I grew up with the photograph of a chateau on the wall in our living room. As one can imagine, I became very curious about this chateau and when I was old enough to be verbally inquisitive asked my parents about it. My mother told me that my father had wanted to buy it in 1969 and she was relieved he hadn’t been able to pull that off. My father, on the other hand, would go almost misty eyed when I asked him about it. He told me that my great, great aunt Belle Skinner had owned the chateau, that it sat on a hill overlooking the valley of the Meuse, and the town in which it was situated, Hattonchâtel, almost disappeared after World War I. But Belle Skinner had rebuilt it, along with its chateau, and both exist to this day as a result of her efforts.

After college I began researching Belle Skinner’s story and it wasn’t hard to find relatives who were willing to talk about it. Belle was arguably the most famous person on the Skinner family tree. As I pieced together her war relief work, I continued to wonder what would compel this woman, then in her fifties and leading a comfortable life, to become so passionately involved in the restoration of a devastated village on the other side of the world?

I received a fellowship at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center at Mount Holyoke College to further my research and after moving to nearby Northampton discovered I had moved to the town where my great-great-grandmother Sarah Skinner (after whom I am named) had been born in 1834. I also learned for the first time that my ancestors had lived in Northampton as far back as the 1600s. I didn’t feel an immediate connection to the place so much as astonishment that I had somehow landed there.

A friend decided to introduce me to the area and took me on a treasure hunt. He told me that a great flood had taken place here in the nineteenth century and that in the bed of the Mill River, which flowed down from the hills, you could still find bricks from the mills that had been washed away. He was right. You can also find bits of china and pottery and that day we even found a tarnished old silver spoon. Those bricks, that spoon, and the water that flowed about my ankles was my introduction to the Mill River Flood.

Back at Mount Holyoke College, poring over old newspapers and letters, I learned that the flood had taken place when Belle was eight years old, destroyed the village in which she’d been born and propelled her father to move his silk mill to Holyoke, where the family homestead still remained. Naturally I began researching the flood. This time, the only help relatives could offer was whatever might be found in their family storage. No one knew details about the disaster.

If possible, even less was known about William Skinner, the founder of the family company and, I discovered, a central figure in the flood. Although everyone was familiar with William Skinner & Sons – my grandfather had been its last president, my father a vice-president, and other relatives trustees – no one could offer me leads on Skinner himself. He had died in 1902, too long ago for modern memory. Some colorful stories had persisted but he was mostly the mysterious patriarch who had left weighted words in his trail. (“Remember you are William Skinner’s descendants. Make good in the world.”)

One never knows how one will ultimately arrive at the story one is meant to tell. Or where it will lead you. This one began in my childhood with visions of France and ended up taking me to the banks of the Mill River in 1874. The more I learned of the flood, of American silk, and of Skinner’s life, the more I understand that Skinner was the subject I had to follow. Although I didn’t end up telling her story, I owe this book partly to my great-aunt Belle Skinner whose influence began the chase. Most significantly, of course, I owe its existence to my great-great-grandfather, so unfamiliar to me at the start, still not fully known, but whose impression upon me has become indelible.

Whenever I find myself faltering I instantly think of two things he repeated to himself and others. “Time lost can never be regained,” he’d say. Secondly, he was fond of asking, “What’s the biggest room in the world? The room for improvement.” May we, each and every one of us, value every minute of each day and continually strive to make the most of it.