98-year-old Western Maryland silk mill is focus of preservation effort;

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At the end of their shift July 7, 1957, the women at the silk mill stopped winding the soft thread. They walked out as usual, leaving behind their aprons, face powder, even a few shoes. The superintendent hung up his straw hat.

None of them ever returned.

And nearly 50 years after the General Textile Mills factory closed overnight, it looks the same, stopped in time, a haunting archive of the industrial life that once flourished in remote mountain towns like this one in Western Maryland.

Inside the century-old building, amid the dampness and dust, the old-fashioned twisting and spinning machines stand silent. Workbenches are pushed beneath the heavy machinery, with its symmetrical rows of wooden spindles and bobbins.

Fire pails hang from hooks on the factory floor. Handwritten ledgers list the names of "Bobbin Boys," the young runners. In the front office, next to metal file cabinets full of old invoices, is an IBM typewriter. In the cellar is an April 7, 1949, dye recipe. And scattered about, just as the last mill workers left them, are lunch bags, umbrellas, workplace shoes - and the superintendent's hat.

"Everything's here. I'd really like to see it preserved," says Herb Crawford, 71, a retired automotive teacher who bought the mill with a partner in 1978.

His dream is to turn it into a museum. He wants to showcase the mill's history, from the 1907 opening through its heyday, when coal miners' wives and children worked long shifts to produce the reams of fine silk yarn that was shipped to New York's garment district and worldwide.

Despite strong interest from state and national historic groups, though, Crawford has been unable to breathe new life into the mill. He and his partner want to recoup their initial investment. But the coal region has fallen on hard times, and no buyer has come forward.

Now the three-story brick building is beginning to crumble. Many windows are broken. Paint is flaking. The roof leaks. Crawford climbs up regularly to patch the roof. But he had a heart attack a few years ago, and his wife wants him to stop.

"I've pumped my life into this. I'm getting to be an old guy," he says, "and I just can't keep doing it."

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