Kid’s Day: Life of a Soldier – April 2019

I had heard about a special program for kids happening at Brandywine Battlefield Park, the site of the largest battle of the American Revolution, so I decided to take the boys up for the afternoon. It was a really great hands-on experience. My dad tagged along, too, since he had never visited the site.

We took a tour of both historic houses there, and the boys were engaged enough to ask questions and participate. After the tours, we formed up with some other kids in the field outside the visitors center to learn how new recruits during the American Revolution were trained. One of the museum guides in period dress taught the kids how to line up, and then walked them through the procedure for loading a mock wooden musket, and finally led them in an attack that ended with a charge! The boys had a great time getting to connect with the history in a very tangible way.

Our latest patriot recruits, in a ragged battleline. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
Our latest patriot recruits, in a ragged battleline. – Photo by the Author
This drill instructor had his work cut out for him. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
This drill instructor had his work cut out for him. – Photo by the Author

The British didn’t know what they were in for that day.

Valley Forge Day Trip – June 2019

One of my favorite things to do is have adventures with my boys. A few summers ago, we took a day trip to Valley Forge National Historical Park so that the boys could see some Revolutionary history (they both seem to have some interest there) and to give them a chance to complete yet another Junior Ranger program.

At the time we visited back in June of 2019, the Visitors Center was closed for renovations, and a series of temporary trailers were in place to allow folks to pick up maps, watch a short introductory movie, and purchase souvenirs. We especially enjoyed getting to pretend that we were General George Washington for a brief moment.

Isaac as General Washington in the makeshift visitors center. - Photo by the Author
Isaac as General Washington in the makeshift visitors center. – Photo by the Author

Once we’d oriented ourselves and got our Junior Ranger activity books, we set out on the standard auto tour route of the park. While not actually a battlefield, the encampment at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778 was a turning point for the Continental Army. Baron von Steuben developed a training program that brought the Colonials much closer to being a professional fighting force. And I really think there is something to the idea that the shared hardships forged bonds among the men that would carry them through the rest of the struggle.

Both boys were interested in exploring the reproduction huts along Muhlenberg’s brigade line. These show something of what the living quarters were like for the men that wintered here.

John and Isaac inside one of the soldiers' huts. - Photo by the Author
John and Isaac inside one of the soldiers’ huts. – Photo by the Author

Nearby, at Redoubt #2, we took our turn manning the outer defenses of the camp. With the British Army spending the winter in Philadelphia, this position had a great view of the likely approaches that would have been used if the red coats had decided to attack.

Manning a gun at Redoubt #2. - Photo by the Author
Manning a gun at Redoubt #2. – Photo by the Author

Continuing along the tour route, we came to an equestrian statue of Maj. General “Mad” Anthony Wayne – one of my favorite figures from the Continental Army. He played a prominent role at both the Battle of Paoli, and the Battle of Stony Point – both fields that I have visited and will need to write up one of these days. The Battle of Stony Point is especially cool and worth a visit for its views of the Hudson River alone.

The magnificent equestrian statue of "Mad Anthony" Wayne at Valley Forge. - Photo by the Author
The magnificent equestrian statue of “Mad Anthony” Wayne at Valley Forge. – Photo by the Author

Our next stop was at Washington’s Headquarters. The house was open on the day we visited, and it was really cool to have the ranger there explain how the house was used by General Washington and his staff. The building is in great shape and getting to see and use the original handrails that were still on the steps was a pretty awesome experience. Tangible connections to the past are always much more impactful.

The boys stand with General Washington's headquarters flag outside of the Isaac Potts House. General Washington used the structure as his headquarters that winter. - Photo by the Author
The boys stand with General Washington’s headquarters flag outside of the Isaac Potts House. General Washington used the structure as his headquarters that winter. – Photo by the Author

The visit ended with a return trip to the Visitors Center to have a ranger check our work on the Junior Ranger activities, swear in, and get our badges! We’ll definitely be going back to see the renovated Visitors Center and learn more about our country’s history together.

My Valley Forge Junior Rangers. - Photo by the Author
My Valley Forge Junior Rangers. – Photo by the Author

Battlefield Visits: Shenandoah Valley

During the Civil War, the Shenandoah Valley was both the breadbasket of the Confederacy, as well as a key transportation corridor used by both sides for their respective invasions. There was almost constant conflict in the region for the duration of the war, and large areas destroyed in actions like “The Burning”. A few summers ago, I toured many of the battlefields in this very important theatre of the war.

Battle of McDowell – Civil War Battlefield #60

Approaching from the east (in the Harrisonburg area), I lost cell service as soon as I hit the mountains. Such is life in the National Radio Quiet Zone. There is a cool overlook on top of one of the ridges along Rt. 250 that talks about a Confederate fort and earthworks there under Gen. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson. Very nice views and a few interpretive markers.

The view really is lovely from the rest stop. - Photo by the Author
The view really is lovely from the rest stop. – Photo by the Author

Just before the town of McDowell, the Civil War Trust has a small parking lot with markers showing the start of the trail they laid out on their property on Sitlington’s Hill. The signs mention a blueblaze trail, but I couldn’t find any blazes. Combined with the fact that it had just rained, was approaching dusk, and I had no cell phone service, I decided not to venture up the hill. The town was nice, though, and I was able to see the house that Stonewall Jackson used as a headquarters during the Battle of McDowell.

Battle of Cross Keys – Civil War Battlefield #61

A relatively small fight during Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign, Cross Keys is not far to the southeast from Harrisonburg. There’s a wayside marker – a series of them actually – near the cemetery on Battlefield Road. The terrain is very rolling. The Union line was more-or-less along modern Cross Keys Road, and the view to the southeast of the mountains was beautiful. The southern peak of Massanutten Mountain was clearly visible from here.

Battle of Port Republic – Civil War Battlefield #62

I love these metal map signs that can be found at several of the battlefields in the Shenandoah Valley. - Photo by the Author
I love these metal map signs that can be found at several of the battlefields in the Shenandoah Valley. – Photo by the Author

Just after the Battle of Cross Keys, the action of Jackson’s Valley Campaign moved farther to the southeast at the Battle of Port Republic. Naturally, we continued there on our tour, too.

Initially, I had some trouble finding the battlefield itself. There is a set of markers near “The Coaling” east of town. The battle took place mainly between that spot and the town. The terrain was basically flat farm fields that are bordered on the north by the south branch of the Shenandoah River.

Battle of Piedmont – Civil War Battlefield #63

More rolling terrain at this battlefield. It is fairly difficult to get a sense for where the lines were. But there are a few markers, and one wayside in the parking lot of the local community center that includes a map.

Battle of Waynesboro – Civil War Battlefield #64

This battlefield – the site of the last fighting in the Shenandoah Valley – has been entirely overtaken by the modern development of the town. I found one marker on W. Main Street near the Masonic Lodge, but there are no waysides here, so there are no maps to orient you to where the action took place.

Battle of New Market – Civil War Battlefield #65

The VMI-run Virginia Museum of the Civil War was fairly sparse during our visit. I got the impression that they were in the midst of re-arranging the exhibits. It’s nice to see them involved at the battle where the most famous aspect is the charge of their cadets. There is a sizeable collection of small arms downstairs which is probably the main attraction. $10 admission seemed a little steep for what it is, though my son was free. He really wanted to get a hat, so I bought him a super-FARBy, cotton kepi with (*UGH*) crossed rifles in the gift shop. It’ll be a fun souvenir for him, nonetheless.

The field itself is small. There is a trail that takes you along the path of the VMI cadets’ attack, and a few reproduction artillery pieces. There’s also a spot where you can get a nice view of the north fork of the Shenandoah River.

My son and I at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War. He really wanted that hat. - Photo by the Author
My son and I at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War. He really wanted that hat. – Photo by the Author

Battle of Tom’s Brook – Civil War Battlefield #66

You've gotta love a good roadside marker. - Photo by the Author
You’ve gotta love a good roadside marker. – Photo by the Author

There’s a marker for the Battle of Tom’s Brook along Route 11 in the town where the action took place, and a nice wayside that is deep in the nearby Shenandoah County Park near a storm water pond. A large patch of woods there means that the Valley Pike can’t be viewed from the wayside, so it’s a little hard to really see and appreciate the terrain. Some imagination is required.

Battle of Fisher’s Hill – Civil War Battlefield #67

There are a few markers along Route 11, but that’s not all. A totally separate section of the battlefield – Ramseur’s Hill – has been preserved on the northwest side of I-81. There are a few waysides and a walking trail there. During my initial trip, I didn’t get out to explore too much, as my son was already pretty burned-out on battlefields for the day, but I was lucky enough to come back for a special tour that was given on the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Fisher’s Hill, and the views are amazing from the top of the hill.

From the top of Ramseur's Hill looking roughly northeast. Another amazing vista. - Photo by the Author
From the top of Ramseur’s Hill looking roughly northeast. Another amazing vista. – Photo by the Author

Battlefield Visits #27: Ball’s Bluff

On Wednesday afternoon, I was lucky enough to be in the Leesburg, VA area on a day trip with my family, and had some time to check out a field I’d never been to: Ball’s Bluff.

The battle itself was a fairly small action as Civil War battles go, but is more significant because of who was there and what happened to them. One of the men killed was Col. (and Senator) Edward D. Baker – the only U.S. Senator to be killed in combat – and his death prompted his friends in Congress to take a heavier interest in the war effort, leading directly to the creation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

The park that encompasses the battlefield (well, most of it anyway) is owned by the Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority, and is well-maintained. There is also heavy volunteer involvement, with free tours being run on the weekend during the warmer months, and plentiful maps and brochures available at the parking lot. You can tell that the local Civil War nerds take great pride in this place. It is small, but very well marked with monuments and waysides. There is a network of trails leading visitors through the phases of the battle and key terrain features. It’s really nice.

Among the commemorative features are representations of the three artillery pieces that the Union army brought to the field from across the river. Two of those three are reproductions, but there is an actual Mountain Howitzer there as well – I had never seen one in person and was pretty excited about it.

An actual Ames Manufacturing Co. Mountain Howitzer on the field at Ball’s Bluff.

The specs are as follows:

The muzzle markings on the Mountain Howitzer at Ball’s Bluff.

So clearly this weapon could not have been present for the actual battle in the fall of 1861, but it was nice to see it stand-in. Hazlett’s Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War has this serial number listed as being owned by Kennesaw Mountain NBP in Georgia, so I assume it is here on loan. Very nice of the National Park Service to do that if that’s the case.

If you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth a visit. The hiking trails are nice, and if you’re at all interested in the history, you can’t beat actually being on the field. I can tell you that I’d be pretty uncomfortable with my back against that bluff and a few regiments of Confederates bearing down on me!

Checking Back In

Well, it’s been nearly a year since I’ve last posted here, and what a year it has been.

For starters, I’ve changed jobs. In April of this year, I left the Howard County Public School System to take a job with the Facilities Division of the Anne Arundel County Public School System. My official title is “Network Data Specialist”, and I really love what I’m doing. The job is part desktop support, part server administration, part technology adviser, part phone guy – I get to have my hands in a lot of different things in a given day. While that might sound stressful, the people I’m working with and for are really great, and make serving them a joy. I really don’t see how I could be happier professionally.

My Office at AACPS
My Office at AACPS


And how’s this for a kicker? The building that I’m working in now has a fascinating link to military history. We’re located about 2 miles down the road from Fort Smallwood – which I thought was cool enough when I interviewed – but it turns out that our campus started it’s life as a military installation as well. In fact, it was the spiritual successor to the Endicott series fort up the road. I’ll have a post soon about Nike-Ajax Missile Site BA-43.

The other big change is that I’m back in school. I never thought I’d ever write that sentence, but it came about as a result of the job change. AACPS really does a great job of creating incentives to have higher levels of education. In addition to tuition reimbursement, there are higher-paying salary scales for people with degrees, so I finally have a concrete reason to pursue a degree. For now, I’ve re-enrolled at CCBC (where I took one math class almost a decade-and-a-half ago) working toward an Associate’s degree in Network Technology. I’m actually pretty excited about it. I’ve already completed my first class over the summer, and with the transfer credit I brought along from my UMBC days and a few industry certifications I’ve earned over the years, I’m just past the half-way point to my AAS.

As far as hobbies go, I’ve become pretty obsessed with single-board computers lately. I have a PineA64+ (2GB model), a few Raspberry Pi’s, and a CHIP. What started as a cheap way for me to have a Linux server again, has grown into a desire to learn more about electronics and “making”. I may have a few posts about those topics coming up as well.

And of course the fascination with history hasn’t stopped. Lately, I’ve been on a streak of reading about 18th and 19th century African-American history. First, the definitive biography of Benjamin Banneker (a small part of whose property I now live on). I then picked up a brief overview biography of one of my heroes, Frederick Douglass. Currently, I’m reading “The Negro’s Civil War“, a collection of letters, articles, and speeches from African-American authors documenting their thoughts and feelings about the subjects of slavery, the war itself, and reconstruction. I suppose I could probably work up a few posts worth of reviews on these in the coming weeks.

So that’s the big update. With any luck, the next one won’t be another year away. ūüėČ

Family Christmas

I’ve been waiting for months to post about this, but now that Christmas is over, I finally can.

Back in February, I was doing a lot of research about my great-great-great grandfather, George R. Skillman and his career as a baker. During one of my many Google searches during that time, I stumbled on My Country Treasures – an antique shop in Preston, MD that had one of the Skillman Universal Steam Bakery’s display tins. This tin would have been used as a display in a grocery store that carried Skillman Bakery products – most likely crackers.

I had to get this piece and make sure it stayed in the family. I also thought that it would make a great gift for my father, since he shares our ancestor’s name and since he sparked my interest in genealogy and history in the first place.

Finally, the opportunity arose when my friend John invited me to stay at his family’s beach house in Delaware one weekend. I planned¬†to stop in Preston on the way home, and if the tin hadn’t been sold, to split the cost with my brother. Luckily, it was still there and I immediately snatched it up!

Waiting out the months until Christmas was hard, but I’m glad that we did. My dad’s reaction when he figured out what we had given him was worth it.

My dad holding a piece of family history.
My dad holding a piece of family history. Photo by Sharon Skillman.

The side of the tin advertises the “Geo. R. Skillman Universal Steam Bakery”. As far as I can tell, this name was used for his business from 1887 until as late as 1900, so this “new” family heirloom¬†is perhaps¬†127 years old.

The stories that we’ve been able to find about George are very nice to have. Newspaper articles I’ve discovered give a sense of the reality of our family history, too. But having an actual, tangible object from your ancestor’s past is just beyond words.

I’m so glad that everything came together to keep this history alive for us.

An Accident

While I was looking through online newspaper archives last night, I accidentally stumbled onto an article about, well, an accident.

This story appeared in the Washington Post on February 20, 1953:

Two Anne Arundel County men were burned seriously yesterday when the gas tank of their auto caught fire after a collision on Ritchie Highway, just north of Glen Burnie.

Thomas Skillman, 31, of Harundale and Ernie W. Bermick, 40 of Severn leaped from the car with hair and clothing burning and rolled on the ground to smother the flames. Both were taken to a Baltimore hospital.

The Associated Press reported their car was struck from behind by an auto driven by Eric R. Blomquist, 31, of Takoma Park, who was charged with drunken and reckless driving.

The Thomas Skillman from the story is my grandfather. This accident occurred just a few months before my father was born.

Thomas Skillman (I)

Just a few days ago – September 8, 2014 – was the 350th anniversary of the founding of New York.

New Amsterdam as it appeared circa 1660. Painting from Wikipedia.
New Amsterdam as it appeared circa 1660. Painting from Wikipedia.

Originally a Dutch settlement called New Amsterdam, the town decided to give up without a fight in the face of an overwhelming English expedition commanded by Colonel Richard Nicholls consisting of four warships, including Nicholls’ flagship: the frigate Guinea. James, the Duke of York, with the permission of his brother King Charles II, decided to send the flotilla to take possession of the Dutch holdings in North America. At the time the two nations were jockeying for the title of most powerful naval force in the world. In fact, this event would touch off a larger war between them.

Governor Peter Stuyvesant is persuaded not to resist the English. Painting from Wikipedia.
Governor Peter Stuyvesant is persuaded not to resist the English. Painting from Wikipedia.

Once the settlement was taken, it was re-named New York at Colonel Nicholls’ suggestion in honor of the Duke himself.

Apart from being one of the pivotal moments in the colonial period, the creation of New York also means quite a bit to the Skillmans: it is the event that brought the first member of our family to the western hemisphere.

His name was Thomas Skillman. The stories about him are varied and at times somewhat sketchy, but I’d like to explore them a little bit here.

Born in Surrey, England¬†in 1637, at some point he joined the army in time to participate in the 1664 expedition to North America. The traditional family story (backed up by most sources) is that he was serving as a musician, but I’ve also seen him referred to as “Doctor”, implying that he was a surgeon or physician instead, but I don’t find this likely.

Soon after the conquest, Colonel Nicholls became Governor Nicholls. Thomas must have felt some kind of connection or loyalty to Nicholls, because he did not return to England with the rest of the troops, instead choosing to settle on Long Island in a village called Newtown, which was in the area that is now known as the Elmhurst and Maspeth neighborhoods in Queens.

His military service continued, as he was one of 25 men sent to Esopus, NY to seek revenge against a group of Native Americans who had attacked a colonial settlement in the Hudson River Valley. Though he was offered a plot of land in that part of New York for his service, he seems to have refused it, and was discharged in 1668, even being awarded “14¬†oz. of plate for services at Albany under Captain Lewis.” No one seems to have any idea about what he did to earn this distinction.

Returning to Long Island, he married Sarah Pettit in 1669. Sarah was born in Boston, probably in 1634. There is some debate about who her father was, but it seems likely that he was Thomas Pettit, an early Huguenot immigrant to the Massachusetts colony. Regardless, the couple¬†settled in Newtown and lived there the rest of their lives, and sadly we don’t know much more about their life – other than the fact that they had at least 4 children.

Thomas probably died in 1697. His property was left to his wife, who transferred a portion of it to their only son, Thomas Skillman (II). So far as we know, all the American Skillmans – three and a half centuries worth of them –¬†are descended from these two men.

Isaac Thomas Skillman

Isaac Thomas Skillman
Isaac Thomas Skillman

On July 2, 2014 at 6:22pm (151 years to the minute after the fighting in The Wheatfield and The Peach Orchard at Gettysburg was raging) our second son, Isaac Thomas Skillman was born. He was 8 lbs., 3 oz. and 20.75 inches at birth.

Isaac is a name that my wife suggested, mainly because it means “laughter”. We’ve had a lot of that in our relationship, and we want our son’s name to remind us¬†to keep the fun going with our young family.

Thomas is an old Skillman family name, and the tradition and history of that is very important to me. The first Skillman in this country was Thomas, and it’s been a popular name among the American Skillmans ever since. Most recently in our line, my late grandfather was named Thomas. Isaac and his older brother John are part of the 13th generation of Skillmans in the western hemisphere.

George R. “Cracker-baker” Skillman

This is a very long post about a piece of Skillman family history. There’s plenty of general interest history in here as well, but I go very deep in the weeds in some places. If you’ve stumbled onto this post via a web search and think that we may be related, please drop me a line!

When I recently wrote about my family’s connection to the Great Baltimore Fire, it got my curiosity going again about my great-great-great-grandfather, George R. Skillman. Since there are so many men named “George R. Skillman” in our family, we’ve always called him “Cracker-baker George”.

George R. Skillman, the Cracker-baker. Photo courtesy of George Skillman.
George R. Skillman, the Cracker-baker. Photo courtesy of George Skillman.

For a long time, that was pretty much all we knew about him: he lived in Baltimore, had some type of association with the Maryland Institute, and made a name for himself in cracker-baking. That was it.

In recent years, I’ve done some digging on Ancestry, and was able to locate some Census records and his Civil War draft registration on there, but my mission at the time was to try to get information on the whole family, not to just drill down on one or two members, so I never got that deep on his life story. That all changed with the anniversary of the Great Baltimore Fire. I wanted to find out more about who this guy was.

I collected all the data that I had from the traditional family story, to the Census records I found online, and went down to the main Enoch Pratt library, hoping that they would have some good sources. I’m happy to report that they were tremendously helpful. I was able to find some information about companies he worked for, and even some clues about a few other relatives in Pratt’s collection of books. Searching the city directories and the online archives of The Baltimore Sun (which the library subscribes to) were instrumental in putting some of the pieces together.

There are still plenty of holes – one of the Pratt librarians told me that this is probably always going to look like Swiss cheese – but here’s the story of his life that I have (so far):

George R. Skillman was born January 1, 1837 in Baltimore. His parents were F. Robert J. Skillman and Naomi Sophia (Miller) Skillman.

He was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church. His family attended services at High Street Methodist Episcopal (originally built at 230 S. High St. Рnow a parking lot) and later in life, at Grace Methodist Episcopal in Baltimore.

The first reference to him that I found was in The Sun on March 8, 1858. He apparently attended a meeting in Temperance Hall in Baltimore, where the attendees were discussing their support for “The President’s Plan” regarding Kansas. This is a reference to the Lecompton Plan for Kansas’ state constitution – a constitution that would have allowed slavery in the Sunflower State. From what I’ve been able to find, George was a life-long Democrat, so it isn’t surprising that he’d be supporting President Buchanan as a young man.

On April 22, 1858 he married Mary Elizabeth Pierce. The couple would go on to have 8 children, but three of them wouldn’t survive past their twenties. My particular branch of the family is descended from his 4th son, Robert G. Skillman.

He registered for the draft in 1863, listing his occupation at the time as “Clerk”. The 1864 Woods’ City Directory has him living at 90 N. Eden Street¬†(a house that no longer exists), and shows that he’s working as a “Bookkeeper”, but on January 1, 1864, James Beatty announced in The Sun that he was entering into a copartnership with his clerk, George R. Skillman.

His name is called in the draft June 23, 1864, but he doesn’t end up going to war. By June 28, he’d found a substitute to serve in his place. You could do that back in those days, especially if you were a partner in a prominent manufacturing business.

The same city directory in 1865-1866 shows the first reference to the company that he made his name working for: James Beatty & Co. Steam Cracker, Cake, and Ship Biscuit Bakers. This firm seems to have been one of the largest commercial / industrial baking operations in Baltimore at the time. James’ grandfather was also named James Beatty (what is it with all these people having the same names?), and was the U.S. Government Naval Agent in Baltimore during the War of 1812. The Beatty’s were a prominent (and rich) family in 19th century Baltimore. Civil War nerds like me will also appreciate that “ship biscuit” is the naval term for hardtack, and from records I’ve found, the company was definitely a hardtack supplier for the Union army. The company’s address is listed as “Nos. 92, 94 & 96 Dugan’s Wharf, near Pratt Street” – what is now known as¬†Pier 4¬†at the Inner Harbor.

In the 1870 Census, George lists his occupation as “Baker”, and on April 4, 1871, he’s granted U.S. Patent 113,356 for his Cracker Machine. Clearly, he was an innovative force in the industry. In an 1873 advertisement for the James Beatty Co., George is still listed as being James’ partner in the business. My feeling is that George became the brains, or the heart of the operation, and that James was providing the capital and the business side.

Sometime before 1878, George moves the family to a nicer house at what is initially listed as “329 Myrtle Ave.”, but later listings all show the property more accurately as being at 1408 Myrtle Ave¬†(the current house at this address was built in 1920).

George joins the Board of Managers for the Maryland Institute in 1878. He would end up serving on the board for the rest of his life. Of course, it was through this association that my family first learned of him. In his first year as a board member, the institute held an exhibition (in those days, the school had a mechanical, vo-tech element to it as well as being an art school) in which the very latest technology was demonstrated. That year, the arc light, and the telephone were the big showpieces. The Baltimore Sun, describing the event 20 years later, had this to say:

On top of the tower of the building was placed one of these lights, with a reflector – a crude forerunner of the now well-known electric searchlight. An incident of this application was that when the light was thrown towards the home of Mr. George R. Skillman, on Myrtle Ave., and Mr. Skillman using the other unique exhibit, the telephone, read by it a newspaper extract to an auditor at the other end of the line.

Alexander Graham Bell had his successful test with the telephone just 2 years before. George was certainly a man who wanted to be on the cutting edge of technology.

His association with the Maryland Institute didn’t stop at serving on the board, though. An advertisement in The Sun on February 23, 1880 announces that “George R. Skillman, esq.” will be giving a lecture that evening about “Saalbec, Athens, and Pompeii”. So he’s a history buff, too.

In 1886, a book called “Half Century’s Progress of the City of Baltimore” was published. It included a one-page profile of James Beatty & Co., that mentioned how James took over the company from his father in 1858 and “some years later” added George R. Skillman as a partner. The article goes on to say that George “retired” from the firm in 1884. This isn’t entirely accurate, it seems. An announcement in The Sun on January 1, 1885 states that the partnership had been dissolved, and that James was bringing his son onboard in George’s place. It goes on to say that George had purchased another piece of property on Greene St., and would be starting his own bakery there.

On December 22, 1885, The Baltimore Sentinel published an article stating that:

Sunday afternoon, a fire destroyed the three upper floors of George R. Skillman’s cracker bakery, in Baltimore. The damage to the building is estimated at $10,000 and to stock and machinery $10-15,000.

Some “retirement”, huh?

The 1886 Woods’ City Directory lists “Skillman, George R.” under the category “Steam Bakers”, with an address at 51-57 N. Greene St. This was the location that was destroyed by the aforementioned fire. Luckily, George was fully-insured, and he rebuilt the business at a location up the street. By 1887, that new listing has appeared as “George R. Skillman Universal Steam Bakery” at 203-211 N. Greene St.¬†(now a parking lot for the nearby University of Maryland campus).

203-211 N. Greene Street as it appears today. <em>Photo by the author</em>.
203-211 N. Greene Street as it appears today. Photo by the author.

The Sun has several text ads for the company from this period:

"Count the cost" - Making your own bread isn't worth it.

That last one is terrific. I have to wonder how much time was wasted by 19th century Baltimoreans in “scolding their cooks” about the low-quality bread they made. There’s also a collection of smaller ads. These are all great:

I think it’s interesting that his early ads are all about bread. In those days, most people baked their own bread at home. Even as late as 1910, only about 30% of bread was store-bought. His marketing push is based around his bread being an affordable luxury. He can make it better than you can yourself, and you might even save time and money. Rather than relying totally on local grocers carrying his bread, he also opens a full-service retail store at the bakery sometime in the 1890s.

On January 1, 1892, an advertisement in The Sun announces that my great-great-grandfather, Robert G. Skillman, has been made a partner in his father’s business. Only 26 years-old at the time, he is the eldest surviving son.

At the same time, George continues improving on the state of the art in his industry. In 1892, he’s granted U.S. Patent 487,431 for a commercial oven he’s invented.

It’s around this time though, that things look like they start going downhill a bit.

On January 27, 1891, The Sun mentions a court case, Edward A.F. Mears v. George R. Skillman. I don’t have any of the details of the case, but I know that George lost, and had to pay a sum of $45 to Mr. Mears.

Another article, entitled “Business Troubles” appears in The Sun on May 7, 1895. Guess what this is about:

George R. Skillman & Co., proprietors of the bakery at 203-211 N. Greene Street and of the restaurant at 225 N. Eutaw Street, made an assignment for the benefit of creditors yesterday to George D. Iverson, trustee. The bond was for $15,000, double the estimated value of the assets, which are said to consist mainly of special machinery. The liabilities, it is said, will aggregate about $30,000….They said the assignment was due to the low price of crackers and cakes, and to depression in the business.

So by 1895, he’s up to his eyeballs in debt, and he can’t seem to find a way out. This sounds like really bad news, except that another announcement appears in The Sun on June 21, 1895 – less than 2 months later:

George D. Iverson, Trustee of George R. Skillman & Co., bakers, under deed of trust for the benefit of creditors, yesterday reconveyed the trust property to the firm, who have settled with all their creditors. George R. & Robert G. Skillman are the members of the firm.

So it looks like George has found a way to pay-off all the people he owed money to. He must have come into some quick cash….

Fast forward to December 4, 1895 when The Sun ran an ad announcing that the Skillman Universal Steam Bakery had been purchased by the New York Biscuit Co. The ad expressed the hope that their customers would continue to support the business. George R. Skillman is listed at the bottom as the “Manager”.

In 1898, the New York Biscuit Co. (now owners of the Skillman Bakery) merged with the American Biscuit and Manufacturing Co., creating the National Biscuit Co. in the process. This conglomerate would later shorten its name to Nabisco. By 1900, they’ve consolidated their operations in Baltimore to the 203-211 N Greene St. location, and George R. Skillman is still the Manager.

But there’s still more trouble brewing.

The Sun publishes an article on July 25, 1899 entitled “To Fight the Trusts – Wholesale Grocers Declare War on Big Corporations”. In the article, its reported that the local grocers don’t want to deal with the larger suppliers, and several have agreed to only buy from smaller, local providers. One of the companies that is specifically targeted in this protest is the National Biscuit Co. that George sold-out to, and is now managing the Baltimore operations of. But there’s about to be another plot twist.

The Polk’s City Directory for 1901 lists the following under “Bakery, Wholesale”:

  • Skillman Bakery (National Biscuit Co.), 203-211 N. Greene St., Elmore B. Jeffery, Manager.
  • Skillman, George R. (Union Biscuit Co.), 115 S. Frederick St.

By 1903, the listings look like this:

Under “Bakery, Wholesale”:

  • National Biscuit Co., 203-211 N. Greene St.

Under “Bakery”:

So when the big, national baking interests had become the bad guy, George removed himself from that situation and started up another operation of his own. And look at how he’s marketing the new venture: “biscuits” and “crackers” in 1903 are products that are made almost exclusively in large commercial bakeries. “Bread” and “pie” are still primarily products that are made at home by most people. He’s trying to make this new business at least appear to not be a big, scary company.

Other than the damage to the Maryland Institute that I talked about in an earlier post, I don’t think George is personally affected by the Great Fire in 1904. All his properties are outside of the disaster area. He suffers a very personal disaster a few weeks later, though. On February 20 his wife Mary dies.

1905 is the last year that George is listed in the city directories as being the “proprietor” of the Skillman Bread & Pie Co., so it looks like his day-to-day involvement has slowed. Elmore B. Jeffery (who replaced George at National Biscuit Co.) is brought onboard as the Manager of Skillman Bread & Pie in 1906. How about that, huh? George has also left the family home on Myrtle St., and moved to 3617 Forest Park Ave¬†(the current house on this site was built in 1920). I have to imagine that his wife’s death had something to do with both moves.

In 1909, George sued the Skillman Manufacturing Co., claiming that they owed him $115 and that the company was insolvent. He won himself the company receivership in the case, and the managers of the firm were forced to admit that George’s claims were true. At this point, the company address is listed as being 110 S. Charles St. The old Regester St. location was sold in 1910 for $14,000 to a man who built an auto repair shop there.

Skillman Bread & Pie Co. moves again to 104-112 W. Barre St. at least by 1912, and by 1914, it has completely disappeared from the city directories. It seems like the business had run its course.

George is back in The Sun in 1912, though. An article on November 19 states that he had sold the property at 203-211 N. Greene St. (somehow, he must have re-bought the place) to the Lexington Storage and Warehouse Co., and the next year’s city directory lists him as the President of that company.

The gig doesn’t last long, it seems. While he remains involved with the Board of Managers for the Maryland Institute, and as a Board Member for The Boys’ Home on Calvert and Pleasant St., by 1915, he no longer has an occupation listed in the directories. Sometime before 1917, he’s moved in with his daughter and son-in-law, George MacCubbin, at 3803 Clifton Ave¬†(the current house at this address was built in 1910, so this seems to be the only house he lived in that still exists).

He died in that house, October 18, 1918 at the age of 81, having led a very full life.

He is buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Baltimore.

George R. Skillman's Grave in Mt. Olivet Cemetery
George R. Skillman’s Grave in Mt. Olivet Cemetery. Photo by the author.

The best indication of what he did is found in the 1917 edition of “A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents”. This collection of Presidential remarks also includes an “encyclopedic index”, there to give background information on a number of topics that may come up in speeches and letters of the Presidents. The entry in the index for “Baking Industry” explains that it has become at least the 12th largest industry in the country, and that the growth has been incredible in recent years. It specifically states:

Some of the other bakers engaged in interstate trade in the early history of the industry and who contributed to its national importance were…Skillman, of Baltimore….

Husband, father, baker, inventor, technologist, historian, businessman, civic leader, and “contributor of national importance”. George R. Skillman, my great-great-great-grandfather, was all of these things.

UPDATE – 12/27/2014:

I was able to find a display tin from the Skillman Universal Steam Bakery in an antique shop on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. My brother and I bought it to give to my father this Christmas so that it can stay in the family.

My dad holding a piece of family history.
My dad holding a piece of family history. Photo by Sharon Skillman.