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Chinsegut History – The Robins Family

c. 1905-1954

house 10

Chinsegut under repair shortly after the Robins’ purchase

In 1905 the Snows sold the house to Raymond Robins and his sister, Elizabeth. Raymond Robins had lived with a cousin in Hernando County as a boy, taken in as a poor relation after his father lost their family inheritance and his mother became mentally ill. At seventeen, Robins left Florida to find his own fortune. His experiences upon leaving Florida were diverse, including getting involved in mining and mining labor relations; becoming a lawyer and winning a high profile case in front of the California Supreme Court; joining in the Alaskan Gold Rush; becoming a preacher; then becoming a labor advocate in Chicago, while living in Hull House, a revolutionary “settlement house” in which rich and poor lived together in an idealistic community that was meant to improve the conditions of the poor.

Robins’ sister, Elizabeth, who was eleven years older and had lived mostly apart from Raymond during all but the earliest years of their lives, was a successful actress and author. A very beautiful woman, she lived primarily in London, bringing strong female characters to the stage there, eventually producing her own plays and opening her own theater. Her stardom allowed her to socialize with influential society members as well as famous playwrights and novelists such as H. G. Wells, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. Elizabeth became enamored of Henrik Ibsen’s plays, enjoying the novel roles for women that were available through his work. Elizabeth was very involved in the women’s suffragist movement in England, regularly speaking and writing in support of women’s rights. Elizabeth was also a best-selling author. Her earliest books were written under a male pseudonym, but when her identity was made public, she began writing under her own name. Two of her most popular books, Magnetic North (1904) and Come and Find Me (1908) were written about her adventures locating her brother, Raymond, in the Alaskan wilderness when he tried his hand at gold prospecting, but instead fell ill and nearly died.

Elizabeth Robins

Elizabeth Robins

During his youth in Hernando County, Raymond Robins had often visited Snow Hill and had become enamored of the estate, hoping one day to own it. He had also harbored a dream of making a home together with his sister, Elizabeth, to rebuild the family that had been torn apart during his youth. Upon a trip to Brooksville, Florida, taken to restore his health and visit childhood friends and family, Robins found the Snow Hill Estate in a state of disrepair. Robins pressed his sister to provide $5,000 to buy the property, along with a neighboring parcel to create a winter home they could share. Elizabeth agreed, planning to divide her time between London and Brooksville. The two decided to name the property Chinsegut Hill, based on what they said was an Inuit word meaning “the spirit of things lost and regained.”  Shortly after the property was purchased, Raymond met and married Margaret Dreier.

Like Raymond and Elizabeth, Margaret Dreier Robins was an activist that promoted human rights. She was involved in the Women’s Trade Union League in New York and Chicago as well as the Women’s Municipal League, an organization that helped women avoid resorting to prostitution to support themselves. Having similar beliefs and work ethics to Raymond, Margaret Robins helped organize women into unions, educated women workers, and advocated for progressive legislation. She also advocated successfully for Child Labor laws. Margaret presided over the Women’s Trade Union League for fifteen years, during its most influential period and was a noted social reformer. Margaret came from a wealthy family in Brooklyn and there was some question of her marrying beneath herself since Raymond had little money of his own.

During his childhood in Hernando County, Robins had befriended one of the laborers in his cousin’s groves, a former slave named Fielder Harris. When Robins purchased Chinsegut, he sought out Harris and offered him the position of running the estate, a rare privilege offered to a black man during that time and a source of concern to local residents. Harris remained at Chinsegut until his death in 1924. Major repairs and upgrades were made to house to make it livable; Elizabeth oversaw much of the early construction in 1906. At that time, she wrote the foreword to her novel Come and Find Me, referring to Chinsegut as the place where they “should not only rest, but having rested, work as never before.”

Home of Raymond RobinsThe Robins used the house as a winter vacation home and continued farming the estate, adding acreage both for additional groves and to preserve native forests. Strife began early on related to the estate, with the relationship strained between Raymond and his sister as she felt betrayed by his marriage and introduction of Margaret into the home they were to have to themselves. In spite of the difficulties, all three Robins continued to share the home, using it to recuperate from their strenuous work lives, maintaining a polite relationship. Raymond, in particular, would travel extensively on speaking engagements and meeting with labor and political leaders. He often wrote longingly about his relaxing days at Chinsegut Hill as he traveled. While at Chinsegut, the Robins entertained often, with guests including Helen Keller, Jane Addams, William Jennings Bryan, Thomas Edison, J. C. Penney, author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Florida Senator Claude Pepper, and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes.

In 1917, Raymond Robins was chosen as part of a Red Cross mission to Russia, just three months after the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II. While the authorization and mission of the group was stated as helping maintain food supplies and helping refugees, the primary purpose was to keep the Russian Army in the War, maintaining the Eastern front. Robins’ work within the labor movement in the US, as well as his wife’s leadership with the National Women’s Trade League gave him credentials that introduced him to the newly emerging leadership. As the Bolsheviks came to power, Raymond Robins was the only Allied or American officer to have personal conferences with Lenin, meeting with him several times a week. While Raymond was not a proponent of the Soviet agenda, he realized that Russia would soon emerge as a world power and advocated positive diplomatic relations between the US and Russia; however, his recommendations were not viewed favorably by the US government. Raymond continued to promote improved diplomacy between the two countries for the rest of his life, making a second trip to Russia in 1933. In 1937, the Soviet Ambassador to the United State, Alexander Troyanovsky, visited the Robins at Chinsegut Hill. They were photographed together under the “Lenin Tree”, an oak Margaret had planted on the property in May 1918 in honor of Raymond’s association with Nikolai Lenin.

Raymond and Margaret Robins at Chinsegut

Raymond and Margaret Robins at Chinsegut

Margaret and Raymond maintained their primary home in Chicago until 1923 when they decided to move to the house at Chinsegut Hill full time. By this time, Elizabeth was a less frequent resident at Chinsegut, having made a life and an estate of her own in England. Raymond and Margaret made arrangements to buy her portion of the estate with monthly payments. Margaret resigned her position with the Women’s League when the transition was made, but Raymond continued traveling regularly for speaking engagements and politicking, including promoting prohibition and advocating outlawing war by international agreement. In 1923, he was considered for a cabinet position in President Calvin Coolidge’s staff, although he later declined. When Hoover was elected president, Raymond quickly became a trusted adviser, as he had been for the past two presidents.

Upon relocating to Florida in 1923, Raymond had gotten involved in operations at the First National Bank of Brooksville. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the Robins lost much of their income from Margaret’s inheritance. After the crash, Raymond became chairman of the Brooksville bank board. His sense of responsibility in that position lead him to use what was left of their already depleted personal finances to help keep the bank afloat. While his efforts were fairly successful in the banking arena, the personal losses and strain of financial worry made Robins reassess his life. Raymond put Chinsegut up for sale, but no buyer came through.

On April 9, 1932, following a meeting with President Hoover, Robins deeded his 2,082 acre Chinsegut Hill estate to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Robins accepted only one dollar for the property, then valued at 250,000 dollars. Robins designated specific portions of this “Chinsegut Hill Sanctuary” to be for a migratory bird and wildlife refuge, forest reserve, and an agricultural experiment station. His plan was to create a “dream plantation” that would help educate youth about proper forest, wildlife and farm management without “thriftlessness and waste”. Robins’ letters also indicate his desire to preserve, for the “inspiration and education of the next generation,” the last remnants of virgin longleaf pine forest and restore the natural resources to the state that existed in his boyhood.  The sale included the provision that Raymond and Margaret would remain living in the house at Chinsegut until their deaths. When Mrs. Robins told the negro workers of the gift, Aunt Lizzie said, “Miss Margaret, when you told all those men Chinsegut now belongs to United States you done stood in the same corner of the house Mr. Ederington stood when he told us we is free. I done seed two great things happen – you and Mr. Ederington.”

Raymond Robins

Raymond Robins at Chinsegut using his home made walker after breaking his back

Raymond and Margaret continued to take an active role in the management of Chinsegut after the transfer. The Federal Government used the Robins lands for several endeavors. In 1933, Robert Fechner, head of the Civilian Conservation Corps visited the Robins at Chinsegut.  Shortly after, a CCC camp was set up on the Chinsegut property, with Raymond actively involved in the program implementation. It was one of the first CCC camps set up in Florida. A workers washroom and the overseers’ cabin from the CCC era are still standing on Chinsegut property, although in deteriorated condition. Much of the farmland was used to start the Sub-Tropical Agricultural Research Station (STARS) to study agricultural methods, with an emphasis on cattle breeding, but also citrus and poultry. The station served as a major source of pioneering agricultural scientific study in support of the beef cattle industry. Another portion of the estate later became part of the Chinsegut Wildlife and Environmental Area.

In 1935, Robins fell from a tree and broke his back, paralyzing him from the waist down. He fought against terrible pain and worked through constant treatment and surgery to restore some mobility to his life. He installed ramps and handles in the manor house to enable him to move around and climb the stairs. His wheelchair and homemade walker provided mobility on the property. While Raymond could not travel easily, he continued correspondence with national and world leaders and he and Margaret entertained many visitors at Chinsegut.

Margaret Robins died in 1945 after several years of ill health. Raymond Robins died in 1954. Both were buried on Chinsegut property, to the east of the Manor House under a large oak tree.