Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Today in remembrance of Veteran’s Day and its original celebration of Armistice Day, we have a look at one woman from Holyoke, Massachusetts who took it upon herself to rebuild a devastated French village after World War I. Her name was Belle Skinner, and she was awarded, among other honors, title of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government.
An earlier version of this article was previously published in Chickuppy & Friends Magazine.
Belle Skinner was of a grand age. Her personality, a mixture of childlike bravado and formidable elegance, made her a long remembered figure in Holyoke. The daughter of one of the community’s most important industrialists (we’ll have more on the Skinner family and the Skinner silk milks in a future post), her family home, called Wistariahurst, still graces the city of Holyoke now as a museum, and much of that mansion bears the flourish of her personality. She made numerous contributions to its decoration and architecture. A woman of many talents she left her mark on the many lives she touched.
Belle was not like her father, manufacturer William Skinner. Where he followed his ambitions in a careful and dogmatic manner, Belle's efforts were more stylish, yet she had his strength and sense of purpose; she needed it for her most important achievement: the rebuilding of the French village of Hattonchâtel.
Where her mother was gracious and sympathetic, Belle was grandly beneficent, yet she inherited her mother's diplomacy. She needed it for Hattonchâtel. She came from a large family of individuals, and this was perhaps the reason she was not swallowed up by either their accomplishments or their company. Her personality, however, was molded by their company. If she was a cross between a sprite and a grand dame, she was also every inch a Skinner.
“My dear Belle
Libbie (her sister Elizabeth) did not return last night so I must do the letter writing for today, although I have very little to say…” So her mother, Mrs. Skinner, wrote to Belle in January of 1882, while Belle was a student at Vassar College.
Actually Mrs. Skinner usually had a great deal to say, and most of the surviving Skinner family correspondence includes generously long letters, affectionate and intimate, full of news of family and friends. The above passage illustrates the Skinner family's approach to letter writing. Family members were always traveling, and it was up to somebody to remember to write almost every day. The bonds between parents and children, brothers and sisters extended across many miles and many years.
In the late 1800s when Belle attended college, the art of letter writing was in its glorious last days, soon to become a lost art to the growing use of telegraph and telephone. By 1920 when she was working on the Hattonchâtel project. Belle wrote to her brother from France:
My dear William: -
I have to send you a dictated letter, it looks so cold and unsympathetic, if I don't dictate. I'll not write anything at all…
Belle was born in 1866, and was christened Ruth Isabel. She would be second to the last of seven surviving children of William Skinner. As she grew up, she became influenced by her dynamic father's philanthropy. As an adult, she knew how to give freely of herself. Perhaps she benefited most from the lifelong support and concern of her mother, whose letters to her daughter are filled with admonitions to mind her health. In 1901 when at 35 years old, Belle made a grand tour of Europe, her mother's protective manner let a grown daughter know that she was still her mother's child.
My dear Belle, as I was enjoying myself out training my vines over the fence (by the way, whose participation vines are growing splendidly and if the boys let them alone I hope to get the fence nicely covered before, you see it) Kitten (Belle’s sister Katherine) sent Paul out to remind me that this was the morning for me to write to Belle - I soon left my work to come in and interest you for a while. First I must ask after your health and expect very soon to get a letter telling me what the doctor at Aix (Aix-le-Bains, France) had said - Ah yes, here is a letter just come. So I will hear…K read it. I'm glad the doctor thinks you look better, but sorry that they think your cramp incurable but I almost expected that - for others have given us that impression the but lots of things are worse than that for you write very well with your left hand…I think we are to blame for that insisting upon your writing such long letters…
…asked about you not long ago, and I said, I blame Vassar college for her illness and I also believe it goes back to the time of that sunstroke…
Well, K is waiting to take this to the mail so I will say goodbye with lots of love from all to our dear Belle.
Whether the illness to which Mrs. Skinner refers in this letter was a definitely diagnosed ailment or a series of periods of indifferent health, we do not know. It is certain that her health was an almost constant worry to her mother.
At home in the company of an army of brothers and sisters, whose family was one of the most important and influential in the city of Holyoke, a child might learn to compete for attention and leadership within the group. However, her brother William presents a contradiction to the assumption of gregariousness in his comments at one of the Skinner family reunions.
Now I come to Belle, the organizer of this party, Rebuilder of Hattonchâtel, Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. One would scarcely believe that Belle was a timid child, but on one occasion, having accepted an invitation from a Holyoke young man to go on a sleighing party. She became so frightened as the time approached, that she refused to leave the house unless Joe (her other brother Joseph Skinner) was going on the same party would carry in his pocket a flask of brandy to revive her in case of need.
Though he was only teasing his sister at a family gathering, his estimation of Belle’s timidity is echoed by his sister, Katherine, who in a letter to Belle comforts her that it was not just Belle, but that all the brothers and sisters felt much more at ease in the family group, than with outsiders.
The only reason why you would not talk at the luncheon was because the people were not congenial. You know, you can talk just as well as ever, only not one of us ever had much experience in society. We don't know what to say…
Not much experience in society? Children of one of the most wealthy and influential families of Holyoke, who were familiar in social circles in New York and in Europe?
The Skinner family reunion held at irregular intervals, but most often at Christmas time. Belle found rising to the occasion at the Christmas party an easy affair, even if social obligations intimidated her. She took delight in its preparation. According to the 1922 reunion accounts compiled by Martha Hubbard Skinner:
Such an elaborate series of entertainments as this necessitated, of course much preparation, and naturally on Belle herself was the first person to arrive at Wistariahurst. She brought with her from the New York house a big retinue of servants, and for a full week beforehand was hard at work carrying out her plans.
Belle so enjoyed her family that one wonders what it must have been like for her, sometimes frail and sometimes timid, to leave home for Vassar College in the autumn of 1881. She was 15 years old when she left to attend Vassar Preparatory. Her first letters home to Wistariahurst are filled with typical homesickness and the gradual adapting to an interesting new world apart from her family.
A Holyoke Transcript-Telegram article published in 1929 looked back on Belle’s college career:
Generous in the classic sense is the attribute that came to mind in thinking of Miss Belle Skinner. The tall and graceful Ruth Isabelle (sic) that came to Vassar in 1881 was instantly popular. Like most girls of tall, a distinguished beauty floor at the same time, the imaginative in vivid in personality, she was conscripted for men's parts and college plays.
Belle was elected president of her senior class and on class day in 1887. She delivered the class day address “full of pleasant prophecy of the future.” Her course of study was music, and she performed at various school recitals. She cut such stunning impression among her peers that 40 years later her classmates on the 40th reunion paraded and Alsatian costumes in honor of her Hattonchâtel achievement “following their gay and happy leader, an unforgettable picture as they passed the president's house….”
After college, Belle and assumed her position in Holyoke society in the late 19th century. She joined her mother and brother Joseph as a teacher in the Second Congregational Church Sunday school. She frequently financed trips to New York or Boston operas for local college girls, acted as patroness to many young musicians and also enjoyed traveling, and she seemed to identify most with France.
Her father, William Skinner died February 1902. While her brothers William and Joseph continued the management of the Skinner silk mills, Belle became her mother's devoted companion until Mrs. Skinner died in 1908. Belle and Catherine founded the Skinner Coffee House for mill girls (more on this charitable organization in a future post).
With both parents gone, Belle was in her early 40s. Katherine was the last to be married in 1904 and Belle, who did not marry, was left with a great family legacy and no family of her own with whom to share it.
These were not idle days, however. Belle’s extensive renovations to Wistariahurst were magnificent, her famed rose garden had 365 varieties of rosebushes ranging in color from pale pink to crimson. Her collection of antique musical instruments contained rare treasures, which she chose with her characteristic eye for authenticity and beauty. Serge Koussevitzky, conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra proclaimed her instruments “a collection of superlatives”. The medieval-gothic musical she added on to Wistariahurst was called a Mecca for students of music.
Belle was much more than just a patroness, and soon an opportunity presented itself that enabled her to truly share her magnificent resources. There were people in the other side of the world who needed her sympathy and bravado as much as they needed her patronage. Belle’s biggest adventure was ahead of her.
When World War I broke out, Belle Skinner was one of the first Americans in a still neutral United States to support the economic relief of Belgium and France. France, the land of her Huguenot, forebears had grown especially dear to her, and in the years to follow it would be her second home.
Belle went to France during wartime, and her desire to help was recalled her friend, Mrs. Ford, who spoke at the Skinner Coffee House after Belle's death.
It was a desperate time, and we had need of all the faith we could muster. The battlefront was creeping always nearer to Paris. The refugees in the north were pouring in. Often 50,000 in a single day shells from Big Bertha (nickname for a long-range cannon) were landing by day and bombs from air raids by night.
Belle found she was not able to accomplish much in the midst of chaos. She decided instead to plan positively and presume victory for the Allies. She would return to war-torn France after the Armistice as head of the Villages Liberés movement, a privately organized drive for the restoration of French villages.
She spoke on behalf of this organization, not so timid now, in Holyoke in October 1919 and urged the city fathers as well as private citizens to contribute. Holyoke became the first city in the United States to adopt a French town under this organization. The amount required to accomplish this was $30,000. Holyoke adopted Apremont-le-Foret, where so many Massachusetts men fought. A plaque was placed near the town’s restored water works on which was inscribed in French, “These waterworks are dedicated to the sacred memory of our boys who fought and fell here, as a gift to you, people of Apremont Wood, from us, the people of Holyoke, Massachusetts, USA, 1922.”
A few miles from Apremont was a village called Hattonchâtel. Belle toured the area and adopted the entire village herself in 1919. Hattonchâtel rested on the crest of a hill, and it was reported that the location reminded her of Mt. Tom and Holyoke. The Kaiser’s army held the village for four years until U.S. troops conquered the stronghold late in the war.
Hattonchâtel was a 10th century village, a farming community, and at Armistice were left with nothing. Belle became their sponsor, and they probably could not have had a better champion. The New York Tribune splashed the headline:
Rich American Woman Adopts an Entire French Village
Belle Skinner spent more than one million dollars rebuilding Hattonchâtel, France, the homes, village church. She created a water system, and fed and clothed its people.
According to Mrs. Ford:
It meant many trips back and forth, and the exercise of endless patience and good humor. The government department she had to deal with were almost collapsing under the strain of war…
She was utterly self-effacing, and she knew better than almost everyone else how to do things in the way the French most wanted them to be done.
As a memorial to the village and its people, Belle erected a statue most unlike the war monuments of soldiers would consume spring up on the European landscape. She chose instead a statue of a peasant woman who stands with hands folded, head bowed, and patient expression.
Mrs. Ford visited France in 1920 and inspected Belle's work on Hattonchâtel:
As we walked through the streets I think I came to realize the full stature of her greatness was not a great lady from overseas walking graciously among her people. She was a neighbor walking humbly among her humble neighbors, never intruding, never expecting anything return, but knowing their needs and watching over their lives with an intimate and sensitive and personal affection.
While working on Hattonchâtel, Belle stayed in the house of the parish priest, the curé.
A charming thing occurred that evening…there was an air of suppressed excitement and much secrecy, and then we heard the scuffling the feet of the stone-flagged corridor outside and in came all the children of the village big and little.
The children were carrying the two flags, and they promptly sang the “Marseillaise”. Then came the surprise. The Curé had been training them for weeks and weeks and they burst into “The Star-Spangled Banner” in French. They called her their fairy godmother.
In a letter to her brother, William, Belle wrote more of a formal ceremony:
Those who had automobiles went down the Hill with me to the monument at Vigneulles, which marks the junction of the French and American troops, and there we placed a wreath.
The French musicians played “The Star-Spangled Banner”. The wreath is carried by French and American soldiers, while the two American officers and I stood at attention.
I forgot to mention the decorations. They were simply lovely. Green arches with garlands and French and American flag. Simple, but beautifully arranged.
Well, this will be my last letter home, probably. My boat is due Sunday, October 2nd, and I should be glad to see you as usual at the Dock, but insist upon it please that Kitten shall not try to meet me.
Heaps of Love
In 1919, Belle was decorated by Premier Millerand of France with the Medaille de le Reconnaissance Francaise at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris for her wartime aiding of refugees. In 1921, she was presented with the Cross of the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, the highest honor the French government can bestow, for her rescue of Hattonchâtel. She was the first American woman to receive the honor. It was given to her in their New York home by representative of the French government. Her brothers, and her sisters Elizabeth, Eleanor, and Katherine were present.
Though the initial work on the village was being completed, Belle continued to restore the damaged chateau in the village for herself to occupy. Just as she prepared to move into her new home, Belle died of pneumonia in April 1928. She was 62 years old.
The Denver Post was only one of hundreds of newspapers that carried the story:
IS DEAD IN FRANCE
French papers like the Paris Journal and Le Figaro of course reported the news.
“We have lost not only a benefactress but a friend as well,” said the village mayor. “Her kindness and good humor won all our hearts here. She was rebuilding the old Hattonchâtel Castle and intended to come here and live among us. We were preparing a great welcome for her when we heard the news of her death. It is a hard blow.”
Next to the memorial of the Peasant Woman, the village of Hattonchâtel placed a marble tablet:
To the lamented Miss Belle Skinner, their sweet godmother, their munificent benefactress the inhabitants of Hattonchâtel vow unending gratitude.
In 1933 her brother William donated the Château she never lived in to the Bishop of Verdun to be used as a house of retreat for the clergy of the diocese. He also donated a recital hall building to Vassar College, Belle’s alma mater. The Belle Skinner Hall of music was dedicated in 1931.
Belle Skinner left a great and varied legacy to thousands who had benefited from her charity, which included the inhabitants of an entire French village, to her friends, former classmates and to her family.
Her family mourned her most. How often for years, had she been called home by them to renew her membership in that unique group.
“Here for a few days,” Belle said of Wistariahurst at one reunion, “we put aside our individual occupations and endeavors, and so to speak, pool our interests. Within these walls together, do we feel the grip of our inheritance.”
Family friend Mrs. Hammond recalled an image of Belle for a Skinner Coffee House tribute to her memory in November 1928. She describes how Belle tended her mother's wisteria that covered their home.
I have watched her, hour after hour directing and the men how to train each separate twig or branch. How each was to be tied back, or bent forward, or trained to grow in a certain direction, always knowing just how she wished every part of that vine look - that vine to which she jokingly used to refer as ‘my monument posterity’.
Her ‘monument’ still grows around the mansion on Pine Street. It is elegant and lovely.
For more on Belle Skinner, the Skinner family, and the Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, Massachusetts, have a look at this website.