For a short time in the antebellum period, many Tennessee farmers pursued what they thought would be a promising commercial opportunity in the production of silk. Fueling their optimism were discoveries in the 1830s that silkworms thrived on the native mulberry tree, and that the Chinese morus morticaulis plant, which in Asia and Europe provided the main food for silkworms, also grew well under soil and climate conditions in the state. Because it required relatively modest investment and could utilize the labor of women and children without interrupting the work routines of the men in the household, production of the fiber ideally suited small-scale, marginal operations. It was, moreover, an attractive alternative in poor farming areas to the state’s main cash crops of cotton and tobacco, since mulberry and morus morticaulis plants adapted well to soils of low quality.
These circumstances gave rise to a flurry of interest and activity in the 1830s and 1840s. A nursery devoted specifically to the cultivation of morus morticaulis seedlings to sell to aspiring producers went into operation in 1838. The establishment of several small silk manufacturing companies supplemented an already strong demand from outside the state. In 1840 supporters formed the Tennessee Silk Society to promote production of cocoons and use of the fabric. Two years later, the Tennessee Silk Manufacturing Company and Agricultural School opened in Port Royal to train workers in the manufacture of cloth. Farmers also received financial and promotional encouragement from the government to adopt silk culture. The state legislature offered bounties on cocoons and reeled silk, and Governor James C. Jones arrived at his inauguration in 1843 wearing a silk suit manufactured by the institute in Port Royal. Small wonder, then, that agricultural leaders and journals across Tennessee vigorously urged farmers to consider silk production as part of their commercial schemes.
The response was enthusiastic. Many farmers, particularly in East and Middle Tennessee, put in mulberry and morus morticaulis plants and purchased silkworms. By 1840 production of cocoons exceeded 1,000 pounds, placing the state fifteenth in the country. Ten year later the state ranked first with an output of nearly two thousand pounds. Although relatively small operators raising fewer than one hundred thousand worms accounted for most of the production, some large operators with as many as a million worms participated in the new fad. For awhile, it appeared that rural Tennessee had discovered a lucrative commodity that could benefit farmers of all sizes.
Optimism soon gave way to disappointment, however. In the 1850s an unknown disease moved across the state, infecting the silkworms and destroying an enterprise that had held such promise a short time earlier. The epidemic destroyed the worms of many farmers and convinced others to withdraw from production before they too were driven out. By the end of the 1850s the devastation was nearly complete. Production plummeted to seventy-one pounds of cocoons and involved only a handful of operators. Tennessee farmers never again ventured into silk culture.