Skinner family’s life changed by 1874 flood

Published Wednesday, September 27, 2006 in the Holyoke Plus section in The Republican. Go to www.masslive.com for more interesting stories.

On May 16, 1874 a major flood changed the life of William Skinner’s burgeoning family.

The Mill River dam built over the villages of Williamsburg, Leeds, Skinnerville and Haydenville burst. The water rushed through each town causing massive damage and hardship for the townspeople.

Sadly, 1,200 people perished, according to Kate Navarra Thibodeau’s book "Holyoke The Skinner Family and Wistariahurst."

By the age of 50, Skinner had lost his Uquomonk Silk Mill in Williamsburg. He immediately seized on an offer extended by the Holyoke Water Power Co. to reconstruct his mill along the canals of Holyoke. The deal included land next a rent-free canal for five years and a one-block portion of land for his family home for $1.

Six-months later, in October of 1874, his new mill was finally built. He continued to manufacture products that were tried and true such as sewing silk and machine twists. Eventually, he began to manufacture braids and woven goods.

Between the vast amount of water power available from the canals and the many immigrants from Europe and Canada, the Skinner mills had sales of $6.5 million by 1902.

Finding raw silk in the United States was very expensive so William Skinner and his sons traveled to Asia to find quality raw silk at reasonable prices at the Sano Raw Silk Manufactory in Japan.

The raw silk was then made into sewing silk and machine twists by the Skinners’ girls. Even though they worked 13 grueling hours a day seven days a week these women took their job very seriously, believing it was an honor to work for the Skinner family.

Sixteen-year old Lena Challet, who worked in the picking room 1906 said, "We used to dress up to kill. You dressed up there like you went to Sunday School or to Church." That was the Skinner motto. "The skinners were very proud of their help. Not like today," according to Kate Navarra Thibodeau’s work.

In 1925, an all male staff throughout the mills supervised the female workers. In the 1920s Skinner also had a plant on Bond Street where woman worked in the inspecting room. The plant focused on wedding silks and satins---such as pillows, veils, gowns, and shoes. They also made jackets, jacket linings, shoes, blanket covers and undergarments.

Thousands of Skinner girls worked on massive winding frames used to wind silk into spools. They kept the massive looms running to weave fabric along with several other machines seven days a week.

Two of Skinner’s five children Joseph Allen and William C., joined the company in 1883. William incorporated the business as William Skinner and Sons Manufacturing Co. in 1889.

Strikes in 1934 had a devastating affect on the mill. Skinner posted a sign on the bulletin board outside his mill that read, "These mills were open Tuesday for regular operation. Not enough reported for work to warrant keeping open. Therefore, these mills are closed indefinitely. You can receive your last week’s pay as usual on our regular pay day, Thursday."

Anna Sullivan, born into a family of textile workers, was a leader in organizing the drive of the Amalgamated Textile Workers Union during the 1930s. The union brought the first 40-hour week to Skinner & Sons Manufacturing in 1936, according to the Transcript Telegram. There would be other strikes over the years, fortunately things would eventually settle down after both sides agreed on acceptable hourly rates and benefits. The negations could get very heated at times.

In 1937, the mills were finally recovering from the Great Depression. The company produced silk and satin products for 87 years before burning down in a massive fire in 1980 due to children playing with matches.

The Skinner Mills were located on the upper canal on Appleton Street. An addition that now houses the Holyoke Children’s Museum was built in the 1900s. The Holyoke Heritage State Park with an informative exhibit that depicts Holyoke’s industrial history now resides on the former Skinner Mills site along with the charming Holyoke Merry- Go-Round and the heart-wrenching monument to slain Holyoke Police Officer John Dinapoli.

In 1961, the Skinner family sold their business to the Indian Head Mills, which closed a year later, included in the sale was their trademarks and patents. It would be the last oldest family-owned and operated business by the 1960s in Holyoke, according to Navarra Thibodeau.

Charlie Lotspeich, acting supervisor of the Heritage State Park, believes "the park makes an important connection to pieces of Holyoke’s rich history."- an incredible history that the Skinner family made by hard work, dedication and an unyielding compassion for the community of Holyoke.

In the next issue, she will touch upon the legacy of Skinner family’s great philanthropic deeds and their daily lives in Holyoke and in Europe.

© 2006 The Republican. All rights reserved. Used with permission