By G. Michael Dobbs
HOLYOKE Although Holyoke may be known as "The Paper City," textiles played a huge role in the industrial heritage of the community and a new book shows the influence of one family-owned business.
Holyoke: The Skinner Family and Wistariahurst (Arcadia Publishing, $19.99) features hundreds of photographs, many of them previously unpublished, of the Skinner family, owners of the Skinner Silk Mills. Kate Navarra Thibodeau, the author, will host a book signing at the Wistariahurst Museum March 25 from 1 to 3 p.m.
Thibodeau is the curator and archivist at the Wistariahurst Museum, the former home of the Skinner family. Before becoming curator in May 2005, Thibodeau was an intern at the museum while she worked on her Masters in American History from the University of Massachusetts.
She told Reminder Publications that there have been many requests for a book on the family and the impact on the city and currently all the museum offers is a 45-minute tour of the mansion.
William Skinner, an English immigrant, moved his silk mill and family business to the fledging city of Holyoke in 1874 after his house and factory had been destroyed by the Mill River Flood in Williamsburg.
Skinner's new factory established itself as not only one of the leading industries in the city, but developed a national reputation among textile producers.
The family has left a considerable mark in the area to this day. Skinner State Park in Hadley, the Orchards Golf Course in South Hadley, Skinner Memorial Chapel at the Second Congregational Church in Holyoke are among the reminders of the family's generosity.
One of the most prominent Skinner accomplishments affected generations of Holyoke residents, but is gone today. Thibodeau recounted in her book how the Skinner factory and its impact on Holyoke grew. She covers the Skinner Coffee House, a settlement house that offered programs for the mill workers, especially. Two of William Skinner's daughters, Belle and Katherine, founded the Coffee House to honor their father. The Coffee House was run by the Skinner family from 1902 until 1942 and then by the city of Holyoke until 1989. It offered a variety of educational and social programs.
The Skinner home, Wistariahurst, became a museum thanks to a bequest from Katherine Skinner Kilborne, the last surviving Skinner child.
Thibodeau said she "lost myself in the archives and in the public library" and worked for four months assembling the images and captions for the project. She spoke with docents at the museum to see what sort of information would be helpful for them to know. She also made sure to include the Skinners' own voices through selections from their dairies and letters.
"There is so much more to tell," Thibodeau said. "If the public wants it, we should be providing it."