Thursday, August 19, 2010

Holyoke's Wistariahurst Museum

Wistariahurst Museum is similar to many properties in Hampden County in that it tells the history of a family, a city and an era. Located in Holyoke, the mansion was the home to Silk magnate William Skinner and his heirs for almost one hundred years. Wistariahurst was built in 1868 and added to the National Historic Register in 1973.

William Skinner was born in London in 1824 and trained in the silk dying industry. He immigrated to the United States in 1843, eventually going into business for himself in Haydenville, Massachusetts. On May 16, 1874, the Williamsburg Dam washed away and the surrounding villages of Williamsburg, Leeds and Haydenville went with it, including Skinners Unquomonk Silk Co.

Looking to lure a thriving business to Holyoke, James Newton convinced William Skinner to relocate to a site located on one of the cities three canals. To help “sway” Skinner, the Holyoke Water Power Co. gave him the mill site rent free for 5 years. They also sold him an entire city block at a cost of $1 on which Wistariahurst now stands (the home was originally built in Williamsburg, but was taken apart after the flood and transported to Holyoke to be rebuilt). Aided by an unlimited source of power from the cities canals and inexpensive immigrant labor, the manufacturing business grew to sales of $6.5 million by 1902, employing 2,500 employees at its peak. Skinner Silk was sold in New York, Philadelphia and Boston and was known throughout the world.

The success of the Skinner business, which by 1886 included his sons William and Joseph and was known as William Skinner & Son’s Silk Manufacturing, was reflected in the lavish family home. Wistariahurst, so named for the Wistaria Vines that soon covered the building, featured two large stone lions guarding the front entrance that were purchased by Mrs. Skinner on a trip to Rome. The home had leather wall coverings, stone columns, painted ceilings, elaborate woodwork and even a driveway paved with Dinosaur footprints from the Jurassic period. The grounds were manicured by a small army of laborers; the children cared for by a nanny; and meals were prepared by personal kitchen staff.

Wistariahurst and the Skinner legacy live on in the City of Holyoke and throughout the world. The family deeded their home to the city in 1959 for cultural and educational purposes. William Skinner was a founding member of the Holyoke YMCA, the Holyoke Public Library and Grace United Church. He served as a trustee to Mount Holyoke College, Mount Hermon Seminary and Northfield’s Young Women’s Seminary. His son Joseph built the elite Orchard’s Golf Course on his South Hadley estate, so that his daughter Elisabeth would have a place to play. He also donated 30 acres to Mount Holyoke, which became Skinner State Park and is famous for the hotel at the top known as The Summit House.

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