Belle Skinner

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Belle Skinner
BelleSkinner portrait (cropped).png
Oil portrait of Belle Skinner, date unknown
Ruth Isabelle Skinner

(1866-04-30)April 30, 1866
DiedApril 09, 1928
Alma materVassar College

Ruth Isabelle Skinner (April 30, 1866–April 09, 1928) was an American businesswoman and philanthropist. She was a daughter of silk manufacturer William Skinner (1824-1902) and his second wife, the former Sarah Elizabeth Allen (1834-1908). Belle Skinner was a humanitarian and music-lover whose life her brother William memorialized in the construction of the Skinner Hall of Music at Vassar College in 1932. She lived most of her life at the family home, Wistariahurst, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, now an historic site. She renovated and expanded this house to reflect her interests, including adding the music room, where she housed her musical instrument collection, now housed at Yale University.

In 1902 she and her sister Katherine established the Skinner Coffee House in honor of their late father, the coffee house initially hosted women working in the Skinner mills for social, service, and educational activities but gradually became a meeting place for dozens of men's and women's clubs, the 4-H Club, neighborhood organizations, children's groups, and dancing clubs.[1]

After the first world war, Belle Skinner helped rebuild the small town of Hattonchâtel and Château de Hattonchâtel. In return for her efforts following the war, Ms. Skinner was presented the Médaille de la Reconnaissance française by future French president and then-commissioner general of Alsace-Lorraine, Alexandre Millerand, in January 1919, at the ministry of foreign affairs in Paris.[2] She also led the effort to rally American cities to adopt French villages during the postwar reconstruction, establishing the American Committee of Villages Libérés in New York City later that year.[3] Holyoke would be the first city to take part in the program, providing a water supply to the village of Apremont-la-Forêt.[4] Two years later on January 26, 1921, she was decorated with the rank of Chevalier in the Légion d'honneur for her continued aid to the French people.[5] While her acts of charity to the French village received general praise and influenced other towns and cities to follow suit,[2] they also drew the ire of nativists and anti-Catholicists, the Klan publication The Fiery Cross lambasted Skinner's efforts "to throw away one million excellent American dollars on two hundred French peasants when a few thousands of that sum would have built them good comfortable little less than a crime against one's country".[6]

Plaque honoring Ms. Skinner in the Château de Hattonchâtel

Ultimately Skinner would contribute greatly to her alma mater, providing Vassar College with the first fellowship for foreign studies in 1926, $10,000 for graduates to study history in France, as she had spent time in Paris as a young girl herself soon after her own graduation.[7][8] While travelling to France to oversee the completion of the Hattonchâtel restoration, Ms. Skinner contracted pneumonia and died on April 9, 1928. In her memory, her brother William would contribute funds to raise her fellowship to $25,000, as well as fund construction of Skinner Hall for the college's department of music.[7] Belle Skinner's body was brought back to New York City, where a funeral service was held, after which a second was held days later at the Skinner Memorial Chapel of the Holyoke United Congregational Church. She was interred in the family's plot at Forestdale Cemetery.[9][10]

Further reading[edit]

  • Skinner, William; Thompson, Elizabeth (1933). The Belle Skinner collection of old musical instruments, Holyoke, Massachusetts. Philadelphia: Beck Engraving Company. OCLC 64299108.


  1. ^ "The Skinner Coffee House". Wistariahurst Museum. Archived from the original on July 28, 2016.
  2. ^ a b "Holyoke Woman is Godmother to Entire French Village". Boston Herald. Boston. December 5, 1910. p. 50.
  3. ^ "The Classes; 1887". Vassar Quarterly. Vol. IV no. 3. May 1919. p. 228.
  4. ^ "Hattonchâtel ou la bienfaisance de Belle Skinner". (in French). Tourisme-Meuse. March 7, 2013. Archived from the original on 2018-06-24. Retrieved 2018-11-04.
  5. ^ "Massachusetts Girl is Decorated for War Work". Elkhart Truth. Elkhart, Ind. January 26, 1921. p. 6.
  6. ^ "A Million for a Cross When the Cross of Calvary is Free" (PDF). The Fiery Cross. Indianapolis. October 26, 1923. p. 4.
  7. ^ a b "Belle Skinner". Vassar Encyclopedia. Vassar College. Archived from the original on August 13, 2018. Retrieved 27 April 2019.
  8. ^ E. L. Wells; A. S. Hussey; A. L. Crawford; G. S. Boynton, eds. (October 1893). "Personals". The Vassar Miscellany. Vol. XXIII no. 1. Poughkeepsie, NY: Students' Assocation of Vassar College. p. 27. Miss Belle Skinner will spend the year in Paris with her youngest sister
  9. ^ "BELLE SKINNER DIES ON VISIT TO FRANCE; Holyoke Woman Adopted Whole Village of Hattonehatel After War. REBUILT DESTROYED HOMES Raised $1,000,000 to Make of Place a Model Community--Restored Apremont Also". The New York Times. April 9, 1928. p. 21.
  10. ^ "Miss Skinner's Body Reaches New York". Springfield Republican. Springfield, Mass. April 21, 1928. p. 11.

External links[edit]

External video
Belle Skinner and the Reconstruction of Hattonchâtel, excerpt from C-SPAN's American Artifacts Recalls WWI: Battle Saint Mihiel