Biography of Charles Rufus Skinner
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CHARLES RUFUS SKINNER
AMONG the younger men whose experience in matters pertaining to state, national and educational affairs has already been quite extensive and highly beneficial to his fellow-citizens, is the Hon. Charles R. Skinner, who, on account of his official relations, is now a resident of Albany. Born on the 4th of August, 1844, at Union Square, Oswego County, N. Y., he is a son of the late Hon. Avery Skinner, a worthy New England pioneer who left the granite hills of New Hampshire to seek a home in the richer northern regions of New York State. In October, 1816, when but twenty years old, he left the paternal roof in New Hampshire and rode on horseback all the way through the wilderness or thinly settled regions of the country until he reached Watertown, where he first made his home. The village at that time contained less than five hundred inhabitants, according to a census taken by Mr. Skinner soon after his arrival. Mr. Skinner had been engaged in teaching at Chesterfield, N. H,, and immediately upon reaching Watertown he was engaged to teach the village school. He spent eight years in Watertown teaching, keeping books for mercantile houses and recording deeds and mortgages in the county clerk’s office.
About the year 1824, he set out again for the purpose of taking up a large tract of land in Oswego County. This he found in the town of Mexico, and locating at Union Square, a place named by himself, the exact geographical center of the county, he set to work in earnest in leveling the forests around him and in clearing up the country. He was active in surveying and building plank roads from Watertown to Syracuse, and from Rome to Oswego, which roads crossed at Union Square. These were soon very prosperous routes and favorite lines of travel. It was no uncommon thing in later years to see eight or more four-horse Concord coaches halting at this center at one time for change of horses and mails. More mail was then handled there in distributing to various points than is now handled in some cities. In J852, upon the completion of the Rome and Watertown railroad, a sudden end came to stage enterprises in that section. Mr. Skinner thus grew up with the place and became a useful, active and prominent citizen, whose services were of great value to the community in which he lived. He was a man of no ordinary natural abilities. In politics he was a democrat of the Jeffersonian school, a personal friend of Horatio Seymour, Silas Wright and other prominent democrats, and responsible political honors were repeatedly conferred upon him. For twelve years he was judge and county treasurer of Oswego County. In 1832 and 1833 he was elected to the assembly from his district, and in 1836-41 was chosen state senator, serving faithfully in that body two terms.
In 1844 he was the democratic candidate for congress from his district, which was then largely republican or Whig, December 13, 1823, he was commissioned by John McLean, postmaster-general, as postmaster at Union Square, an office which he held for fifty years, amidst all the changes in the national administration. This venerable man died in 1876, at the age of eighty.
Charles R. Skinner, the subject of this sketch, spent the first sixteen years of his life on his father’s farm, attending the district school in the winter. But he seems to have been more devoted to his books than to farming, and before he was seventeen years of age he had commenced his academic studies at Mexico, and had successfully taught the district school near his own home. Thus early were the lines of his thought and his natural genius indicated.
From 1861 to 1867 Mr. Skinner engaged in various pursuits, his one purpose being to earn his own living, complete his education, and enter upon a college course and a profession, hoping in the end to enter the legal profession.
At various times he was assistant postmaster at Watertown – leaving his work to teach the school two winters at his own home, to attend the Clinton Liberal Institute for a while, and to complete a full course at Mexico academy, graduating as valedictorian from the latter in 1866, with the full purpose of entering upon a college course. In this ambition he was disappointed – a disappointment which has never been removed. He spent a year as teacher in the Mexico academy under Professor W. M. McLaughlin. During the year he was nominated for school commissioner in the third Oswego district, but declined the nomination. During his school work at Mexico he was instrumental in securing courses of lectures by the best lecturers in the country. These were not only interesting but profitable to the society having them in charge.
In December, 1867, he gave up teaching and study and accepted a position with the Walter A. Wood Mowing and Reaping Machine Company of Hoosick Falls, and was placed in charge of the New York City branch of the business, having charge of territory in New Jersey, south-western New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania and the south. He remained here until March, 1870, when in response to urgent appeals from his father, then in poor health, he returned to the farm, which he carried on for a year. During the year, however, he purchased a third interest in the Watertown Daily Times and Reformer, his associates being Lotus Ingalls and Beman Brockway, two well-known and experienced newspaper men.
Mr. Skinner’s love for newspaper work commenced in his youth. Encouraged by the attention of Stephen C. Miller, the editor of the Pulaski Democrat, he began when very young to send “the news” of his locality to the Democrat every week, and has some claim as a “pioneer” in the field of local correspondence. While attending the academy at Mexico he spent his leisure hours in learning how to set type in the office of the Independent whose proprietors gave him every encouragement and facility. Mr. Henry Humphries, then one of the proprietors, still edits the paper. To his kindness Mr. Skinner has always felt indebted in pursuing his newspaper work; and the atmosphere of a printing office seemed to have attractions for him at all times.
In May, 1870, he took up his permanent residence in Watertown, as city editor and business manager of the Times and Reformer. He has always said that the best years and the best energies of his life were devoted to the newspaper field into which he then entered. He had the pleasure of seeing the Watertown Times become a prosperous and influential journal. He and his associates spared no pains to make it so, and for many years all profits were expended in increasing facilities – which were always followed by increasing lists and patronage. Mr. Henry A. Brockway now has his time fully occupied as business manager, with plenty of assistance, and the city editor has two assistants in his work. This shows the growth and prosperity of the newspaper and of the thriving and beautiful city in. which it is published.
In 1874 Mr. Skinner severed his connection with the Times and Reformer, disposing of his interest to his partner, Mr. Brockway, who with his sons, has since managed the publication with great success. It was not Mr. Skinner’s intention to remain long out of the journalistic field, for he found that fascination in newspaper work so often found by others and which it is hard to throw off. His tastes have always been in the direction of journalism, which he is never disposed to deny. He has hosts of friends in the profession throughout the state, and still has a strong hold upon the friendship of the many friends he made while active in the work. But he was destined to enter other fields, still maintaining his intention of ultimately returning to the quill and scissors. In 1889, at its annual meeting, the New York State Press Association elected Mr. Skinner a life member of that body.
Mr. Skinner always took an active interest in all things connected with the prosperity and progress of Watertown. As secretary of the Manufacturers’ Aid association in 1876, he prepared an elaborate pamphlet showing the advantages of the city as a manufacturing point. For many years he was treasurer of the Watertown fire department and was instrumental in inducing the fire department to purchase the first steam fire engine used in the city.
Though reared amid democratic surroundings – though his father lived and died a staunch democrat of the old school – Charles R Skinner has always been an unswerving republican, identifying himself with that party as soon as he became of age.
In 1874, Mr. Skinner was nominated for alderman of his ward, but did his best to see that he was not elected. In 1875 he was elected a member of the board of education of the city, being twice re-elected, and holding the office until 1884, identifying himself closely with the educational interests of the city. In 1875 he was nominated as member of assembly from the first district of Jefferson county. Fearing that holding the office of school commissioner for the city brought him within the provision of the amendments of the state constitution, adopted in 1874, which made all city officers ineligible as candidates for the legislature, he withdrew as a candidate. The question was decided in the legislature in the case of Senator Gerard, of New York City, that the office was not under the city government.
In 1876 he was unanimously nominated for the assembly, and elected by 1,416 majority over A. P. Smith, the democratic nominee. During his first legislative term Mr. Skinner was chairman of the committee of public printing, and a member of the committee on insurance. He exhibited the qualities of a ready debater in the assembly, was earnest and forcible in his delivery, and took a leading part in the discussion of legislative measures, earning an excellent reputation for a new member. During the session of 1877 he introduced and pushed to its passage the bill prohibiting frequent changes in textbooks in schools. In 1878 he was re-elected to the assembly, by a majority of 998 over William H. Eastman. While retaining the chairmanship of public printing during his second legislative term, he was also a member of the committee on the affairs of cities, and on internal affairs. In the legislature of that session he was an earnest opponent of proposed modifications of the existing excise laws – a subject which has caused so much trouble and perplexity to successive legislatures down to the present time.
Meeting with the approval of his constituents as a legislator, Mr. Skinner was returned to the assembly in the autumn of 1879 by a majority of 1,042 over Luther H. Bishop. During the session which followed he introduced a bill, which passed both houses, reducing legislative expenses and cutting down superfluous rolls of useless employees. He never urged that officers of the legislature should serve for inadequate salaries, but insisted that sinecures should be abolished, after the employment of sufficient force to transact public business. He also introduced an amendment to the state constitution, which he defended with singular ability, amending the constitution in the direction of biennial sessions of the legislature. This amendment passed both houses of the legislature. In November, 1879, he was again re-elected over A. P. Sigourney by an increased majority. He once more came forward in defense of his favorite biennial amendment, which, though passing the house was defeated in the senate. Such a measure was favored by Gov. Cornell in his message of 1882. As chairman of the committee on railroads in the session of 1879-80, Mr. Skinner took a very active part in reporting and advocating the anti-discrimination freight bill, and the five-cent fare on the New York elevated railroads.
Mr. Skinner again carried his district for member of assembly in 1880, being the fifth consecutive time, by a majority of 1,653 over James M. Cleveland. Entering upon his duties in the session of 1881 he advocated, among other measures, the street-cleaning bill for New York city, and during the same memorable session he was an energetic and powerful opponent of the return of Messrs. Conkling and Piatt to the United States senate. He had voted for the return of Mr. Conkling in 1879 and for the election of Mr. Piatt in January, 1881, but he represented the wishes of a large majority of his constituents in opposing the re-election of these gentlemen after their resignation. He was an earnest supporter of Chauncey M. Depew and William A. Wheeler through over fifty ballots. Upon the withdrawal of Mr. Depew he supported Warner Miller and E. G. Lapham, who were elected after a well-known struggle.
In 1878, Mr. Skinner was appointed a member of a special committee of the assembly, to consider and report whether the state normal schools were fulfilling their original purpose, and what legislation, if any, was necessary to increase their usefulness. An elaborate report was made by this committee to the succeeding legislature.
Taken altogether, the legislative career of Mr. Skinner furnishes a bright page in his history and reflects honor upon his constituents. At the close of his work in our state legislature he was selected to go up higher in the political scale. In October, 1881, he was nominated by acclamation for representative in congress to succeed Warner Miller from the twenty-second district, composed of the counties of Jefferson, Herkimer and Lewis, and was elected over Hon. John Lansing, his competitor, by a majority of 3,153. This was certainly a remarkable recognition of the strength of Mr. Skinner as a politician and a standard-bearer of the Republican Party.
In 1882 Mr. Skinner was unanimously re-nominated for congress, and thirty-one of thirty-two delegates to the democratic congressional convention were in favor of indorsing the nomination. The one delegate, however, was permitted to make a nomination, and L. C. Davenport, of Lowville, was Mr. Skinner’s competitor. This was the year of the unfortunate Folger campaign, and 6,000 republicans did not go to the polls. The republican majority of 3,000 in the district was turned into a democratic majority of nearly 4,000, but Mr. Skinner was re-elected by a majority of nearly 1,400.
In the Forty-seventh congress, Mr. Skinner was a member of the committees on patents and accounts. In the Forty-eighth congress he was a member of the committee on post-offices and post roads, thus finding congenial and useful work. In this congress he introduced and advocated a bill reducing letter postage from three to two cents. Several similar bills were introduced, and the reduction was made. He was the author of the measure providing for the special delivery of letters, which, through his watchfulness, became a law. This system now yields a handsome profit to the government, and is a well-known convenience to the public. Mr. Skinner also introduced and urged to passage through his committee and the house, the law giving letter carriers a vacation. He was also active in urging the extension of the free delivery system to villages of ten thousand inhabitants, and in securing allowance for rent and clerkships in third-class post-offices. Mr. Skinner took an active interest in congressional work, attempted to keep himself informed in regard to legislative topics, the demands of his constituents, promptly answered a large correspondence, and was specially active in pushing to settlement the pension claims of the veterans of the war.
Mr. Skinner was an earnest opponent of the Chinese restrictive act, taking the ground that the United States was bound to keep the terms of the treaties made with China. One of his strongest speeches was upon this subject. Another speech took strong ground in favor of prompt action to suppress polygamy. He also made a carefully prepared speech against the Morrison tariff bill in 1883, and he was active in debates on post-office questions.
In 1884 he was appointed by Speaker Carlisle one of the board of visitors at West Point. Among his associates were General Rosecrans and Mr. Waring of Newport. The report made to congress by this board was one of the most exhaustive ever presented on the subject. In this connection it is fair to say that Mr. Skinner has always expressed great admiration for Mr. Carlisle, both as a gentleman and as a presiding officer. It is difficult to see, says Mr. Skinner, how any man can be a more impartial speaker than Mr. Carlisle proved himself. Every man received his rights from Mr. Carlisle, no matter what his politics were.
On the 4th of March, 1885, Mr. Skinner closed his congressional experience. In 1884 his county unanimously gave him its delegates for a re-nomination, but St. Lawrence County had become a part of the congressional district by the re-apportionment of 1883, and insisted upon nominating a St. Lawrence county candidate. Mr. Skinner retired from office with no regrets or heart-burnings, and with a full measure of gratitude to his constituency who had so often honored him with their confidence and their suffrage’s.
It is to Mr. Skinner’s credit that every political office held by him has come through unanimous nominations by the conventions. He has never known what it was to enter a protracted struggle for delegates. He long held the confidence of his party and in 1876 was chosen secretary of the Jefferson county republican committee. His ability as an organizer was promptly recognized in many circles and for nine years, with the exception of 1882, he was chairman of the county committee of Jefferson.
Upon leaving congress, Mr. Skinner was engaged to edit the Watertown Daily Republican, published by his former partner, Mr. Ingalls, until January 1886, when he became for a few months city editor at his old post on the Watertown Daily Times. In April of that year, however, he was appointed by Superintendent Draper, deputy superintendent of public instruction of the state of New York. No two officials ever worked more thoroughly in harmony than Superintendent Draper and his deputy, nor have men ever labored more faithfully to advance the best interests of education. Mr. Skinner confesses that he thoroughly enjoys his work, and his surroundings. He was re-appointed April 7, 1889, and will serve until 1892.
In 1889, he compiled an elaborate work, entitled the Arbor Day Manual, in which he collected a large amount of interesting literature relating to trees, forests, flowers, etc.
In June, 1889, Hamilton College, as if to mollify his disappointment in not securing a collegiate education, conferred upon Mr. Skinner the honorary degree of Master of Arts.
In 1874 Mr. Skinner married Miss S. Elizabeth Baldwin, daughter of D. W. Baldwin, a prominent citizen of Watertown. Aside from deep grief’s which have come, as they come to all, his married life has been one of great delight. He is passionately fond of his family, and spends his leisure hours at home with his wife and children, who constitute his truest happiness. His family has always accompanied him in his life at Albany and Washington. He has three interesting boys, aged four, seven and fourteen years, and an infant daughter; and he has been called upon to mourn the death of two beautiful daughters, Alice, who died in 1882, at the age of eight, and Bessie, who died in this city May 14th, 1889.
A man of ordinary size, with a dark complexion, earnest and impressive countenance, cordial and friendly in his manner, and popular with the masses, Mr. Skinner is one who cannot fail to command the respect and confidence of men of all political associations.