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Friday, January 23, 2009


Further research; John Riley Robinson
Any historical research encounters a myriad of details that can be carefully sorted out or casually glossed over, and there's usually a certain amount of both in any story. I knew when I wrote the Robinson episodes below, that there would be further work to do and revisions to make.

I made a couple of trips to the county recorders office today to trace Oak Hill's title. The deeds confirm that Oak Hill was sold at sheriff's sale in 1860. It appears to be a foreclosure. The sale was to satisfy a judgment of $9,320 and the property was purchased at the sale by Farmer's Bank, then resold to Harvey Hall for $7,000 who sold it to Dr. Jones three years later for $12,000. Thus it appears when the 1860 census showed Robinson's real estate valued at $10,000 he was essentially wiped out, probably a result of the bankruptcy of the railroad in 1855. Nevertheless, his connections with the Barneys, the Overland, and Wells Fargo took him on to his silver mine venture and great wealth.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

john riley robinson; part 7

Llandaff c. 1878 home of John Robinson at Easton, MD.

Seventh and final installment in a series about the man who built Oak Hill Cottage
According to Steve Wilson, director emeritus of the Museum of the Great Plains, the revolutionary Adolfo Ibarra occupied Batopilas on July 23, 1872, and jailed John Robinson for five days. On Dec. 17, 1871, the company had paid a forced loan of $6,000, and in July 1872, Ibarra imposed a loan of $100,000. He got $15,918, and another $3,000 in silver. The revolutionaries took over the mine and mill and took another $207,180.

After Batopilas, Robinson went on to discover and develop silver mines in the Santa Eulalia district of Chihuahua, and formed the Don Enrique Mining Co. , at Cusihuiriachick, and the Santa Eulalia Silver Mining Co., with headquarters at Hacienda Robinson. He sold the companies in 1890.

At about the time of the sale of the Batopilas mine in 1879, Robinson built a new home, Llandaff, in the Queen Anne style at Easton, MD. The estate stayed in the family for 127 years and like Oak Hill Cottage is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jane, his first wife, died in 1883 and Robinson married Katherine Taylor in 1885. John Robinson’s obituary in the New York Times, on his death May 9, 1892 sketches the broad outlines of his adventurous and prosperous life.

“Long John Robinson Dead. Baltimore, May 9 …John R. Robinson came from Florida on Saturday to his home, Llandaff Farm, Bailey’s Neck. He was then a very sick man, and died to-day, aged eighty-two years. An Easton (MD.) dispatch to the Baltimore Sun says: Mr. Robinson has been for many years a conspicuous figure in large business and financial operations in this country and Mexico. ‘Long John’ Robinson was well known in Wall Street, New York. …His first business venture of importance was the construction of the first railroad built in Ohio, that from Columbus to Sandusky.”

“He was manager of the great line of stages that was run between Fort Smith, Ark., and San Francisco. During the civil war Mr. Robinson went to Mexico and developed a silver mine which paid 12 percent a month for several years to its New York stockholders. Mr Robinson later got possession of other mines in Chihuahua…”

Saturday, January 10, 2009

john riley robinson; part 6

Sixth installment in a series about the man who built Oak Hill Cottage
Robinson left Mansfield Feb. 27, 1861 on his trip to purchase a nearly idle 200 year old silver mine in the Sierra Madre, reaching Batopilas, Mexico in early May. Back in Mansfield, a survey of the Oak Hill property dated May 14 drawn up by surveyor John Newman indicates a sale or transfer of the property was in the process at that time.

After inspection and negotiations, Robinson purchased the silver mine for $20,000 which was considerably less than the $50,000 in the conditional purchase contract. Robinson supervised mining operations for the next 18 years, returning great profits for the investors. The partners sold out in 1879 for $600,000.

Though immensely profitable, Robinson’s venture was tragic on a personal level. Hart writes in his book The Silver of the Sierra Madre; “His sons Asher and James Willshire Robinson both succumbed to typhoid fever at Batopilas in September 1861 and June 1862, respectively. Then the passing of his two grandchildren, Fred and Lena, victims of the same disease in the same place a little more than a decade later compounded his grief.”

Edward Wilkinson, who became the founding director of the Mansfield Memorial Museum, was the nephew of Robinson’s wife Jane. His brother Samuel worked for Robinson running the silver mine at Batopilas and later at Chihuahua. Edward’s two sojourns in Mexico c. 1875 and 1885, collecting specimens of flora and fauna while working for the mine, were occasioned by this family connection.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

john riley robinson; part 5

Fifth installment of a series about the man who built Oak Hill Cottage
Robinson’s 1892 obituary credits him with having been the manager of the "great line of stages that was run between Fort Smith, Ark., and San Francisco
". In the 1861 diary of his first trip to Batopilas to purchase the silver mine he writes forward to his son Asher “on the overland” to make ready to accompany him if he wished. Asher and another man named Tom Lavin joined the party at Ft. Smith. Lavin may have been a Lexington, Ohio local because prior to departing Mansfield on the trip Robinson writes that he visited “old man and Pat Lavin” at Lexington.

In the 1860 census, Asher Robinson’s occupation is listed as “conductor”. A conductor was the man who rode up with the driver and took care of passengers, baggage, etc. And finally, as further evidence of his work for the “Overland”, in his 1873 diary of a trip from the Batopilas mine in Mexico to New York delivering a shipment of silver, he writes that he “met some of my old drivers on the overland.”

Robinson closed Oak Hill in February, 1861 at the beginning of his venture in the Mexican silver mine. It appears he was staking his diminished, but still considerable resources on the Mexican venture. In his diary before leaving Mansfield he mentions his daughter May, who had been unwell, his son Willshire at Delaware College, and his son Asher on the Overland. The impression is that he’s closing Oak Hill but his wife and family are remaining in the Mansfield vicinity. He sells the furniture from the house to “Hall and Allen” for $445, and consigns “a lot of lamps” to “Edward and James” to sell and apply the proceeds to “payment of an S. & B. bill of $43.00 due from Asher.”

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

john riley robinson; part 4

Fourth installment of a series about the man who built Oak Hill Cottage

Historian John Mason Hart in his book “The Silver of the Sierra Madre” credits Robinson with being a member of upper management with Wells Fargo & Company, a judge, and a doctor.

The Wells Fargo association was true, but the judge and doctor attributions are questionable. Robinson does not appear to have claimed to be a doctor in the professional sense, even though the 1860 census lists that as his profession. During his first trip to Batopilas, Mexico at the beginning of his silver mine venture, he relates the following; “Attended to the sick Senoras in the lower part of the house, and administered medicine for a sore breast for one, and for a pain in the side and limbs for another. They seem to think every Yankee is a physician. If I am successful in these cases, expect to be called to attend all the afflicted of the town, particularly the female portion.”

The profession of judge seems equally unlikely. During his stopover at Ft. Davis in the diary of his first Batopilas trip he relates the following: “The corral was broken into last night and a driver was seen in the act of placing halters on the mules. The guard shot at 2 Greasers who were tearing down the wall. The driver was tried by Judge Lynch, in whose stead I officiated, and adjudged him to leave on the first stage for San Francisco or be strung up to a cottonwood tree. He chose the former.” The “Judge Lynch” Robinson alludes to was a Western euphemism for a vigilante trial. It is doubtful Robinson was a judge in any other sense than where the absence of established courts brought Judge Lynch to the bench, and the most prominent or respected man present officiated “in his stead”.

But his connection with Wells Fargo is well established. In Noel Loomis’s book, Wells Fargo, he quotes a letter from Robinson in New York in 1860 on Overland Mail letterhead. Robinson outlines his objectives of an upcoming silver mine venture in which he envisions the “introduction of Wells Fargo & Company into Mexico in their express and banking business.” He mentions William Fargo, the Barneys, and himself as the potential purchasers of the mine.

Wells Fargo was established in 1852 to provide express and banking services to California. Wells, Butterfield and Company was part of the American Express. John Butterfield was the line superintendent of this grand combine, from which the joint contractors had been recruited to build the Great Overland Mail Company, of which Butterfield was president. From September 15, 1857 these contractors had exactly one year to create the southern mail route, operating across 3000 miles, 165 stations, and seven deserts to provide twice weekly mail service to California. Wells, Fargo, & Company gained control of the Overland Mail Company in 1860, the same year as Robinson’s letter. The southern mail, the “Oxbow Route”, ceased operation in 1861 with the outbreak of the Civil War.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

john riley robinson; part 3

Third installment of a series about the man who built Oak Hill Cottage
In building Oak Hill, Robinson may have revealed a kindred artistic spirit with the younger Sherman brother. John Sherman’s library is archived at the Mansfield Public Library today, and includes A. J. Downing’s “Cottage Residences”, probably the most influential book of its time promoting the Romantic Revival and the Gothic Revival style of architecture that was part of that movement. Sherman’s first home built in the city, like Oak Hill, was a Gothic Revival masterpiece straight out of the pages of Downing and other “taste” books of the day.

Robinson’s Oak Hill Cottage conformed in nearly every detail to Downing’s ideals; construction methods, exterior and interior trim, room layout, kitchen location, dinning room, and servants quarters, and we would expect the furnishings were equally correct in style and quality.
While the hilltop location was not Downing’s idea of the best situation for this style of house, he allowed it as a possible choice. And the existing archaeology, historical photos, and documents indicate the landscape plan conformed as thoroughly to the taste books as the details of the house itself.

No doubt Robinson utilized his new railroad, as the Jones family did in later years, to furnish and decorate the house in an up to date manner that had not previously been possible. But primarily the opening of the railroad was essential to the importation of the lumber that fed Mansfield’s building boom of the next few decades, and to the export of the products of the interior farmlands to the port of Sandusky.

The railroad never managed to make money for its investors. By 1853 it had consolidated with two other lines to become the Sandusky, Mansfield, and Newark Railroad. By 1855 it was reorganized under receivership and bankrupt. Robinson was gone from the business by then. The flour mill had also changed ownership, and Robinson’s estate in the 1860 census was valued at $10,000 and personal property at $1,000. This was a drop of $14,000 from the census of 1850, a change that might be accounted for by the bankruptcy of the railroad.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

john riley robinson; part 2

Second installment of a series about the man who built Oak Hill Cottage

The business directory on the 1853 map of the city shows Robinson’s freight forwarding office at the same location as the flour mill.

Ten lots along N. Walnut street in the 1850 tax record are divided between seven to the railroad and three to Robinson & Riley, with the total tax value lumped together at $150,000. This is a staggering sum, considering no other property in the city topped $8000.

The flour mill, on three of these lots, was almost on the end of the line for the railroad, but not quite! A track from Walnut Street curved SE to a warehouse next to where City Mills stands at North Main and 5th Street. The descendants of that track, an old siding, can still be seen there today. This track, in 1850, served the Sherman and Emminger Sash Factory, a joint venture of Jacob Emminger and John Sherman who was still in his 20s at that time.

John Sherman’s wealth early on was associated with the railroad, a fact made clear by a brief mention in his biographical reminiscences; “I had in addition to my practice [law], engaged in a profitable business with Jacob Emminger, a practical mechanic, in the manufacture of doors, blinds and other building materials. We acquired valuable pine-lands in Michigan and transported the lumber to our works at Mansfield” [by the SC&M Railroad].

The depletion of the forests of Maine and the opening up of timber lands for the harvest of the white pine forests in Michigan had brought about a bonanza in land speculation that created more wealth than the California Gold Rush of 1849.

There evidently were strong connections between John Riley Robinson and the Shermans. John Sherman was admitted to the Bar in 1844 at the age of 21, and partnered with his older brother Charles T. Sherman, a prominent lawyer in Mansfield. One of John’s earliest jobs as an attorney was representing the railroad in the acquisition of the right of way from Plymouth to Mansfield. This would have closely associated Sherman with John Robinson, even if there was no other connection. In fact, Robinson named one of his sons Charles Sherman Robinson, indicating there was a close friendship between John and the older Sherman brother. They were equal major shareholders in the railroad and probably had other business dealing together.