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William Skinner, 19th-century mill owner, subject of Williamsburg talk

— Some 60 people gathered at the First Congregational Church of Williamsburg on North Main Street Tuesday to hear author Sarah Skinner Kilborne speak about her great-great-grandfather, mill owner William Skinner, the subject of her soon-to-be-released book “American Phoenix: The Remarkable Story of William Skinner, A Man Who Turned Disaster Into Destiny.”

Ten years in the making, Kilborne’s story revolves around Skinner’s first mill in Williamsburg or as it was better known then, Skinnerville, and the infamous flood of 1874 that destroyed the mill and decimated the village in a span of 15 minutes.

While the devastating flood put several other mills along the Mill River out of business, Skinner, a tenacious businessman, was able to move his operation to Holyoke, eventually becoming the owner of the largest silk mill in the country, with Skinner silks being the most sought after fabric for years to come.

Kilborne credited local historians Ralmon Black and Eric Weber with helping with her research over the last decade. She said the pair provided valuable historical information, tours of the area, as well as help with graphics and photographs, fact checking and reading drafts.

“I really couldn’t have done this without Ralmon and Eric,” Kilborne said.

In her talk Tuesday, Kilborne painted an intriguing picture of Skinner’s rags-to-riches story: Once a penniless immigrant, he became a millionaire and a prominent figure in the American silk industry.

Kilborne related how Skinner was able to move his entire mansion from Williamsburg to Holyoke, piece by piece, using 25 railroad cars and ox-drawn wagons. The home remained in the family until 1959 when it was donated to the city of Holyoke and is now known as the Wistariahurst Museum.

Black was visibly moved after hearing Kilborne reading a selection from the book.

“Wow!” he said, dabbing his eyes with his handkerchief. “You know, I have read the book already, but to hear it coming right from the man’s great-great-granddaughter, it’s really quite emotional.”

Amherst writer Elizabeth M. Sharpe, author of “In the Shadow of the Dam: The Aftermath of the Mill River Flood of 1874,” also attended the event.

“I thought this was wonderful. There is so much important historical work to be done here in the Valley,” Sharpe said.

Williamsburg Selectman Paul Dunphy said that he was riveted by the story, recalling his personal connections to the rise and fall of local mills.

“I was very interested because my great-great-grandfather had been a foreman in the Hayden Mill,” Dunphy said.

Resident John Sinton, who is working on a cultural history of the Mill River, said the talk captured the essence of Skinner and the characteristics that motivated his success.

“What I liked in particular was that Sarah really put Skinner into context. She is a very good researcher and historian and a wonderful storyteller,” Sinton said.

Kilborne has written two children’s books, “Leaving Vietnam: The Journey Of Tuan Ngo” and “Peach and Blue.” She lives along the Hudson River in Germantown, N.Y.

Kilborne will speak at the Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke on Monday at 6 p.m. and the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley on Wednesday at 7 p.m. “The American Phoenix” hits the bookstore shelves on Tuesday.

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