A Visit to the Nathaniel Robbins House

I had known for some time that a house built by Nathaniel Robbins about 1859/1860 still existed on land that was part of his original Oregon donation land claim.  The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.  Opened to visitors once a year, usually on fairly short notice, I had never been able to visit before.  (Being located midway between my old home in Seattle to the north and my new home in Florence to the south, it wasn’t easy to make plans for a last minute 3-hour drive).

In June of this year I received an email from Carson Ellis, who introduced herself, along with her husband Colin Meloy, as owner of the Robbins-Melcher-Schatz House (as it is formally referred to in National Register descriptions).  Carson had started producing a podcast in which she and her friend Alix Ryan discuss the history of the house, property, and the stories of the previous owners.  She invited me to visit the house and be interviewed about the Robbins family.  I was thrilled and honored for the invitation and leapt at the chance to visit.

The podcast is called “Old Bright” (after an oxen on the Robbins 1852 Oregon Trail crossing) and you can listen to the episodes on any podcast app, such as Apple Podcasts (iTunes), Stitcher, Spotify (which I use), or even directly from the website: https://www.oldbrightpod.com.  Covering more than just the Robbins family, Carson and Alix have interesting conversations about the property, the owners, and social history.  Great conversationalists and great researchers they have discovered a lot of information about the house and it’s previous occupants.  Carson stated that she has always been interested in the history of any house she has lived in.

I visited the house, along with my sister Kathy, earlier this month, and we were warmly welcomed by Carson and Alix, with a quick hello from Colin.  Before I go any further, you should know something about Carson and her husband Colin.

Carson Ellis is an artist, children’s book illustrator, and author, and while Carson will modestly say “I didn’t win the Caldecott, just an Honor”, I know, as a librarian, that a Caldecott Honor Award is nothing to dismiss.  The Caldecott is awarded each year by a division of the American Library Association, to the “most distinguished American picture book for children.”  There is one winner each year, with three or four honors awarded to runners-up they deem worthy.  Carson received the Caldecott Honor award in 2017 for her picture book Du Iz Tak?

Carson’s husband Colin Meloy is a multi-instrumental musician, singer-songwriter, and author, and is well known as being the front man of the Portland based group, The Decembrists.  He and Carson together have authored and illustrated a number of children’s books including Wildwood.  (Colin’s sister Maile Meloy is also a well-known author whose books we carry here at my library!).  They are the parents of two children and are the perfect owners for such an historic property.

Carson Ellis Carson Ellis (left) and Colin Meloy (right) signing Wildwood at the Portland Bazaar 420 Northeast 9th Ave, Portland, Oregon, December 11, 2011 (photo by Dennis Bratland, Wikipedia Commons)

In the 1993 application to be listed on the Historic Register, the then owners didn’t have much information on the first builders, the Robbins family.  I hope I was able to fill in some details for Carson and Alix for “Old Bright.”

Nathaniel and Nancy Robbins filed for their Donation Land Claim in the 1850’s on land in the northwest corner of Clackamas County.  Their son William Franklin Robbins filed for land to their northwest, primarily in Washington County, while sons Dow, James, and Norval, and daughters (and their husbands) Jane, Zobeda and Nancy, and grandson Nathaniel Barnes, filed on land to their south.  In between was the claim of Robert Bird, an earlier settler and namesake of the Robert Bird Cemetery, where many of these early Robbins are buried.

1993 Plan of Robbins property (original Nathaniel Robbins house circled in red)

As mentioned earlier the house was built around 1859 or 1860, as a simple 2-story rectangle divided into three rooms, with an open second floor, probably used as bedrooms.  That structure still exists as the front of the house, with one of its original interior walls removed, now serving as the living room and parlor for Carson and Colin and kids.

Nathaniel Robbins house – original 1860 building from the front

As described in the National Register application:

“The one and one-half story rectangular form of the original building is approximately 41 feet long and 17 feet deep.  The low pitched gabled roof and banded eaves with heavy partial returns define the Classical Revival style that dates the house in the period from 1820-60.  The original four panel entry door and multi-light sidelights and transom are also indicative of its Revival origins.  Large boulders found on the property and hand hewn 10 inch by 10 inch mortised and pegged sills provided the house with its foundation.  Hand cut notches in the north and south sills hold the floor joints that originally supported a rough-hew plank floor.  The walls are constructed using the box method of vertical planks covered with narrow battens, then clad with wide drop siding secured with hand made iron nails and finished at the corners with corner rakes.”

The application goes on:

“The floor plan of the original house, also typically New English, is two rooms wide and one room deep, with the parlor to the left of the entrance, and the living/cooking/dining area to the right.  A wood burning cookstove was located in the center.  The stairway in the rear led to the bedrooms above.”

First Floor of 1860 Robbins House

Nathaniel Robbins drowned in the Tualatin River in 1863 and in 1876 the property was sold to Christian and Augusta Melcher, who seem to have made few changes before selling the property to Wilhelm and Elizabeth Schatz in 1894/95.  The Schatz family are responsible for much of the additions to the house as well as the massive barn (which before this summer’s heat wave served as a home to barn owls), the water tower, machine shed, nut house, a cool room (a 2-story brick addition), and more.

The Schatz’s owned the property up through the 1960s, and after the house sat empty for ten years, sold to the folks who restored it and applied for National Register Status.  Carson and Colin purchased the house in 2010 where they have found it perfect for their combined art and music interests (Carson uses the “nut house” as her art studio while Colin uses part of the machine shed for his music studio).  The interior of their house is as warm and inviting as they are.

Living Room
Living Room
Parlor

If you want to read more in depth about the details of the house and property, along with viewing floor plans, it’s easiest just to Google “Robbins-Melcher-Schatz” and click on the link to the National Park Service’s PDF file of the 47-page application.

After visiting the Robbins-Melcher-Schatz house I was interested in learning about other historic family properties and was pleased to find a website, http://heritagedata.prd.state.or.us/historic/, where you can search by name or location for inventoried historic properties.  These are not just National Register properties, but includes those inventoried by each county for their historical or architectual significance.  Among the family properties in Oregon that I have been able to identify so far are:  Sharp Residence, John Aden Residence (possibly partly built by Joseph Barstow), Isaac Ball House , A. E. Thompson House, L. W. Robbins House, Willard Robbins Residence, Willard Robbins Barn, Levi Robbins Farm, Kirchem Residence, Loveridge-Cunha House, W. Arthur Robbins House, and Robert L. and Rose Herren House.  I’m sure there are more.  It may be time for another road trip!

[Jacob Robbins-William Robbins/Absalom Robbins-Nathaniel Robbins/Nancy Robbins]

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