William Skinner Silk Mill, Holyoke, Mass

The William Skinner Silk Mill, as seen from the Dwight Street bridge over the First Level Canal in Holyoke, in 1936. Image taken by Lewis Hine, courtesy of the U. S. National Archives.

The scene in 2017:

William Skinner was an English immigrant who came to the United States as a young man in 1845. While in England, he had received some training in the silk industry, and he put this to use soon after his arrival in America. At the time, the United States manufactured very little silk, with most of the country’s supply coming from overseas, but by the early 1850s Skinner had established his own silk mill. Known as the Unquomonk Silk Company, it was located along the Mill River in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, in a village that came to be known as Skinnerville.

The company prospered under Skinner’s leadership, and by the early 1870s it had become one of the country’s leading producers of silk. However, this came to an abrupt end on May 16, 1874, when a dam broke on the Mill River, upstream of Skinnerville. The 100-acre reservoir quickly emptied, sending 600 million gallons of water rushing down the valley. Several villages and factories were destroyed in the resulting flood, and 139 people were killed. Almost all of Skinnerville was destroyed, including the Unquomonk mill, and only Skinner’s home, known as Wisteriahurst, survived relatively unscathed.

Skinner’s losses amounted to nearly $200,000 – almost $4.5 million today – and none of it was covered by insurance. He faced potential financial ruin, but was determined to rebuild, although not in Skinnerville. After evaluating is options, he chose to move his company to Holyoke, which was in the midst of becoming a major manufacturing center for paper and textiles. Here, the Connecticut River produced far more water power than the Mill River could have ever provided, and he was also enticed by a lucrative offer from the Holyoke Water Power Company. The company provided him with a mill site that was rent-free for five years, and also sold him an entire city block for his home, for the nominal fee of $1.

In relocating to Holyoke, Skinner brought his entire house with him, moving Wistariahurst to his lot at the corner of Cabot and Pine Streets. He built his factory on Appleton Street, on the current site of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, and by the end of 1874 he was once again producing silk. Despite his heavy losses in Williamsburg, Skinner once again became a wealthy man, with his company regaining its prominence within the American silk industry.

Skinner’s sons, William and Joseph, joined the company in 1883, and the name was changed to William Skinner & Sons. The elder William died in 1902, and his sons subsequently took over the management of the company. Around the same time, its facilities were significantly expanded with a new factory on the other side of Appleton Street. By 1911 this building, which is shown in the first photo, extended for an entire city block from Appleton to Dwight Streets. At 1,000 feet in length and 60 feet in width, and with a total floor space of over five acres, it was reportedly the largest silk mill in the world. An article in the May 1912 issue of Silk magazine provides the following description of this building:

This is an absolutely modern mill in every respect, the latest devices for weaving and all processes of textile manufacture having been installed. The great weave rooms are filled with looms six abreast, all of them driven by individual electric motors, so that there is no shafting in sight.

A special feature of the new mill is the lighting. All of the available space in the outside walls has been given over to windows, so that there are in all 1,000 windows. The walls are painted white to increase the refraction of light, and the top floor is made especially light by a saw-tooth roof. This mill is devoted largely to the manufacture of colored linings for the cloak and suit trade, as well as to picking, inspecting and finishing. The department of braid manufacture also occupies a portion of this building. The bright vari-colored warps and wefts on the many aisles of looms, which pulsating shuttles are weaving into fabrics of all hues and colors, make a sight that one will long remember.

The Skinner company would continue to be a leading silk producer throughout the first half of the 20th century. By the time the first photo was taken in 1936, America was in the midst of the Great Depression, but the Skinner mills continued production throughout this time. The photo was taken by Lewis Hine, a prominent photographer and social reformer who, several decades earlier, had traveled around the country to document child labor conditions in factories. Child labor was no longer as great of an issue by the 1930s, thanks in part to his efforts, but he again traveled to industrial centers, where he showed the effects of the Great Depression. His 1936 trip to Holyoke included photographs of workers inside the Skinner mills. It is not clear whether they were taken in this building or one of the other Skinner mills in Holyoke, but some of the photos are shown below, along with Hines’s original captions:

Mt. Holyoke, Massachusetts – Silk. William Skinner and Sons. Doubling, 1936
Mt. Holyoke, Massachusetts – Silk. William Skinner and Sons. Automatic loom (Skinner Mill), 1936
Mt. Holyoke, Massachusetts – Silk. William Skinner and Sons. Putting skein on swift to wind on bobbin (Polish), 1936
Mt. Holyoke, Massachusetts – Silk. William Skinner and Sons. Silk Warping, 1936
Mt. Holyoke, Massachusetts – Silk. William Skinner and Sons. Quilling rayon (Polish), 1936

William and Joseph Skinner both ran the mills until their deaths in the late 1940s, and their children then inherited the company. However, by this point many of the industries in New England’s once-prosperous manufacturing centers were in decline. The Skinner company faced increased competition in the silk market, along with old facilities and manufacturing processes that were becoming obsolete. It produced its last silk in 1956, a little over a century after William Skinner had established the company in Williamsburg, and the family finally sold the company in 1961.

The new owners, Indian Head Mills, closed the old Skinner mills two years later, in 1963. Then, in 1980, the mill building in the first photo, which had once been touted as the largest silk mill in the world, was destroyed by a fire. Today, there are no traces left from the first photo, except for the canal itself, and the site has been redeveloped as Holyoke Heritage State Park. The park is now home to the Holyoke Children’s Museum and the International Volleyball Hall of Fame, both of which are located in the building on the right side of the present-day photo.

Canal Street, Holyoke, Mass

Looking southwest on Canal Street, toward the corner of Lyman Street in Holyoke, in 1936. Image taken by Lewis Hine, courtesy of the U. S. National Archives.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo was taken by the prominent photographer and social reformer Lewis Hine, who is best known for his early 20th century work with the National Child Labor Committee. However, later in life he also documented life across the country during the Great Depression, including a visit to Holyoke in 1936. At the time, the city was a leading producer of paper and textiles, and most of his photos focus on Holyoke’s industry. This photo shows the scene along Canal Street, with the Second Level Canal on the right. The Boston and Maine Railroad crosses through the middle of the photo, and in the background is the Whiting Paper Company, which was located in a building that had previously been occupied by the Lyman Mills. Hine’s original caption provides a short description of the photo:

Mt. Holyoke [sic]Massachusetts – Scenes. An old mill of absentee ownership, liquidated and sold at a great bargain to a new owner, who would not sell or rent, uses only a small part; railway transportation; electric power transmission. Lyman Mills (Now Whiting Company), 1936

The Lyman Mills company was incorporated in 1854, in the early years of Holyoke’s industrial development. It was located in the area between the First and Second Level Canals, on the south side of Lyman Street, and over the years its facility grew to include a number of mill buildings. The earliest of these, not visible from this angle, were built in 1849-1850, and were originally used by the Hadley Falls Company before being acquired by Lyman Mills. Other buildings, including the large one in the distance on the right side of the scene, were added later in the 19th century, and the company became a major producer of textiles. It also employed a significant number Holyoke residents, including many of the city’s French Canadian immigrants, and by the turn of the century it had a workforce of over 1,300 people.

However, as Hine’s caption indicates, the Lyman Mills corporation was liquidated in 1927. Although still profitable despite increased competition from southern manufacturers, the shareholders were evidently more interested in selling the company’s assets instead of continuing to operate it as a textile mill. Over a thousand employees were put out of work on the eve of the Great Depression, and the property was sold to the Whiting Paper Company, whose original mill was located directly adjacent to the Lyman Mills complex.

Founded in 1865 by William Whiting, this company went on to become one of the largest paper manufacturers in the country, and Whiting enjoyed a successful political career as mayor of Holyoke and as a U. S. Congressman. After his death in 1911, his son, William F. Whiting, took over the company and oversaw the expansion into the former Lyman Mills buildings in the late 1920s. The younger Whiting was a longtime friend of Calvin Coolidge, and in August 1928 Coolidge appointed him as the U. S. Secretary of Commerce, replacing Herbert Hoover, who would be elected president a few months later. Whiting served in this role for the remainder of Coolidge’s presidency, until Hoover’s inauguration on March 4, 1929.

The conversion of the Lyman Mills into paper production, along with Whiting’s brief tenure as Secretary of Commerce, occurred just a short time before the stock market crash of October 1929. By the time the first photo was taken seven years later, the country was still in the midst of the Great Depression. Like the rest of the country, Holyoke was hit hard by the Depression, but the Whiting Paper Company managed to survive and remain in business for several more decades. However, Holyoke continued to see economic decline throughout the mid-20th century, with most of its major manufacturers closing or relocating, and the Whiting Paper Company finally closed in 1967, just over a century after it had been established.

Today, however, this scene has hardly changed in more than 80 years since Lewis Hine took the first photo. Although no longer used to produce textiles or paper, the Lyman/Whiting complex is still standing in the distance, and has been converted into a mixed-use property known as Open Square. Closer to the foreground, the same railroad bridges still carry the tracks over Canal Street and the Second Level Canal, and even the transmission towers are still standing, although they do not carry any electrical wires anymore.

Franklin Paper Company, Holyoke, Mass

The Franklin Paper Company on Middle Water Street, seen from across the waste canal in Holyoke, sometime in 1936. Image photographed by Lewis Hine, courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.

The scene in 2017:

Long known as “Paper City,” Holyoke was once among the world’s leading producers of paper, with several dozen paper mills located along the city’s extensive canal system. One of the first of these paper mills was the Franklin Paper Company, which was established in 1866 by prominent industrialist James H. Newton and his father-in-law Calvin Taft. With Taft as president and Newton as treasurer, the company initially specialized in producing collar paper. Disposable paper collars enjoyed a heyday in the 1860s and 1870s, but they were also uncomfortable, easily damaged, and also toxic, since the paper was bleached using arsenic. As a result, cellulose soon replaced paper in detachable collars, and by the late 1870s the Franklin Paper Company switched to producing writing paper, as well as paper for books and envelopes.

The Franklin Paper Company was located here along the third level canal, and was served by a railroad spur that ran along Water Street. In the foreground of this scene is the waste canal, which emptied excess water from the canals into the Connecticut River, and on the left side is a short railroad bridge over the canal. The first photo was taken in 1936, when the Franklin Paper Company was still in operation 70 years after it was established. The photographer was Lewis Wickes Hine, a prominent photographer and social reformer who, several decades earlier, had traveled around the country documenting child labor conditions. By the 1930s he was doing similar work, documenting the effects of the Great Depression, and he took a number of photographs during his 1936 visit to Holyoke. His original caption reads:

Mt. Holyoke [sic], Massachusetts – Scenes. A very old independent paper mill, wood pulp, not rags, continuing site and ownership in relatively straight line, once connected with a wood pulp mill near to Hoosie [sic] Tunnel; the type of near-to-mill transportation; the canal; glimpse of most modern mill type in background. Franklin Paper Company. Farr Alpaca – No. 4, 1936

More than 80 years after Hine’s Depression-era visit to Holyoke, the city has undergone significant changes. Most of the major paper companies have since relocated, as have most of the city’s other industries, and today Holyoke faces high poverty rates and many vacant, deteriorating factory buildings. The Franklin Paper Company is long-gone, but the buildings themselves are still standing on the right side of the photo, although the one-story building in the foreground has partially collapsed. Otherwise, not much has changed in this scene, and the canal is still there, as is the railroad bridge on the left side.

Hanging Around the Saloon, Chicopee Mass

A group of workers hanging around outside of the Cyran & Gierlasinski Cafe on Grove Street in Chicopee, on June 29, 1916. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

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The scene in 2014:

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Social reformer and photographer Lewis Wickes Hine visited Chicopee several times in the 1910s, documenting child labor conditions in some of the city’s factories.  The first photo here shows a group of workers hanging around a saloon at the end of the workday.  It’s probably safe to assume that the cafe was Polish; the names of Cyran & Gierlasinski leave little room for doubt.  By the late 1800s, Chicopee had become an industrial center, and many of the workers were immigrants, either French-Canadian or Polish.  To this day, many Chicopee residents are of French-Canadian and Polish ancestry, some of whom are probably the descendants of the men in the 1916 photo.  Today, the Cyran & Gierlasinski Cafe might be gone, but the Polish influence is still present; the site is now the parking lot for the main offices of the Polish National Credit Union.

Kibbe Brothers Candy, Springfield, Mass

Kibbe Brothers candy factory on Harrison Avenue in Springfield, in October 1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, National Child Labor Committee Collection.

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The scene in 2014:

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I have previously featured a number of photos from Lewis Wickes Hine of the National Child Labor Committee, when he traveled around the country documenting child labor conditions in the early 1900s.  His work includes several Springfield companies, one of which was Kibbe Brothers Company, a candy company that had been in Springfield since 1843.

For many years, the company operated out of a building at the corner of Main and Harrison, but in 1890 they moved about a half a block down Harrison Ave, where this 1910 photo was taken.  This photo is rare among Hine’s photos in that it doesn’t feature any photos, but it does show the “Girls Wanted” and “Boys Wanted” signs in the window next to the main entrance.  Based on the other photos that Hine took of the factory workers, many of them were 14 to 15 years old, which was apparently the minimum working age at the time.  In some of the captions, he mentions that they made between $3.50 and $4.00 per week, which in 2014 dollars would be about $86 a week.

According to Springfield Present and Prospective (1905), the factory employed about 350 people and produced over 12 tons of candy each day, which was shipped as far as California.  However, the company was out of business by the mid-1930s, probably a victim of the Great Depression.  Today, part of the lot is occupied by the headquarters of Hampden Bank, and the rest of it is a parking lot and parking garage.

Dwight Manufacturing Company, Chicopee Mass (9)

A group of boys at the Dwight Manufacturing Company in Chicopee, Massachusetts, in September 1911. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, National Child Labor Committee Collection.

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The same scene in 2014:

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Like the 1911 photos in this post and this post, the first photo here was taken on modern-day Route 116 in Chicopee by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee.  His caption reads:

“Stanislaus Matthew, 30 Cabot St., (left hand boy). Warren Butman, Nonotuck St. Has worked in spinning room since Monday. Location: Chicopee, Massachusetts.”