American Phoenix: The Remarkable Story of William Skinner, A Man Who Turned Disaster Into Destiny

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9781451671803: American Phoenix: The Remarkable Story of William Skinner, A Man Who Turned Disaster Into Destiny
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The incredible story of millionaire manufacturer William Skinner, a leading founder of the American silk industry, who lost everything in a devastating flood only to stage “one of the greatest comebacks in the annals of American industry” (Boston Sunday Post).

In 1845, a young, penniless William Skinner sailed in steerage class on a boat that took him from the slums of London to the United States. Skilled in the rare art of dyeing, he acquired work in a fledgling silk mill in Massachusetts, parlaying that one job into a lucrative new career and pioneering the way for American-made silk. Soon he had turned a barren stretch of countryside into a bustling factory village, “Skinnerville,” filled with men, women, and children producing the country’s most glamorous thread in his very own mill.

Then in 1874, disaster struck. A nearby dam burst, unleashing an inland tidal wave that tore down the Mill River Valley. Within fifteen minutes, Skinner’s factory, his village, and his life’s work were completely swept away in the worst industrial disaster the nation had yet known.

What followed was even more extraordinary, for out of this ruin came an empire. With grit, determination, and uncanny resolve, Skinner rebuilt his business into one of the leading silk manufacturing companies in the world. Now Sarah S. Kilborne—Skinner’s great-great-granddaughter—incorporates both the nation’s and her family’s past into a page-turning story of ambition, triumph, unthinkable loss, and heroism. With evocative details and a compelling, timeless message, American Phoenix is the inspiring account of the success of one man against the odds, and of the spirit that shaped a nation.

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About the Author:

Sarah S. Kilborne is a writer, historian, musician, and editor. She holds a degree in philosophy from Yale University and has been a research fellow at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of two acclaimed books for children, Peach & Blue and Leaving Vietnam: The True Story of Tuan Ngo. She lives along the Hudson River in upstate New York.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter Two

The rain began before daybreak, not much at first, but enough to render it a damp and cheerless morning by the time the first bell rang at the mill, at half past five. This bell served as the workers’ alarm clock, alerting everyone at the boardinghouses that it was time to rise. Ellen Littlefield, who had boarded in Skinnerville for nearly seven years, was well used to the routine. A “packer” at Skinner’s mill, she worked on the ground floor of the office building in a room filled with drawers of finished silk and stacks of boxes for shipping. Of the five or so packers employed at this time, Ellen was arguably the most experienced, given her longevity in Skinner’s employ, and easily claimed respect as an old hand.

She was also, truth be told, fairly old to be working in the mill, having just celebrated her thirty-second birthday on May 8. Chances are, she marked the occasion with her closest friend at the mill, Aurelia Damon, who worked upstairs in the finishing room. At thirty-six Aurelia was Skinner’s oldest female employee and his only female employee to own a home. By 1872, after more than twelve years of working at the mill, Aurelia had earned enough money to build a “very pretty cottage” on the opposite side of the river. Ellen was a frequent visitor at this house, where she and Aurelia could feel comparatively youthful in the company of Aurelia’s infirm mother.

Most of the women that Skinner employed were in their late teens or early twenties. Many had come “seeking employment before marriage,” drawn to the independence that millwork afforded as well as the opportunity to put some money in their calico pockets (for dowries, clothing, and even, on occasion, education). Only a handful worked at the mill for more than a few years; rarely did any linger past thirty, a dangerous age for a woman still to be single. But Ellen doesn’t seem to have worried much about this, enjoying harmless flirtations with the likes of Tom Forsyth, that funny, handsome Englishman who worked in the winding room in the main part of the mill, or Nash Hubbard, “the widower,” who was hired within the past year as Skinner’s new bookkeeper.

As rain splattered on the windowsill, Ellen roused herself from the warmth of her bed, throwing off her heavy comforter and placing her bare feet on her large handmade rug. At this point in her career she’d graduated to having her own room—a rarity in boardinghouse life—and decorated it to her taste. Arranged here and there were books, magazines, and newspapers (she had a number of subscriptions), as well as her collection of photographs. Her melodeon, which she had been playing for about five years now, rested somewhere nearby, perhaps against the chair in which she practiced. And in one corner was a black walnut table made especially for custom sewing, of which Ellen did a great deal. Paper, ink, and letters lay about the room, awaiting Sunday, her day for correspondence. And curtains (made by her) hung in the windows, filtering the light on this cold, gray morning.

Gone were the days of sharing a bed with another boarder, in a room sleeping four or more. That was now the fate of the younger girls, most of whom boarded in the main house next door. The silk mill’s two boardinghouses, which looked like regular old farmhouses, were managed by a well-known local, Fred Hillman, and filled with about two dozen operatives at this time. That number was going to swell once Mr. Skinner began hiring again. No one knew just when that would be, of course, as Mr. S. had put off his plans temporarily “on account of the dull state of the market.” Even so, like the height of the river itself, such arrangements could change at any moment.

The Mill River was a modest waterway that originated in the mountains to the north and meandered rather pleasantly through Skinnerville. Unlike the mighty Connecticut, which flowed through three states, or the Merrimack, stretching from New Hampshire to Massachusetts, the Mill River was all of three towns long and forty feet wide. Still it made locals proud. “Seldom is there a river like our little Mill river,” the Northampton Free Press had written just a few days earlier, “that has the power to propel so many water-wheels that drive so much silk, cotton and woolen machinery, so many saws and lathes for iron, brass, wood and ivory buttons, flour and corn mills, and also saw mills and other things.” Indeed no fewer than sixty-four mills lined the river along its fourteen-mile run from the town of Williamsburg down through the town of Northampton.

Skinnerville, located within the township of Williamsburg, had been established in one of the river’s more advantageous bends. Although the northern reaches of the valley were rugged, rocky, and hilly, the land opened up at this point into a lovely little plain. Nearly all the houses in the village, most of them built within the past fifteen years, were alongside the road and the river. It was a pretty road, shaded by elms, sycamores, and maples, and in back of most of the houses were gardens and fields divided by stone walls. Because it was so close to the river, though, the village flooded easily, particularly in the spring when freshets, or flash floods, most commonly occurred.

In February 1873 Ellen had received a letter from one of her sisters, asking, “Have you any fear that there may be a freshet there this spring? Mother said yesterday that the water would be apt to be high through those valies [sic] if it kept on raining.” When springtime rains poured down, melting winter’s snow and ice, the volume of the area’s rivers naturally increased. Mill River became a considerable force, swollen and powerful, which was good for business since all that waterpower meant uninterrupted production at the valley’s factories. But the river’s swell could also rage out of control, back up behind ice jams, take out the wooden milldams, and otherwise cause a great deal of damage. To help ward against freshets and store some of that waterpower for later in the year, the manufacturers in Mill River Valley had built no fewer than four reservoirs, three up the west branch of the river and one up the east branch. These reservoirs were instrumental in controlling and regulating the area’s natural watershed.

The reservoir on the east branch had never gained the trust of many townsfolk. Known as the Williamsburg Reservoir, it covered over a hundred acres, was a mile long, and contained about 600 million gallons of water. Almost from the start its dam had leaked, but supporters pointed out that the dam had been made with tamped earth and the rivulets of water flowing through it were entirely characteristic of earthen dams. A co-owner of all four reservoirs, Skinner drew on this one as a source of humor. Someone had asked him a few months back, “What do you have for excitement up here nowadays?” “Well,” Skinner replied, “we occasionally have a freshet, then there is a general alarm that the reservoir has broken loose.”

At ten minutes to six the second bell pealed through the early-morning air, just twenty minutes after the first. Ready or not, breakfast was being served in the dining halls, and the Hillmans’ twenty or so boarders, Ellen included, rushed for the stairs, fussing with their clothes and greeting one another with groggy hellos. Then just half an hour later, the third morning bell rang. It was 6:20, ten minutes before anyone who worked in the silk mill, whether living in the boardinghouses or elsewhere, was to be at his or her respective post. Pushing back from the table, Ellen darted upstairs with the rest, donned her cloak and hat, and grabbed her umbrella and rubbers for good measure. In bad weather almost everyone wore rubbers over their everyday boots. Ellen had never seen any others like hers; they were “wired so the backs stood up about the ankle and one could just step into them.” Though perhaps not the most comfortable, they were easy to slip on in a rush before heading outdoors.

The road through Skinnerville, sleepy just minutes before, was suddenly alive with men, women, and children hurrying through the rain and coming in from all directions but heading toward the same: Skinner’s silk mill. The Cahill twins were coming down from the north, the Bartlett siblings from the south, the McGrath girls from the east. Close to sixty adult workers reported for work this morning, some forty women and twenty men, in addition to at least a dozen children and adolescents. Children were an integral part of the factory system in nineteenth-century America, composing their own class of workers within most industrial communities. Manufacturers benefited from their cheap labor, and families benefited from the extra income. The most progressive state in the union regarding child labor, Massachusetts had only two statutes for children under the age of fifteen: they couldn’t work more than ten-hour days, and they had to receive three months of schooling a year. A decade earlier Skinner had pushed for the town to build him a school; it was, conveniently, two doors down from the mill.

In silk mills, however, unlike cotton mills, children weren’t employed simply to run errands back and forth between departments or to replace full bobbins with empty ones on the spinning frames. Children stood before their own machines, finessing raw silk thread through tiny glass eyes and helping the brittle strands wind evenly, back and forth, on spool after spool. This was the very first stage in production at a silk mill, and it was generally considered ideal work for children, given their keen eyesight and nimble fingers. When discussing how John Ryle, mayor of Paterson, New Jersey, and one of the most eminent silk manufacturers in the country, began work at age five in a silk mill in England—an age too young even for most Americans—...

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Book Description SIMON & SCHUSTER, United States, 2014. Paperback. Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English. Brand new Book. The incredible story of millionaire manufacturer William Skinner, a leading founder of the American silk industry, who lost everything in a devastating flood only to stage "one of the greatest comebacks in the annals of American industry" (Boston Sunday Post). In 1845, a young, penniless William Skinner sailed in steerage class on a boat that took him from the slums of London to the United States. Skilled in the rare art of dyeing, he acquired work in a fledgling silk mill in Massachusetts, parlaying that one job into a lucrative new career and pioneering the way for American-made silk. Soon he had turned a barren stretch of countryside into a bustling factory village, "Skinnerville," filled with men, women, and children producing the country's most glamorous thread in his very own mill. Then in 1874, disaster struck. A nearby dam burst, unleashing an inland tidal wave that tore down the Mill River Valley. Within fifteen minutes, Skinner's factory, his village, and his life's work were completely swept away in the worst industrial disaster the nation had yet known. What followed was even more extraordinary, for out of this ruin came an empire. With grit, determination, and uncanny resolve, Skinner rebuilt his business into one of the leading silk manufacturing companies in the world. Now Sarah S. Kilborne-Skinner's great-great-granddaughter-incorporates both the nation's and her family's past into a page-turning story of ambition, triumph, unthinkable loss, and heroism. With evocative details and a compelling, timeless message, American Phoenix is the inspiring account of the success of one man against the odds, and of the spirit that shaped a nation. Seller Inventory # AAS9781451671803

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Book Description SIMON & SCHUSTER, United States, 2014. Paperback. Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English. Brand new Book. The incredible story of millionaire manufacturer William Skinner, a leading founder of the American silk industry, who lost everything in a devastating flood only to stage "one of the greatest comebacks in the annals of American industry" (Boston Sunday Post). In 1845, a young, penniless William Skinner sailed in steerage class on a boat that took him from the slums of London to the United States. Skilled in the rare art of dyeing, he acquired work in a fledgling silk mill in Massachusetts, parlaying that one job into a lucrative new career and pioneering the way for American-made silk. Soon he had turned a barren stretch of countryside into a bustling factory village, "Skinnerville," filled with men, women, and children producing the country's most glamorous thread in his very own mill. Then in 1874, disaster struck. A nearby dam burst, unleashing an inland tidal wave that tore down the Mill River Valley. Within fifteen minutes, Skinner's factory, his village, and his life's work were completely swept away in the worst industrial disaster the nation had yet known. What followed was even more extraordinary, for out of this ruin came an empire. With grit, determination, and uncanny resolve, Skinner rebuilt his business into one of the leading silk manufacturing companies in the world. Now Sarah S. Kilborne-Skinner's great-great-granddaughter-incorporates both the nation's and her family's past into a page-turning story of ambition, triumph, unthinkable loss, and heroism. With evocative details and a compelling, timeless message, American Phoenix is the inspiring account of the success of one man against the odds, and of the spirit that shaped a nation. Seller Inventory # AAS9781451671803

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Book Description Simon & Schuster. Paperback. Condition: New. 448 pages. The incredible story of millionaire manufacturer William Skinner, a leading founder of the American silk industry, who lost everything in a devastating flood only to stage one of the greatest comebacks in the annals of American industry (Boston Sunday Post). In 1845, a young, penniless William Skinner sailed in steerage class on a boat that took him from the slums of London to the United States. Skilled in the rare art of dyeing, he acquired work in a fledgling silk mill in Massachusetts, parlaying that one job into a lucrative new career and pioneering the way for American-made silk. Soon he had turned a barren stretch of countryside into a bustling factory village, Skinnerville, filled with men, women, and children producing the countrys most glamorous thread in his very own mill. Then in 1874, disaster struck. A nearby dam burst, unleashing an inland tidal wave that tore down the Mill River Valley. Within fifteen minutes, Skinners factory, his village, and his lifes work were completely swept away in the worst industrial disaster the nation had yet known. What followed was even more extraordinary, for out of this ruin came an empire. With grit, determination, and uncanny resolve, Skinner rebuilt his business into one of the leading silk manufacturing companies in the world. Now Sarah S. KilborneSkinners great-great-granddaughterincorporates both the nations and her familys past into a page-turning story of ambition, triumph, unthinkable loss, and heroism. With evocative details and a compelling, timeless message, American Phoenix is the inspiring account of the success of one man against the odds, and of the spirit that shaped a nation. This item ships from multiple locations. Your book may arrive from Roseburg,OR, La Vergne,TN. Paperback. Seller Inventory # 9781451671803

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