By Peter Becker
HAWLEY- A family of late 19th Century Russian Jews departed their homeland like so many thousands of others, believing they would have a better life in a land far beyond the sunset. That land, the United States of America, became the home of the Skiers, whose sacrifice and toil would lead them to a place they would likely never have dreamed, the town of Hawley, Pennsylvania. Here, they would make their mark, and contribute to the economic and social fabric of their adopted home, a heritage that continues to this day.
"Morris Skier was a peddler," his grandson Henry Skier said, sharing his family history over a piece of coffee cake and coffee. "The Skiers immigrated from Russia, possibly Lithuania. The circumstances are unknown."
Census records state that Morris D. Skier was born in about 1875.
A picture shows his grandfather next to his peddling wagon, talking to other men. It is one of many more of the family, proudly displayed in Henry's office at AMSKier Insurance on Main Avenue.
Hawley at that time was an industrious village, teaming with textile factories, glass works and other manufacturing interests. The population was about double what it is today, and trains came and went from three directions. The Wallenpaupack was still a river lined with farms, but talk was already being heard about making a great lake for electrical power, and dreamers pondered that a bright economic future would result.
Henry stated that his grandfather was the first of three brothers who would arrive in America. Morris Skier settled in Connecticut but his peddling business carried him west where he discovered Hawley. He did a lot of his peddling in the Lackawaxen, Shohola and Barryville area. He started a clothing store on Penn Avenue opposite Keystone Street, near Vogler’s feed business. A 1912 street directory lists his business at this location. The Skiers lived a few doors down Penn Avenue, second from the corner with Church Street, next to what in recent years has been a restaurant. The Skier homestead is long gone.
A successful merchant, Morris Skier was faithful to his Judaic beliefs. Nevertheless, he opened his clothing store on Saturday, which is the Jewish Sabbath. One Friday night in 1918 a fire erupted which destroyed the store. Grandson Henry related the story that although the Hawley Fire Department came, Morris refused to let them put it out.
The fire also wrecked William Krawitz's blacksmith shop next door, and Ernest Vogler's flour and feed business on the other side. Vogler rebuilt at this site, using brick.
"He felt guilty," Henry said of his grandfather, for running his business on the Sabbath. So he let his business burn down. His guilt so devastated him that he never returned to the clothing business. Instead, he took up rabbinical studies, although Henry is unaware if he became a rabbi.
Morris’s son Abram, who was born in 1898, was in high school at the time, and took up care for his parents and siblings. Morris’s wife was Sarah; they had three sons and a daughter.
Morris Skier had a brother Joseph who also settled in Hawley, and became a successful clothing merchant. Jospeh also started out as a peddler. His building still bears his name, Jos. Z. Skier, at Main Avenue and Keystone. Joseph and Minnie Skier had one son, I. Reines Skier, who became a prominent local attorney. [Note: I. Reines Skier will be the subject of an upcoming Local History feature.]
Abram Mitchall Skier was working as a writer for a Scranton newspaper when PP&L was getting set to build the Wallenpaupack dam. Abram and Mark Tuttle saw an opportunity and joined together in real estate. They bought property around what would become a lake.
One day in 1920, having gone to the Hawley Bank after selling a property, Abram learned from a bank teller about his sideline in insurance. "Dad knew the real estate business was boom or bust," Henry related. He offered the teller $1,000 for his two insurance licenses. The bank teller wanted $2,000.
The owner of a local lumber company liked Abram from an incident years before when as a boy, Abram hit a baseball and broke the man’s window. Young Abram showed his honesty by confessing. The lumber company man loaned Abram the other $1,000 he needed, and Abram purchased both insurance licenses.
The licenses were for the U.S. Fire Insurance Company and the Home Insurance Company. Those firms later merged. Abram wasn’t married at that time. Hawley street directories list his business address at 517 Church Street, and then the brick Murray building at 314 Main Avenue. Street directories listed him as Abraham M. Skier.
In 1925 he purchased 209 Main Avenue, where the business relocated, and has since remained. A barber, Boots Corcoran, also had a shop there, and Abram set up a clothing store for his aging father, but he declined. The Skiers moved their living quarters upstairs of the insurance business.
Abram’s brother Isadore (Izzie) had the Manor Cut Rate store on Main Avenue. Brother Myron became a partner in AMSKier Insurance. Sister Ann moved to Brooklyn. The youngest of the family, sister Ethel, stayed in Hawley and taught English and Spanish in the high school.
Henry Skier was born in 1942 to Abram and Mabel Skier. Henry also has a younger brother David, an opthamologist in Alabama.
Abram built his insurance business in the Lackawaxen and Shohola area, building on his father’s good reputation as a peddler so many years before. Abram sold home, business and car insurance. He also started selling life insurance. He continued as a real estate broker and had a lot of success due to the growth around Lake Wallenpaupack.
In about 1950, Abram Skier started an office in Honesdale, at 825 Main Street. He and his wife lived at 207 Park Street in Honesdale. In 1990, AMSkier closed the Honesdale office.
Back in the 1930’s, Abram sensed a good market for insurance among the many summer camps that were opening up in the area. Henry stated that in 1973 they had 10 camps insured, all in Wayne County. Today, the Skier legacy has grown to the point they are now the largest insurer of summer camps in the country, with over 400 camps. Eighty percent of their business is in camps.
They also started a re-insurance company for children’s camps, in 1992.
Abram Skier died in 1973. His wife Mabel was 97 when she died, Sept. 23, 2012. Henry worked together with his father in the business for only five years, when Abram passed away. He stated that he learned a great deal from the good staff his father had, of about 10 people. Among them were Gail Masker of Lords Valley who worked 53 years with Abram, and Catherine Beilman, who was employed 43 years.
A late, close friend, Ben Appelbaum also did much to help Henry expand their camp business. A charity was started in Ben’s name which advises others on being successful. Another close friend in the camp business was Morrey Stein, who died in a plane crash. AMSkier started an organization in Morrey’s name to help needy children attend camp.
Henry and Eve Skier’s son Jeffery Skier and daughter Aimee Skier are now partners in the AMSkier company. Jeffrey and his wife Johanna have two children, Annie and Abe, who is named for grandfather Abram.
They now employ 30 people and have 20 partners who provide services to camps. Their office space has grown to include the former Watt’s Hardware Store diagonally across the street at River and Main in Hawley.
"I asked my dad when he first felt confident he was successful," Henry recalled. "He’d never tell me a believable answer. I think it was when he could support his family- he was really proud of himself."