton Museum in Belding, it’s open the first Sunday of each month from one to four. There is no charge for admission, but donations are accepted. Click here for more information.
It’s also interesting to note the Belrockton recently installed a “children’s museum” within their museum. Kids will have a blast with hands-on exhibits and things to keep them busy.