Chinsegut Hill: Precious jewel of history
In 1900, Chinsegut Hill’s large manor house had seen much better days. Blown off its foundation by a storm, the house had been lying on its side for 10 years or more. It would take someone with an abundant amount of money and motivation to set it upright and restore the structure.
By far, the most historically significant person to own Chinsegut was Raymond Robins. Born in 1873 in New York, Robins became acquainted with Hernando County at the age of nine while living with an uncle on a struggling farm nearby. He discovered Chinsegut, then named Snow Hill, and vowed to own it one day.
Robins grew up to become a complex and brilliant man who was determined to be financially successful. He worked as a miner, lawyer, gold prospector and missionary, traveling across the nation. Over time, Robins became interested in labor and spiritual issues and participated in the Alaskan Gold Rush in 1897.
Robins relocated to Chicago by the turn of the century, where he ran the Municipal Lodging House, a settlement house for the unemployed and homeless. He became heavily involved with reform movements in the city and devoted his considerable energies to the Progressive Party. Later, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate on the party’s ticket in 1914.
In 1904, Robins married Margaret Drier, a fellow activist from New York. Born in 1868 to wealthy German parents, Drier was a prominent social worker in her own right, having a long history of activism in New York and Chicago with friends such as Jane Addams of the Hull House and women’s labor unions.
The newlyweds purchased Snow Hill in 1904, fulfilling Robin’s childhood dream of owning the estate. Robins renamed it “Chinsegut Hill,” an Inuit word he learned in Alaska, meaning “The spirit of lost things” or “The place where lost things are found.” The couple invested their energies in the grounds, forming a spiritual bond with the land with landmarks, such as the Altar Oak and Revelation Trail. They also improved the manor house over the next 50 years, adding plumbing, electricity and additional fireplaces and bathrooms.
Robin’s involvement with domestic politics was interrupted when he unexpectedly set foot on the international stage. In 1917, former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt arranged to have Robins appointed Commissioner of the American Red Cross Mission to Russia to distribute aid, observe the fragile political situation there and act as an unofficial ambassador. Upon arrival in Petrograd (or St. Petersburg), Robins took charge of the Red Cross food distribution network in the midst of the revolutionary upheaval.
Robins was never a communist, but when it became apparent that the Bolsheviks would seize power, he put aside his differences and met with their leaders. He spent much of his time on the streets, in factories, touring farms and conversing with workers and soldiers in order to become acquainted with their views. He was the only American officer who attended personal conferences with Lenin, discussing politics and the aims of the ascendant Bolshevik revolution. Lenin and Robins looked past their respective ideologies to form a strong respect and fondness for one another.
After the Bolsheviks seized power and sued for peace with Germany, Robins returned home Upon his return, husband and wife became heavily involved in domestic politics, but excessive stress caused Robins to suffer from a series of nervous breakdowns. Mrs. Robins busied herself with national politics in an age when women had just obtained the right to vote. Robins served as an economic advisor to five presidents. In 1924, the busy couple chose Chinsegut as their year-round residence.
The stock market crash in 1929 and a series of bank failures wiped out the couple’s savings. After a few failed attempts at selling the estate, Robins used his connections with the Hoover administration to donate Chinsegut Hill (2,080 acres) to the Federal government as a wildlife refuge and experimental agricultural station.
The once-rich couple eked out a slim existence for the rest of their lives, depending on the kindness of friends and the government. The government installed the Central Florida Experiment Station there to research cattle and grass breeding, and the establishment still operates today under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture. Government workers supplied by the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration installed a well, a water tower, bridges, drainage ditches, two cabins and a stone lodge.
In 1932, Robins fulfilled his dream of returning to Russia, this time on a three-month visit to campaign for U.S. recognition of the USSR. Robins interviewed Stalin and attended various celebrations before returning to the United States With the help of Robins behind the scenes, Franklin Roosevelt formally recognized the USSR in 1933.
Then, in 1935, disaster struck. Robins fell 30 feet while pruning 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 all over the manor house to enable him to move around and climb the stairs. His wheelchair and homemade walker provided needed mobility on the property.
Mrs. Robins died in 1945 after years of ill health, and Robins went on to promote U.S.-Soviet friendship as the Cold War escalated. He died in 1954.
Both are buried near the Manor House under a single headstone. Their property reverted to the government, eventually falling to the state of Florida, making the next leg of Chinsegut’s journey possible, as a conference and retreat center owned by USF.
For more about Chinsegut Hill, visit http://www.auxsvc.usf.edu/chinsegut.asp