One facility, two kinds of silk

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In 1899, the Ashley & Bailey Silk Mill opened in Columbia, Pennsylvania. For decades the facility’s hundreds of employees produced silk and sewing products until, as the story of American industry goes, the mill closed for good in 1988. It sat abandoned for decades, slowly weathering away while the town it helped to build watched on.

There hasn’t been silk in this plant in nearly 30 years, at least not of the textile variety. All the spools and crates of fabric have long gone, but there are more significant strands which remain. Any building like this, once put into operation, transcends its constructed purpose to become deeply entwined in the fabric of its local community. There is no single history of the Ashley & Bailey Silk Mill, rather countless stories held in the memories of those who have worked there, or know the buildings from other perspectives.

What the Turkey Hill Dairy company found when they purchased the severely dilapidated silk mill was not a ruin in need of removal, but a relic in need of some TLC.

Turkey Hill began work on the grounds in 2010, and today the mill has been transformed into a family attraction called the Turkey Hill Experience. The historic integrity of the building remains in spades, with the original brick exterior reinforced with massive steel girders. Even the old water tower still stands, and since it is highly visible from the highway, now serves as a billboard. The venue is educational in nature (there was a school field trip on the day of my visit), explaining the tea and ice cream making process (free, silky samples!), but also delves heavily into the history of the region, the mill itself, and how Turkey Hill has grown from its inception as a milk delivery service operating in this very town.

“We wanted to open the place in our hometown,” said Bob Adams, general manager of the site. “The silk mill was attractive because one thing we didn’t want to do was build something new in a field somewhere. This is a historic site, and we wanted the community to have it.”

So it is that the silk mill still stands today, saved from ruin, and given a new and unexpected purpose. The woodland creatures that once ran through its collapsed floors have been replaced by laughing children and their families. The workforce here no longer crafts textiles, but hands out ice cream to a background of classic rock and roll.

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