Knight's Spider Web Farm (In Transition)
Update: A fire on Oct. 25, 2016, destroyed the barn where the gift shop and Will's art was housed.
Will Knight has spider webs tattooed on his elbows. They date from his years in the military -- long before he ever thought of becoming the world's best-known spider web farmer -- but he's still full of piss and vinegar. "You see this?" he asks, pointing to a framed advertisement for an old car, a 1926 Willys-Knight. "I'm gonna buy one of these and I'm gonna drive around town and I'm gonna paint on the door, 'This is a 1926 Willys-Knight driven by a 1926 Willy Knight'!"
Buying a 90-year-old car isn't within everyone's budget, but we suspect that Will can afford it. He's the proprietor of Knight's Spider Web Farm, a venture that seems perfectly suited to its owner and to its locale. Will, frankly, looks like a guy who would grow spider webs.
He calls himself "Spiderwebman." He convinced the town to rename the road to his house "Spider Web Farm Road" (It helped that Will is also the town tax accessor).
And there are a lot of earth-friendly people in Vermont who look, at least to us, like they would buy a piece of delicate eco-art like a spider web.
Will and his wife, Terry, first thought of "harvesting" spider webs and selling them as art in the late 1970s, although Will admits he first got the idea from a Girl Scout Manual. Terry was an artist, "into decoupage," Will recalls. "She knew that you could glue things onto things." Will was a cabinetmaker by trade. The two enjoyed the artistry of spider webs, and figured that if you could somehow stick them onto wood, you could find people to buy them.
It took years before Will devised a system that worked. Luckily the old barns in Vermont are full of spiders, so Will had an endless supply of webs with which to experiment. Spider webs are fragile, nearly invisible, and difficult to get stuck and to stay stuck where you want them to. But eventually Will hit upon a mass-production system that now gives him a steady supply of webs -- that is, when the spiders are in the mood.
Will shows us how it's done. The webs are spun within custom-built racks, divided into open squares, which Will hangs from the rafters of a couple of small, shady sheds in his back yard. Unlike most farmers, he harvests a crop every morning. He sprays a mist of white paint so that he can see the web that he wants to collect, then he comes up from behind with a board that's been sanded smooth and either stained or painted black. The web sticks to the board. Will lacquers the board and web to seal them in place and to give a nice, smooth surface. "Smoothness is very important," he tells us. "If it's not super smooth, it collects dust. Women don't like dust."
Will doesn't play music for his spiders, or get them drunk, or spin them in tiny spider gyroscopes to try to create new kinds of webs. He tells us that a couple of NASA people visited the Spider Web Farm some years back, studying the affects of zero-G. "It was interesting," he tells us, in a tone of voice that implies that it really wasn't very interesting at all.
The Spiderwebman isn't interested in fixing something that isn't broken. "We're a business," he tells us repeatedly. "My interest beyond that is limited."
Will, however, is concerned about his spiders. "We're down to five or six webs a day," he confides. "We used to collect thirty. Something is happening." Could it be the adverse effects of climate change? Or could acid rain be thinning the herd at the Spider Web Farm? We suggest a less dramatic answer: Spiders spin webs to catch food. If Will Knight keeps taking the webs away, the spiders can't eat. No food, no spiders, no webs.
The Spiderwebman listens to our theory and politely ignores it. Will has been in this business for 40 years. What the hell do we know?