Photographs are silent, yet they speak volumes.
Such a vague and ambiguous statement leads me on. What does the blind man see? Is it possible to see something without knowing it?
So, I have been writing of Ernest Valeton de Boissière who believed that the goodness of mankind could be shared equally and to this end created an utopian community called Silkville.
Photographs Now and Then
For a little bit of fun, I took one of my photographs of the one-room schoolhouse at Silkville, Kansas and mixed it with an old photograph of the school. What one sees depends on what one is looking for.
What I discovered as I looked a little closer at the original photograph of the school children and their teachers was likely a younger photograph of Ernest Valeton de Boissière.
Ernest Valeton de Boissière
De Boissière was a wealthy and idealistic Frenchman. He was born in Bordeaux, son of well-to-do parents who purchased an estate at Audenge.
Audencge is a commune in the Gironde region of France. The coast borders the Bay of Biscay. One earns a living either from the sea or from the salt marches and pine trees which make up most of the coastal area.
De Boissière’s politics were egalitarian and he found himself in disfavor with the powers that be.
1851 – Après le coup d’Etat de Louis Napoléon BONAPARTE, Ernest BOISSIÈRE entre en opposition avec le pouvoir et se sent menacé.
De Boissière followed the philosophy of Charles Fourier who believed in the ideals of universal sharing and caring. Following these principles, de Boissière decided to found a utopian community near Ottawa in Franklin County, Kansas. In 1869, he purchased 3500 acres of land near present day Williamsburg. De Boissière brought 40 French emigrants to Kansas and with children the community of Silkville grew to perhaps a hundred at most. On the farm they would share in the wealth and care for each other. De Boissière imported white mulberry trees and silkworms with the idea of creating a world class silk production.
The success of the venture can perhaps be measured by its growth. Of the 3500 acres, 3600 acres were fenced for cattle and 150 acres were under production. By 1871, there were 8,000 mulberry trees growing and another 2,500 in nursery. There was an orchard of 2,000 peach trees and 1,000 grape vines under cultivation. (Report of Charles V. Riley, Missouri State Entomologist. See Garrett Carpenter’s thesis below.) In addition, the community experimented in the production of brooms, canned meat, castor oil, Morroccan leather, and even the making of tamper resistant matches. The farm also produced substantial amounts of milk, cheese, and butter.
By 1876, silk from the farm was shown at the American Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.
Dreams fade quickly in the face of reality. An economic depression in 1874, cheaper silk prices from Japan and China, cheap land in Kansas, marriage, all contributed to the downfall of the community. But mostly it is the desire of individuals to control their own destiny. The families of Silkville wanted their own land, cattle, crops, and possessions. No matter how benevolent the owners at Silkville were, they were still owners. Could they not see that children long to be free of their parents.
The community continued to exist until 1892 when de Boissière transfered the land to the Odd Fellows to be used as an orphanage. De Boissière returned to France where he died two years later.
What do you see?
Can it be that the silver haired gentleman standing in the doorway is Ernest Valeton de Boissière himself?
De Boissière established his community in 1870 when he was about 58 years of age. A firm believer in education, de Boissière would have built the school soon after establishing the Silkville community. The school still stands just off Old Highway 5o, east of Williamsburg, Kansas, though it is in need of repair.
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