submitted by Penni Martorell, Wistariahurst Museum, Holyoke
Born Ruth Isabelle Skinner on April 30, 1866 in Williamsburg, MA, Belle was the daughter of William and Sarah Elizabeth Allen Skinner.
In October of 1874 after the disastrous Mill River Flood that wiped out Skinnerville and the Skinner’s Unquomunk Silk Mill, the family relocated to Holyoke, MA.
Educated in the Holyoke Public Schools, Belle went on to Vassar and graduated as class president in 1887. She was influenced by her father who had a vision of the greater place women must take in world affairs. After a graduating from Vassar, Ms. Skinner spent a year in France and travelled widely with her family.
In 1902, as collaboration with her sister Katharine Skinner Kilborne, the Skinner Coffee House was created in honor of their recently deceased father William Skinner. The Skinner Coffee House was a recreation center for women who worked in the Holyoke mills. They offered various cooking and sewing classes; music and art lessons; made books available for reading and even provided rooming for “women and children in transition.”
When WWI began in August 1914, Ms. Skinner’s sympathies were with France. In 1918, through field glasses from within the French Lines, Ms. Skinner saw the town of Hattonchâtel bombed and taken by the German forces. Ms. Skinner declared to a French officer that this was to be her village to adopt. When he protested that there was nothing left but the hill, she replied: “Then I will rebuild what there is of it!”
Ms. Skinner immediately arranged with the French Government to care for the scattered population until rebuilding could begin. And she resolutely set out to help them restore the village without a thought of failure. In recognition of her efforts in 1919, she received from the French government the Gold Medal of Reconnaissance Française, and in December, 1920 the Cross of the Légion d’Honneur.
Always struggling with health issues, Ms. Skinner died of pneumonia in Paris, France on April 9,1928, just shy of her 62nd birthday.