image_print

Gertrude Ellis Skinner         November 12, 1865 – March 26, 1960

Gertrude Ellis Skinner was born November 12, 1865 near the city limits of Austin. Her father, A.V. Ellis, and mother came to this area in 1858, just two years after the formation of Austin. Her parents wanted a good education for their six children and believed the Austin schools offered the best opportunity. Mr. and Mrs. Ellis requested 80 acres of their property to be annexed to the city therefore making their children eligible to attend Austin schools. Gertrude graduated in 1881 and then went to the Winona Normal School graduating in 1882. She taught grade school here in Austin, then in California, and one summer in Hawaii. In 1888 she embarked by herself on a 14 month tour of Europe, Palestine, and Egypt. After returning from her trip, she became a principal in Omaha Nebraska and was very comfortable in her position. While she was there and unknown to her she was put up as a candidate for Mower County Superintendent of Schools. She won by 28 votes and then had decide if she wanted to leave her current job in Omaha. After accepting the position, she later said, “It was the bravest thing that I ever did”. In 1890 Gertrude Ellis became the first female superintendent of schools of Mower County and oversaw 130 schools, 4068 students, and 150 teachers.

Highlights during her 10 year career as superintendent are as follows:

  • She was always re-elected without opposition.
  • Gertrude oversaw the creation of 90 school libraries in Mower County, which made the County stand out statewide.
  • She served as secretary of the County Superintendents Association of the state.
  • She served as secretary of the general section of the State Education Association.
  • For one year, she was the official inspector of the Winona Normal School.
  • She was selected to be on the Minnesota committee of County superintendents for the Minnesota exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition.
  • Under her general direction there were six summer schools established during her tenure as superintendent.

On May 10, 1899 the Mower County Transcript wrote about her career as an educator. The piece ended by stating “She is a fine example of what culture, the tact, and the energy women can do to serve well their generation when proper opportunities are afforded them.”          

In 1900, Gertrude relinquished her position as Superintendent just before she married John Skinner on June 26. The timing of events was probably no accident- at that time the regulations governing Minnesota teachers specified that “women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.” As Superintendent of Schools the same proscription may not have applies to her, but if anyone would have recognized the illogical inanity of equating marriage with “unseemly conduct,” it would have been Gertrude. She may also have had a thing or two to say about the fact that the rule about marriage disqualifying a teacher from employment did not apply to male teachers, but if so she kept it to herself. After leaving her job as superintendent of schools she became the associate editor for the Austin Daily Herald for 20 years and that also offered her the opportunity to be more engaged in community affairs.

The following is a summary of her community service work and recognitions:

  • She helped to organize and form the YWCA in Austin and was a lifetime member.
  • She was a leader in the local Red Cross efforts during World War I.
  • For many years, the Austin Daily Herald was a distribution site for clothing and other necessities for the needy. In 1907 at her suggestion the Sunshine Society was formed which preceded the welfare board and the coming of the Salvation Army.
  • She was a member of the Austin Floral Club, the Art and Travel Club, the Congregational Church, and the League of Women Voters in 1921. Gertrude also helped to maintain the Austin High School Alumni Association.
  • In 1958, Gertrude was honored by being named the Mower County Centennial Queen. That same year a bronze sculpture depicting the biblical “Burning Bush” was donated to the new Ellis Junior School. This donation came from Gertrude and her husband the late John H. Skinner in honor of her father A.V. Ellis.

Gertrude Ellis Skinner was a trailblazer. She was not a woman to wait around for anyone to give her an opportunity, but instead made her own way in the world seeking knowledge as a true educator and sharing her talents with many. Gertrude made her own way in the world, and she created her own opportunities.

 

Do you know someone that has made an impact on the City of Austin? Submit a Pillars of the City nomination for next year!