Skinner’s success, philanthropy boosted Holyoke

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

Skinner’s Silks and Satins were the first in the world to have their name woven in the selvage as a mark of identity. "It is essential to look for this name to be certain of getting the genuine. Be on your guard and insist that the selvage contains the word ‘Skinner.’ When you have found it, and made your purchase, you will know that you have behind you the skill and experience of nearly a century and the backing of a world-wide reputation,"

So reads a passage from the brochure, "Skinner’s Silks and Satins: Their Romantic Story."

William Skinner (1824-1902) had succeeded beyond his dreams, according to Kate Navarra Thibodeau, curator of the Wistariahurst Museum.

Not only was he a successful businessman, he was a loyal and devoted husband and father. He even found time in his extremely busy schedule to give generously to the community of Holyoke.

In 1856, Skinner married Sarah Elizabeth Allen of Williamsburg after his first wife, Nancy Edwards Warner, died. She was the mother of two his children, Eleanor "Nellie" (1850-1929) and Nancy "Nina"(1852-1922).

Sarah had five children who lived into adulthood: William Cobbett (1857-1947), Elizabeth Allen "Libbie"(1859-1927), Joseph Allen (1862-1946), Ruth Isabel "Belle" (1866-1928), and Katharine "Kittie" (1873-1968). She also had a daughter, Mary Emma "Baby May" who was born in 1868, who lived for only four years, according to "Images of America Holyoke The Skinner Family and Wistariahurst" Thibodeau.

Skinner’s Unquomonk Silk Mill eventually became know as Skinner’s Silks and Satin Mill. It was located on the upper canal on Appleton Street when Skinners sons William C. and Joseph Allen joined the company in 1883. The company was officially named the William Skinner and Sons Manufacturing Co. in 1889.

In 1891, Skinner and William Whiting, who founded the Whiting Coal Co. in May 1870, donated funds to create the Holyoke City Hospital.

"William Skinner, one of the key founders of the Holyoke Medical Center, left an extraordinary legacy for the citizens of Holyoke," said Kevin O’Hare, director of public relations of the medical center.

The Holyoke City Hospital was dedicated in 1893. Skinner was the first president and the author of the original book of rules and regulations written in 1896.

In 1924, Joseph A. and William C. donated $100,000 to the hospital in honor of what would have been their father’s 100th birthday.

On May 2, 1928, workers began work on the Skinner Clinic at the Hospital. The Skinner brothers asked that the building be a memorial to their sister Belle. She died in Paris on Easter Sunday due to pneumonia while traveling to Hattonchatel, France. The area had been decimated by the invasion of Germans in 1918. They occupied the Village for four years. She funded the reconstruction of the village, which now has six markers that recognize her generous contributions. The French government gave her the Gold Medal of Reconnaissance Francaise in 1919 and the Cross of the Legion of Honor in 1920.

Belle also helped her fellow Americans when she and her sister Katharine opened the Skinner Coffee House in memory of their father in November 1902. Coffeehouses were established throughout the country in early 1900s to help immigrants who worked in the mills and factories. Their mother, Sara Allen Skinner, kindly contributed rugs from Wistariahurst.

The Skinner woman believed that by giving working woman the tools they need to succeed, their whole family would benefit. They provided a safe-and affordable- haven that offered sandwiches, soup, coffee and reading material. The coffeehouse also taught life skills such as cooking and sewing to young women.

It was initially located on 480 Main St. from 1902-1916. The coffee house was moved in 1916 to 402 Main Street because they needed more space. In 1942 through 1989, the Skinner Community Center was owned and operated by the city.

Then finally, the Nueva Esperanza, Inc. organization that specializes in housing, education, economic development and job training utilized the building until the late 1990s until the building was deemed uninhabitable. It was demolished in 2006.

The Skinner family also donated funds to the Holyoke Public Library, Mount Holyoke, Smith and Vassar colleges. They also built a gymnasium for the Northfield Seminary in Northfield.

It would be impossible to calculate the benefits the Skinner family bestowed upon the great city of Holyoke. William Skinner, laid to rest 94 years ago, still has a major impact on many of today’s public institutions, especially the Holyoke Medical Center. Through his generous donations and his wise and adept leadership, Holyoke is an outstanding community in which to reside-a community in which all are welcome.

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

In the next issue, she will delve into another great moment in time, the reign of William Whiting