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I am living my mother's dream because she couldn't.

Not her every dream, of course.  Who could and still have dreams of their own?  Mum was her own person, with her own talents, only some of which I’ve inherited; she’d originally wanted to be a commercial artist or a theater director, while I can barely draw a straight line and was a profound failure directing a tiny little choir of long-time friends.  She was an expert seamstress and decorator, and though I’m a good quilter, embroiderer, and knitter, my furnishings are best characterized as a strange mix of family heirlooms, slipcovered pieces I scored from Betty's estate, and tag sale finds.

The same applies to our respective personal lives.  Mum had a happy marriage and considered herself blessed to be a mother; I'm a childless divorcee.  She had only a few close friends to supplement the bosom of her family, while I’m a classic extrovert with plenty of boon companions.  She liked mysteries, the cozier the better - I like science fiction, spy thrillers, and comics.  She vowed she'd stay out of a nursing home but eventually succumbed to Alzheimer’s, while my ultimate fate is still to be written in what James Thurber called mum mum in the sands of time.

Truth to tell, I really haven’t done all that great a job of emulating her.  For all that Mum loved me and did her best, my track record with men, money, and life in general is  a testament to my stubborn inability to listen to what she was trying to tell me in favor of doing what I pleased.  Her family narrative was the classic American tale of aspiration and striving to make sure that the next generation would do better and rise higher, with Mum herself the Brightest Child who was marked for college and a good life almost from the beginning.  It’s only now, as a middle aged and not especially successful adult, that I’ve seen how badly I failed at solidifying the gains that every generation had made from the 1860’s on.

The one exception, the one dream of my mother’s that I’ve been able to fulfill in her place, is the least likely of all: being a guide at a historic site.

Mum had always loved history – she minored in history at Thiel, the tiny liberal arts college where she got her B.A. –  especially 18th and 19th century American history, and by the early 1970’s she’d accumulated a small library of books on the subject.  She subscribed to Early American Life when it emphasized history more than decorating, belonged to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy because they owned and maintained Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater, and collected antique china, glassware, and dolls.  If my uncle Oscar bought antiques as much as an investment as because he liked them, Mum accumulated her collection purely out of love.  

The smooth finish of a Peach Blow biscuit jar…the deep blue shimmer of cobalt glass…the glow of a reverse painted Handel piano lamp…all these and more took pride of place on her shelves.  It’s no wonder that one of Dad’s first gifts to her after their marriage was a filthy slag glass lamp from around the time of the Great War (it cleaned up very nicely), or that she fired back at a visitor who asked “How can you stand to have so much junk around?” with “It’s my junk and I like it.”

It’s little wonder that she became fascinated by the idea of working at a historic site after she retired from her job as an English teacher.  Her first choice would have been Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts – she fell in love with New England on a vacation in 1975, a few months after Dad’s death – but anything similar would have served just as well.  Western Pennsylvania isn’t quite as rich in American history as Massachusetts, but the Oliver Miller Homestead, Old Economy in Ambridge, even the Blockhouse that’s the only remnant of Fort Pitt – all of these would have benefited from her knowledge, her gift for teaching, and her enthusiasm for the past.

Dementia prevented her from fulfilling this cherished dream.  She was already showing signs of memory loss when she retired at only 63, and some of her colleagues told me  privately at the funeral that she’d been slipping as early as her late 50’s.  I’m not sure if she ever mentioned this to the rest of the family – Betty certainly didn’t know, and they all but lived in each other’s pockets in many ways – but she told me, and I decided that if I ever had the chance, I’d gladly do what she never could.

My opportunity came a few years ago.  I took a tour of a local museum and fell in love with the building and the family that built it.  When the call went out for volunteers and docents a few weeks ago, I leaped at the chance.  Four years later, I’m a weekend regular at one of Western Massachusetts’ most unusual tourist attractions:  a house that was built in one town, was moved to another, saw its builder live the American Dream not once but twice, and finally become a museum/cultural center/art gallery.  It was home to a remarkable family for over nine decades, and today can justly be called the Jewel of Holyoke.  My mother never visited, but I have no doubt but that she would have loved it as much as I do.

The house is Wistariahurst, built by silk magnate William Skinner for his family.  Let’s meet them, shall we?

William Skinner was one of the most remarkable men of his age.  Born to an old Huguenot silk working family in the London slum of Spitalfields, he learned the family trade at an early age.  Before he was out of his teens, Skinner was an expert at manipulating natural dyes like indigo, cochineal, Osage orange, pernambuco, and logwood to produce deep, true, light- and wash-fast colors on the most delicate silk fibers.  He’d also succeeded in educating himself by reading Shakespeare, the Bible, and the cream of English poetry as he walked to and from the dyeworks, giving himself a real advantage over less learned silk workers.

Skinner was only twenty when a family friend who’d emigrated to America asked him to come manage the friend's dyeworks, but he’d already realized that there was far more opportunity for an ambitious young man in the new Republic than in the choking fogs of London.   This was especially true in the area around Broughton Meadows, Massachusetts (now Florence), where idealistic abolitionists had attempted to establish sericulture as an alternative to slave-raised cotton.

Alas for the abolitionists, all the good will in the world was useless without practical knowledge. One by one, their businesses failed and were bought out by trained silk manufacturers and dyers.  These men, several of whom had trained in Spitalfields and other English factory towns, were able to do what the idealists could not, and William Skinner soon found himself owning and running an extremely successful silk mill a few miles up the river from Northampton.

Along the way he married twice, each time to a local girl with strong ties to the local community.  His first wife, Nancy Edwards Warner, intelligent and quietly lovely, bore him two daughters, Eleanor and Nancy.  Family letters indicate that he loved her dearly, and when she died young of a mysterious wasting condition known as “marasmas,” he was crushed.  Worse, he now had two little girls to raise as a single father.

A young wife dying, either in childbirth or due to disease, was all too common in the 19th century.  Most men who suffered such a blow remarried relatively quickly, as much to find a partner and co-parent as out of a need for female companionship.  William Skinner was no exception to this rule.  A few years after he lost Nancy, he courted and married a local schoolteacher, Sarah Elizabeth Allen, and in doing so made probably the single best decision of life.

Sarah, who was known to family and friends as Lizzie, was more than a match for her vigorous, driven husband.  Reportedly related to Vermont patriot Ethan Allen, she was intelligent, well educated, and organized.  While William worked to expand his silk business, Lizzie oversaw the growth of the factory town that catered to the workers.  She also raised William’s two oldest daughters as if they were her own, ran the silk business whenever he was out of town for an extended period, and bore eight more children, five of whom lived to adulthood.  

A wife, seven children, and a thriving business should have been enough for any man, and so it seemed, at least for a few years.  Skinnerville, the village that had grown up around the silk factory, had over 200 residents at its height, with a railway station, shops, and boarding houses for the mill girls and overseers.  It also boasted a fine 20 room house, designed with fashionable mansard roofs by local architect William Fenno Pratt, that William built in 1868 to house his burgeoning family.  The house, which had plenty of bedrooms, a library, and a double parlor, cost the then-enormous sum of $20,000, but its very existence was testimony to how well the poor immigrant boy had done in his new country.

By 1874, then, it seemed that William Skinner had it all.  His business was thriving despite the aftereffects of the Panic of 1873, he had cash on hand and a good investment portfolio, and his family was happy and healthy.  Life wasn’t perfect – a young daughter, Baby May, had died not long before, while his elder son, Will, preferred church socials and sleigh rides to prep school – but the future looked bright indeed.

Then disaster struck.  William had gotten together with the other local factory owners a few years earlier to construct a dam to regulate the flow of the Mill River to make more effective use of its current to run their factories.  The contractor, who had been chosen because he turned in the lowest bid, had never built a dam before, and the result was notorious for leaking almost from the moment it was approved by local authorities.  On a rainy morning in mid-May of 1874, the dam gave way completely, and the resulting deluge roared down from the hills to wreak havoc in Williamsburg, Haydenville, Leeds, Florence, and Northampton.  Factories were destroyed, farmland was washed away, and 139 lives were lost.  It was one of America’s greatest industrial disasters, and the only reason it isn’t better known today is because of its similarity to notorious Johnstown Flood a few years later.

The other towns along the Mill River were severely damaged, but Skinnerville was almost obliterated.  William Skinner lost almost everything he’d spent the last thirty years building up. His factory and its village were gone, with only the boiler, the safe, and a few bales of raw silk turning up in the mud and the mess.  His home was damaged, with mudstains three feet high on the ground floor and the parlor furniture swept into the basement.  Most of his money had been sunk into factory, so he was desperate for cash to support his family and contribute to the relief fund for his employees.  Lizzie and the children were safe, thank God, but at an age of when most prosperous businessmen were contemplating retirement, William was faced with the daunting prospect of having to start over from scratch.

Whether William ever despaired at his fate isn’t clear, but start from scratch he did.  His creditors agreed to extend the terms of his loans to allow him to raise the funds he needed to rebuild.  The town fathers of Holyoke, the new industrial city on the Connecticut, offered him a prime building site on one of their canals rent-free for five years, plus a three acre lot suitable for rebuilding his home for the bargain price of $1.  He even found a builder who offered to disassemble the twenty room mansion and move it to Holyoke for a third the price of a new house, saving William money he needed to get back on his feet.  He wasn’t happy at having to leave Skinnerville, and neither were the locals – there are still residents who scowl when his name is mentioned, 140 years later – but he had a family to support, and there was really no alternative.  

The next few decades were the stuff of legends.  Skinner Silks (soon Skinner & Sons) not only survived the move to Holyoke but expanded dramatically over the next few years.  Soon it was one of the greatest textile manufacturers in American history, eventually boasting the largest silk mill under one roof in the world.  Lizzie raised her children,  planted wisteria vines by the front porch, and oversaw the landscaping, and soon Wistariahurst was the grandest house in the area.  By the time William died in 1902, he was worth the equivalent of half a billion dollars, and if that doesn’t sound like much compared to the Vanderbilts and the Morgans, well, it wasn’t as if they’d had to cope with a catastrophic flood.

Many great American fortunes are gained and lost within a single generation.  Fortunately for William Skinner, both of his sons were up to the task of managing their father’s legacy.  Will may have been an indifferent student, but he proved to be a brilliant businessman with a knack for sales.  He split his time between New York (where he partied with Diamond Jim Brady in between cutting deals) and stayed healthy, active, and involved in the company into his nineties, dying only a year after the end of World War II.

His younger brother Joe, intelligent and quiet, oversaw domestic operations and textile research (did you know that Skinner & Sons developed what we now call Ultra Suede?).   Joe plowed much of his fortune back into Pioneer Valley; he donated 400 acres of the Holyokes to the Commonwealth for use as a state park, served as a trustee of Mount Holyoke College, and left large sums to Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Vassar.   Joe even constructed a golf course for his daughter, Elizabeth, when local country clubs refused to let her play due to her gender.  The Orchards, now owned by Mount Holyoke College, not only proved suitable for Elizabeth Skinner (she held the course record off the men’s tees for many years) but was the site of an LPGA tournament about ten years ago.

The Skinner girls did not join their father in the business, but they were every inch their parents' daughters.  Three of the five graduated from Vassar, four married and had families of their own, and all were intelligent, active, productive members of society; the youngest, Kitty, co-founded a settlement house that worked to assist the factory girls of Holyoke (many of them immigrants from Germany, Poland, and Quebec), while her older sister Libby married a clergyman and was a de facto co-minister at their church in upstate New York.

The true star, though, was Belle. Born Ruth Isabel, Belle was a true free spirit, one of the New Women who graced the late 19th and early 20th centuries with style and spirit.  She served as the President of her class at Vassar, then went on to co-found the Skinner Coffee House with her sister Kitty in honor of their parents.  Eventually she inherited Wistariahurst, which she redecorated, renovated, and expanded to include a music room, a grand entrance hall with a floating staircase, and a conservatory where she raised tropical plants.  Belle was also active in the Red Cross after the Great War, restoring an entire French village  at her own expense.  The grateful French government inducted her into the Legion of Honor for her efforts, and if she looks just a trifle smug in the formal portrait taken soon after, well, she was entitled.

If that weren’t enough for one family, Belle and Joe made their mark not only as philanthropists, but as collectors.  Belle, who’d majored in music and French at Vassar, accumulated a collection of almost ninety antique musical instruments, including an early harpsichord, a Stradivarius violin, drums from the French and American Revolutions, and what purported to be Marie Antoinette’s personal spinet.   Her collection ended up at Yale, and if Vassar didn’t get the spinet and the harpsichord, her brothers endowed the  school’s concert hallin her honor.

Joe’s collecting was less focused; like my mother, he bought what he liked, and by the time he died he’d accumulated over 7,000 antiques, souvenirs, and bits of the past.  He even bought three buildings from one of the towns that was flooded to form the Quabbin Reservoir, set them up on a miniature town green near his home in South Hadley, and turned the old church into an eccentric, distinctive museum.  The curators call it a “cabinet of curiosities,” and they aren’t wrong; if what we own reflects what and who we are, then Joe Skinner was a man of broad interests, particularly in American history, who knew what he liked and was determined to display his collection as he saw fit.

Skinner & Sons was taken over by a third generation of the family, including Kitty's son Stewart Kilborne.  They paid good wages and provided healthcare and educational benefits to their employees, and to this day former weavers talk mournfully of how much they wish the Skinners were still in town.  The company's silk, including the legendary heavy satin used for bridal gowns, was of such high quality that even today garments made from it turn up in wearable condition (look for the  words "Skinner's Satin" woven into the selvage).  During World War II Skinner & Sons made fabric for uniforms (one ad featuring a soldier claimed that "Private Murphy is one of the best dressed men in America") and parachutes, and despite changing fashions that favored cheap synthetics instead of expensive silk, they continued in business until 1961.  

That was the year that the company was sold to Indian Head Mills, which closed the Holyoke mills and moved the business out of state. The great mill itself lasted until the early 1980's, when it fell victim to the rash of arson fires that turned the once-thriving city of Holyoke into an urban wasteland.  The site is now a state park devoted to the area's industrial legacy.

As for the Skinners themselves...the last one to live in Holyoke was Kitty, who moved back to Wistariahurst after her husband's death.  She stayed until 1959, when she decided to return to New York to be near her children.  The house was donated to Holyoke for use as a museum and cultural center, as a way of thanking Holyoke for all the blessings that the city had brought to the Skinner family.  It's now open to the public on the weekends for tours, concerts, and art exhibits, and is a popular wedding venue for Pioneer Valley brides.  The carriage house is home to the city archives, the Skinner family papers, and the records of the silk business, making this an unrivaled source of information for historians and researchers.

For more information about the Skinners and their silk company, check out two recent books:

American Phoenix, by Sarah Skinner Kilborne - a true labor of love, this biography of William Skinner was written by his great-great-granddaughter, and it shows in the details that only a family connection would record.  Beautifully written.

In the Shadow of the Dam, by Elizabeth M. Sharpe - excellent, thorough account of the Mill River Flood of 1874, with several sections based on Will Skinner's schoolboy diary.

If you're ever in the area, take time for a tour - I'm there two Sundays a month and will be more than happy to see a fellow Kossack (or two, or three).  Wistariahurst is a grand old lady, gracious and entirely lacking in the ostentatious air that mars so many other homes belonging to the rich (Newport, I'm looking at you), and well worth the time.  

My mother never got a chance to be a docent, or even to see Wistariahurst, but I think she'd be pleased that I'm following in her footsteps.  I may not be what she wanted or expected me to be, but at least I'm doing this.

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Do you volunteer at a museum?  Do you live near one?  Does your family figure in one?  Have you ever heard of William Skinner?  Did you go to Vassar?  Wear a silk wedding dress?  Don't be shy - it's a lovely summer evening, so gather 'round and share....

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Jun 07, 2014 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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