By Chantal Roberts
Many people know Kansas City, Missouri was a fashion hub for a large part of the 20th century. Kansas City’s Garment District encompassed 6th to 11th Streets and Washington to Wyandotte. Not so many people know about the communal, silk plantation began by French nobleman and philanthropist, Ernest Valeton de Boissière, in the 1870s.
De Boissière was born on 9 June 1810, and after Louis-Napoléon’s 1851 coup d’état, he came to the United States based on the understanding he should “go abroad for his health…” although he was not, in the strictest of terms, banished from France.
De Boissière settled in New Orleans and invested in a transatlantic shipping line until the Civil War naval blockade caused the venture to fail. It was his benevolent character which forced him to uproot a second time. After the war, several Methodist ladies approached de Boissière for a donation to build an orphanage and school for black children. De Boissière wrote a check for $10,000. His donation, while it surprised the ladies, did not please the other white citizens who asked De Boissière to leave.
From 1868-1870, de Boissière bought approximately 4000 acres of land in Kansas, about 65 miles southwest of Kansas City, in Franklin County. De Boissière wanted to create a self-sufficient commune based on the social theorist, Charles Fourier. Mulberry trees were planted on 70 acres, and de Boissière went back to France to convince 40 families who were skilled in silk production to immigrate to his town, called Silkville.
Despite being a socialist campaign, destitute people were not admitted into the commune. Each worker had to pay $100, to provide for their own needs, and to pay rent for their apartments two months in advance. In 1874, a three-story, sixty-room limestone house was completed to house the workers and their families. Local Kansans thought the 36’ by 95’ house was so grand that they called it the ‘château.’ It had 2,500 books which was the largest collection at the time in Kansas. The library consisted of works by Voltaire, Rousseau, the New Testament in Greek, Charles Dickens, and Balzac. At the north corner of the property, de Boissière built a school for the children of Silkville.
Silkville was very successful in the 1870s producing 260-300 yards of silk per day. It won first place at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and third place in 1886 Exposition in Paris. Unfortunately, de Boissière’s labor for the silk was high because the American dyes would not keep their color and silk from Asia began to be imported at a cheaper price. Worse still, the laborers discovered for $100 they could purchase their own acreage from the US government and obtain higher wages elsewhere. The women who tended to the silkworms married Kansan farmers and left Silkville.
By 1886, the silk production at Silkville was abandoned. Silkville limped along for a few more years based on its cheese and creamery productions, but finally, that, too, ceased. De Boissière went back to France to live out his few remaining years. He is better remembered in his home village than here in Kanas. The public school in Audenge, France is named École Ernest Valeton de Boissière. Every year there is a festival called Sainte-Saucisse for the endowment de Boissière left the village which includes noon meals of haricot blancs (white beans) and sausages.
Nothing is left of Silkville except the schoolhouse and ghost town de Boissière built.
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