American Phoenix

The Remarkable Story of William Skinner, A Man Who Turned Disaster Into Destiny

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About The Book

The incredible story of millionaire manufacturer William Skinner, a leading founder of the American silk industry, who lost everything in a devastating flood only to stage “one of the greatest comebacks in the annals of American industry” (Boston Sunday Post).

In 1845, a young, penniless William Skinner sailed in steerage class on a boat that took him from the slums of London to the United States. Skilled in the rare art of dyeing, he acquired work in a fledgling silk mill in Massachusetts, parlaying that one job into a lucrative new career and pioneering the way for American-made silk. Soon he had turned a barren stretch of countryside into a bustling factory village, “Skinnerville,” filled with men, women, and children producing the country’s most glamorous thread in his very own mill.

Then in 1874, disaster struck. A nearby dam burst, unleashing an inland tidal wave that tore down the Mill River Valley. Within fifteen minutes, Skinner’s factory, his village, and his life’s work were completely swept away in the worst industrial disaster the nation had yet known.

What followed was even more extraordinary, for out of this ruin came an empire. With grit, determination, and uncanny resolve, Skinner rebuilt his business into one of the leading silk manufacturing companies in the world. Now Sarah S. Kilborne—Skinner’s great-great-granddaughter—incorporates both the nation’s and her family’s past into a page-turning story of ambition, triumph, unthinkable loss, and heroism. With evocative details and a compelling, timeless message, American Phoenix is the inspiring account of the success of one man against the odds, and of the spirit that shaped a nation.

About The Author
Photograph by Giovanni di Mola

Sarah S. Kilborne is a writer, historian, musician, and editor. She holds a degree in philosophy from Yale University and has been a research fellow at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of two acclaimed books for children, Peach & Blue and Leaving Vietnam: The True Story of Tuan Ngo. She lives along the Hudson River in upstate New York.

Product Details
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (September 2014)
  • Length: 448 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451671803

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Raves and Reviews

“In American Phoenix, Kilborne weaves a compelling, richly textured tale of a tragic flood, an indomitable man, and the perils and promise of silk. She has a gift for unearthing the poignant, long-forgotten details that breathe life into history.”

– Amy Butler Greenfield, author of A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire

"Many business histories are also family stories, and Sarah Kilborne tells hers with with beautiful prose, meticulous research and the revelations that only personal archives can provide. In a book with special relevance for our own times, Kilborne gives us an American ideal in short supply these days: the self-made man who gets knocked down, only to climb back up again -- stronger than ever. Going well beyond the constraints of any business case study, Kilborne works through what can only have been daunting accretions of history to show, with breathtaking clarity, the mechanics of American industrial success."

– Jacob Soll, Professor of History, USC, recipient of a MacArthur "genius grant," and author of The Informa

"A compelling, comprehensive biography of a man who contributed much to American manufacturing—perfect for readers who like to root for the underdog."

– Kirkus Reviews

"Kilborne’s biography of her great-great-grandfather tells a story of entrepreneurial struggle triumphing over seemingly insurmountable obstacles, a familiar trope in American culture. "

– Library Journal

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