By Peggy Smith Hake
“Howdy-do old Skinner, how are you doing in there?” . . . . . I once heard my grandfather utter those words as we were traveling up Highway 52 on our way to Eldon. Surprised, I said, ”Why did you say that?” With a twinkle in his eye, Granddad told me that he always sent his greeting to old Jim Skinner every time he passed by. All I saw that day was a stone structure sitting in a small cemetery and I was amazed to learn he was speaking to someone or something in that old graveyard!
The years passed by and I forgot about Granddad’s hearty “howdy-do”, but not long ago someone asked me if I had ever researched the story of the Skinner Tomb. The years melted away and once again I recalled those words of long ago, so I decided to be inquisitive and in the process I learned a wonderful story of an Englishman who settled in Miller County after the Civil War and lived the remaining years of his life in northern Equality Township in the Flatwoods community and in the city of Eldon.
James S. Skinner Sr. was born in Cook County, England near London circa 1834. As a young child of seven years James, his parents, and a brother named Tom, set sail for America to seek a new homeland. Enroute his father died at sea, so his mother found herself in New York, a stranger with two small children, no money, and no way of supporting herself. She bound out young James to a wealthy New York family where he worked as a servant for the next 14 years.
After serving his term of indenture, James Skinner went out into the world on his own and traveled to Schenectady, New York where he met his future wife, Lucy Miriam Folsom. Lucy was a cousin to Mrs. Grover Cleveland (Francess Folsom Cleveland), wife of America’s 22nd president. President Cleveland was 27 years older than Frances when he married her at the White House in Washington D.C. in 1886. I have wondered if James and Lucy Skinner may have attended this wedding, but I could find no proof that they were in attendance.
At the age of 24 years, approximately in 1859, James and Lucy moved to Palmyra, Wisc. They did not stay there long until they moved on westward to Pettis County, Missouri, settling in Sedalia. James was a talented carpenter by trade and built what may have been the first house in Sedalia. Their first child, Isabella, was born and was reputed to have been the first white child born there. Two other children were born to them while in Sedalia, but died in infancy. While in Sedalia, he went into the mercantile business but was burned out during the Civil War. After the war, they moved to Knob Noster where he operated a saloon for several years.
Their next move was to Miller County where they settled in Equality Township a few miles northwest of Tuscumbia. In 1868, James had purchased 80 acres of land in this area from William A. Folsom (the father of Lucy Skinner). The Folsoms were living on an adjoining farm to the Skinners in the 1880 census. Jim and Lucy Skinner were enumerated in the 1870 census of Miller County but the Folsoms were not found, so evidently they had purchased land in Miller County in the 1860’s but did not move here from New York until after 1870. Lucy Folsom Skinner probably wanted her elderly parents near them after they settled in the county. James Skinner purchased many other tracts of land in various parts of the county and became one of the largest land owners in the region.
After moving into Miller County, five more children were born to James and Lucy Skinner: Ellen, Mary, James Jr., Lucy and Hattie. James built a large log house with a huge fireplace and a shed on the side. He had brought a horse, a cow, and a team of oxen with him from Pettis County and housed them in the attached shed. It was thought by a few that Jim brought a lot of money here with him and kept it hidden in a beer keg. Pure speculation.
He became prosperous, acquiring much property and he hired farmhands who worked his farm clearing the land and making rails. Jim Skinner also built his father and mother-in-law a log home nearby and Mrs. Folsom was always on hand, assisting in all the births of Lucy’s children born in Miller County.
When their daughter Lucy died, at the age of 5 years in 1876, Jim fenced off a plot near their home and it was there the Skinner Cemetery originated. A few years later, Jim started to build a new house farther up the hillside. They first lived in the basement area, built of bricks made by Jim and his farm employees. Later the large white house was built over the basement where it now stands. All the lumber was hauled from Moniteau County near California by an oxen team.
There was no school in the area, and Jim donated land so one could be erected. He and Lucy were both educated folk and wanted the same for their children. HE built the school himself and called it Skinner School. Anyone who has traveled Highway 62 north from Tuscumbia has passed this school many times. It is still standing and is the present home of Skinner Ridge Plants and Greenhouse (1987).
Isabella, the oldest daughter, married Charles H. Clarke, an Englishman, and they lived in the village of Tuscumbia. After eight years of marriage and the birth of three children, Isabella died in 1886 at the young age of 25 years. She is buried beside her son, James, in the Skinner Family Cemetery. The other children of James and Lucy Skinner married Miller County natives including: Ellen Skinner married Robert L. Smith in December 1889; Mary E. Skinner married Benjamin F. Vaughan in October 1890; James E. Skinner, Jr. married Nellie L. Thompson in September 1895; and Hattie Skinner married Ivy G. Duncan in November 1901. Jim and Lucy reared the two surviving daughters of Isabella Skinner Clarke—Louie and Lillie Clarke, who were ages 5 and 3 when their mother died in 1886. Louie Clarke Lawson, many years the Real Rural Rustlers correspondent for the Autogram-Sentinel, was one of the granddaughters reared by Jim and Lucy Skinner.
The Skinners were fond of cedar trees and had many different species in their yard. Jim built their coffins from the cedar wood on the farm and it was said the wood was so hard that a nail could not be driven into it, but somehow he got the coffins properly lined and the handles attached as well.
In later years, after the turn of the century, the Skinners sold their farm land and moved into Eldon. They sold 578 acres to Fred and Mary Neubauer in 1900 and in 1903 the Neubauers sold the same acreage to the Daniel Heafey family of Warren County, Iowa. It remains in the Heafey family today (1987), owned by the children of Daniel Heafey. During this era, Jim built the large cement tomb inside the Skinner Family Cemetery and it was to be his final resting place. The caskets he built had glass tops that were air-tight and the front door of the sepulcher was also made of glass.
Old Jim was quite a character! It was said that he would build awhile on his coffin, stop, and then lie down in it for awhile. He wanted to be sure it was going to be large enough and comfortable enough for his final rest!
Today there are four generations buried in the Skinner Cemetery. Jim Skinner stated that he wanted to be laid to rest in his tomb alongside the road so his many friends could drop by and see him or just greet him on their trips up and down the roadway. Over the years, it was a common practice for everyone who passed by to yell “Hello, old Skinner, how are you doing in there?”
One of the most delightful stories has been told about Jim’s tomb…Joe Heafey, who was living on the land put a scare into a group of young roughnecks one night. The boys went up to the vault late on a dark night, peered inside, and yelled, “Hey, Old Skinner, how are you?” Joe Heafey had hidden behind the tomb and in a gruff voice said, “Why boys, I’m doing just fine, thank you.” Needless to say they sobered up real quick, riding their horses non-stop into town! Old Jim Skinner would have enjoyed that little episode more than anyone else!
Today the vault stands on the south side of Highway 52, overgrown with weeds in the summer months; protected by the stately cedars, which Jim Skinner loved, in the wintertime. The glass door is no longer there, having been permanently sealed with concrete in 1957. So now James and Lucy Skinner are at rest in their tomb standing near the home they built all those years ago and far from his native English home he left almost a century and a half ago, one of those countless number of immigrants who settled a new nation in the early 19th century.