William Franklin Robbins: Family Historian

At the 1922 Robbins reunion, celebrating 100 years of the Robbins family being in Decatur County, Indiana, a man named William Franklin (W. F.) Robbins read a history he wrote about the family.  This history was also published in the newspaper along with the story about the reunion.

William Franklin (W. F.) Robbins (photo courtesy of Joyce King Higginbotham)

When I first started researching my family history in the late 1970s, my parents and I visited Greensburg, Indiana, where we met up with Melvin and Rosalie Robbins.  Rosalie had a done a lot of family history and she gave me my first copy of W.F. Robbins’s history.  I say, first copy, because over the following years, each time I made contact with another Robbins family researcher, they usually sent me, uninvited, another copy of the W.F. Robbins history, until I had quite a collection!

The typed copies all mentioned that they were transcribed from the history as printed in the Greensburg newspaper, but no one seemed to have a copy of the actual article.  It was only in the 1990s, with the assistance of interlibrary loan of microfilm, that I was finally able to find the article in the newspaper and make a fresh transcription.

Now, more recently, I have been given a copy of the physical newspaper that contains the history, by Robbins cousin Sherrill Beck.

In transcribing and reading the history I did notice that W. F. got some things wrong, but in general the story of a large family moving into a county, with some folks staying for decades, with others moving on to new locations, was accurate.  Considering that the man was compiling a family history without the Internet and online collections of genealogical material, genealogy libraries, or easy access to near or distant record collections, he wrote a good introduction to our family’s history.

So, who was William Franklin Robbins?  He was born in 1850 in Decatur County to Jonathan and Margaret (Spilman) Robbins and was reared near the small community of Westport.  Jonathan was the son of George, the third child of Absalom and Mary (Ogle) Robbins.  Margaret Spilman was the sister of Sarah Spilman, wife of Jacob Robbins, who emigrated to Oregon in 1852.  The close, first-cousin, relationship between W.F. and his cousins in Oregon is reflected in his knowledge of his Pacific Northwest kin and their knowledge of Decatur County happenings.

W.F. Robbins was raised among the many, many Robbins family members that lived in Decatur County at that time.  He, himself, was one of nine siblings, while his father Jonathan was one of eleven, and each in turn had large families.  He was married to Julia Elizabeth Miller in 1873 and the couple had seven children of their own, five of whom lived to adulthood: Mary Cordelia (Robbins) Morgan, Elizabeth Leota (Robbins) Davis, Emma Flora (Robbins) Williams, Henry Cleveland “Cleve” Robbins, and Courtland Carlysle “Todd” Robbins.

W. F. was educated at Hartsville College, in neighboring Bartholomew County, just about ten miles to the northwest.  (The school was in Hartsville from 1850 to 1897, when the college building was destroyed by fire in January of 1898).

He taught school in Sandcreek Township in the 1870s and in 1886 was elected trustee of that township and served for eight years.  Besides a lifetime of farming he also worked as an attorney in Westport, and after moving into Greensburg about 1912, he served as the Decatur County prosecuting attorney from 1913 to 1915.  Politically he was a Democrat and a supporter of temperance, helping to “banish the saloon.”  A wealthy landowner, according to a local newspaper he was referred to as “Squire” Bill.  At the time of his death he and his wife Julia resided at 410 North Broadway in Greensburg.

His death made the front pages of the Greensburg newspapers, The Evening Times and the Greensburg Daily News

Seven months after the 1922 reunion, and just four weeks after he and Julia’s 50th wedding anniversary, William Franklin Robbins was killed when his automobiile was struck at the Mulberry Street crossing in Westport by a B. & O. passenger train detouring over the Big Four tracks.  The newspapers reported that the car was carried about 50 feet down the tracks.  He had been visiting one of his sons outside Westport before coming into town to conduct some business.

One of the newspapers stated:  “It is believed that Mr. Robbins, being familiar with the regular train schedules on the track which he was crossing, did not take the extra precaution to look up and down the track as he approached it.”

The train…..”hit the Overland car which he was driving and smashed it to pieces.  The body of Mr. Robbins was carried about fifty feet and he lived but a few minutes.  The body was taken to the Hamilton undertaking parlors” [now known as the Bass & Gasper Funeral Home in Westport].

“Because of telephone trouble the word did not reach Mrs. Robbins in this city for more than an hour after the accident.  A Times reporter who called carried the first word to her of a report that her husband had been injured.  She stated that she had already become uneasy because of having no message from him after his arrival in Westport as she had expected and had made an unsuccessful attempt to use the telephone.  It was left to a daughter to convey to her the death message.”

Not only was the news slow to reach his wife, but due to the fact there were multiple William Robbins’ in Decatur County there was confusion about who exactly had been in an accident.  The newspaper reported:  “When the news first reached Greensburg it was reported it was William H. Robbins of southeast of Greensburg. Later it was reported that it was Will S. Robbins of Horace.”

William Franklin Robbins, the very accomplished early historian of the Robbins family, is buried in the Mapleton Cemetery in rural Decatur County.  The gravestone he shares with his wife Julia has their photograph embedded in the center.

[Jacob Robbins-Absalom Robbins-George Robbins-Jonathan Robbins-William Franklin Robbins]

One thought on “William Franklin Robbins: Family Historian

  1. Pingback: Westport, Mount Aerie, Mapleton, and Union Baptist Cemeteries (Decatur County, Indiana) | Robbins Roots

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