In 1938, Paul Kochel received a copy of a typed poem from the national representative of the Textile Workers Organizing Committee. Kochel worked as a Jacquard loom weaver at the old Stehli Silk Mill in Manheim Township from after World War I until the plant closed in 1954.
The poem, titled “The Old Silk Worker,” warns younger employees that silk companies would replace older workers with younger employees and more efficient looms unless veteran workers “stand up and fight and organize” a strong union.
Whether anything came of that union organizing effort is unknown but unlikely. RoseMarie Null, Kochel’s daughter, says she does not believe her father was involved in a labor union. Null, of Lititz, found the union poem in a family scrapbook.
But other Stehli employees were involved in union activities in earlier years, actively in 1907 and passively in 1934.
Stehli was Lancaster County’s largest silk manufacturer and employer for decades after it opened in 1897 on Martha Avenue. At its peak, the plant employed 1,200 workers. The core facility spun off plants elsewhere in Pennsylvania, as well as in Virginia and North Carolina.
Stehli, constructed by Stehli Silks Corp. of Switzerland and named for its primary operator, Emil J. Stehli, was a major national force in the textile industry through much of the first half of the 20th century. It expired when synthetic materials replaced silk in the 1950s.
There is another aspect of the history of Stehli. The owners of the company made a fortune, while the workers toiled for long hours at relatively low wages.
In 1907, the average American textile worker earned 13 to 14 cents an hour, based on a 60-hour workweek. In Lancaster and elsewhere in Pennsylvania, the rate was 11 to 12 cents an hour.
On Nov. 4, 1907, more than 300 male and female weavers — better than half the local workforce — walked out of the Stehli mill. They demanded higher wages, better working conditions and the reinstatement of 35 workers who had just been fired, apparently because they were union agitators.
The union was affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the “Wobblies.” The Wobblies helped local workers form a union but did little to aid the strike, which abruptly collapsed Dec. 2.
Richard Cullen Rath, a Millersville University graduate who now teaches history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, wrote a history of the brief strike for a 1991 Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society.
Rath found it notable that the Wobblies, a radical union organization, found a sympathetic workforce in Lancaster County, a relatively conservative community.
Rath said the most significant reasons for the strike’s failure were the ability of management to hire replacement workers from silk mills that had closed in York that November and the inexperience of local union leaders.
The only other labor strife affecting Stehli that the Scribbler has found was reported by the Lancaster New Era in 1934. As part of a major nationwide textile strike, hundreds of local workers temporarily closed non-Stehli silk plants elsewhere in Lancaster County before assembling at Stehli on Sept. 11.
A mob attacked Stehli workers and threw bricks and stones through Stehli’s windows. Nearly 20 people were injured. Seven were arrested.
Stehli’s manager said plant employees were not involved in the disturbance.
The long-closed plant has become an eyesore. In 2014, its owner, a York real estate investor, replaced the roof and windows and made interior improvements. He said he has major plans for the building.
The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places last year.
Jack Brubaker, a retired LNP staff writer, writes "The Scribbler'' column twice a week. He welcomes comments and contributions at email@example.com or 669-1929.