JARS v63n3 - Robbie Robinson: ARS Founding Member

Robbie Robinson: ARS Founding Member
Glen Jamieson
JARS Editor

While at the 2009 ARS Annual Convention held from April 29-May 3, 2009, in Everett, Wash., I was fortunate to be introduced to 92-year-old Robbie Robinson, the last surviving founding member of the ARS. Below is a summary of his long, productive life that he gave to me:

I was born April 10, 1917, in the little Central Oregon town of Lonerock, near Condon. I was told by a gentleman at the Oregon Historical Society that I was descended from one of the pioneer families that settled there in 1844, the second year that settlers came into Oregon. A group referred to as the Neal brothers (one my great-grandfather) came down the Columbia River on the Oregon Trail (this was before the Barlow trail), walking practically the whole way as the trail was too rough to allow riding in the wagons. My great-grandmother stopped for one day at LaGrande to have a baby and then she came down river and stayed with Dr. McLoughlin, before settling in the Stayton area.

One of their daughters married a Robinson and her husband, my grandfather, founded Lonerock when they homesteaded there in 1871. He and another fellow named it after a large rock of 9.3 m 2 (100 ft 2 ) in the center of what was to become an alfalfa field. My grandfather practically ran the town, as he was the mayor, owned a hotel, ran a grocery store and helped build a church behind the rock. He introduced the first flock of 1200 sheep into eastern Oregon in 1875. There were about 200 people living in the valley at that time, but now there are only about ten people living there.

I grew up and went to school in Lonerock and when I finished high school, my father said, "Don't you want to go to college?", and I said, "Yes". He said, "Well, you go to Eugene and be a lawyer. My brother is a lawyer and he makes a lot of money. That's what I'd like for you to do." So off I went to Eugene, but I was only there for two years before I quit college. I went back home and I told my dad, "I'm not going to be a lawyer and I'm not going to work indoors, absolutely."

Robbie Robinson
Robbie Robinson at the 2009 Annual ARS
Convention in Everett, Washington.
Photo by Glen Jamieson

This was during the Depression, and later one day when the County Superintendent was talking to me, she asked why I wasn't in school. I told her, "I don't want to be an attorney. I like to work in the soil." She suggested that I go to Portland and work in a greenhouse or a nursery. I told her I didn't have money to get there, but she said, "I'll pay your way down there and you don't have to pay me back." She gave me money and I got a one-bedroom flat in Portland. That's where I started. I got paid $1.50 a day working for the Swiss Floral Company. They had a nursery between 26th and 28th on Holgate and some greenhouses near the Lloyd Center, on Seventh Avenue, too.

I was with the Portland Park Bureau for thirty years, many of them as Head Gardener. I was on the payroll for the Japanese Garden for two or three years, but all the remaining time I was a volunteer with the Garden.

The Japanese Garden started in 1963. Taxpayers had voted in a new zoo and airport that year, but some of the gardeners, citizens and business people decided they wanted a Japanese Garden too and asked Mayor Shrunk to put a bond measure on the ballot for one. He said, "No way, people don't want any more taxes. If you want a Japanese Garden you're going to have to do it on your own." So that's what we did!

We founded a non-profit organization and raised enough money to get a top Japanese landscape professor, P.T. Tono, to come over to Portland. We managed to pay his airfare and put him up in a hotel but we had no money for gardeners. The committee again went to Mayor Shrunk, and I was in on that meeting. They said, "You have to help us out. We have this professor from Japan!" Mayor Shrunk said, "We'll put gardeners up there, keep track of expenses and you pay us back someday." I was Head Gardener then, so I went up there with two or three of my crew to help Professor Tono to build the garden. Growing up in Oregon, I had been all over the state and knew where to go to get all the plants and stones we needed. I spent a lot of time with Professor Tono in the mountains looking for stones. This went on for four or five years, until the organization was deep in debt. They owed the bank, and they couldn't repay the City. The committee went back to City Council and Mildred Schwab said, "Let's cancel the debts. They're going to make a lot of money for the City." And that's what City Council did. They pulled the Park people out of the garden and the Garden was then on its own after that. In 1985, I was awarded the "Sixth Class of the Sacred Treasure Award" from the Emperor of Japan for building the Garden and building friendship between our two nations.

Photography is a hobby of mine, and I've taken all kinds of pictures. I'm now organizing my slides and photos. My wife and I have visited Japan, and we've gone to California, Washington, and Idaho, always searching for stones and plants for the Garden.

I'm now the only living founder of the American Rhododendron Society. The year before last was the 60th anniversary of its organization. I also helped create the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden in Portland (see below). I have hybridized a rhododendron and as of 2006, it's for sale. It is registered in Great Britain and is called 'Robbie Robinson'. My wife and I have three daughters, four grandchildren and three great-granddaughters. Our eight-year-old great-granddaughter is taking Japanese lessons, and she plans to go to Japan when she gets older. We sold our home to one of our grandsons, a landscaper whose specialty is Japanese gardens. One of my cousins was Linus Pauling, the only person to have won two unshared Nobel Prizes, Chemistry in 1954 and Peace in 1962. His mother and my grandmother were sisters. My daughter, Martha, helped me write, a book of my life, titled Life of a Gardener in the City of Roses , after my grandson requested it, and it is available at the Oregon Historical Society for people to read."

Portland's Japanese Garden
The Japanese Garden Society of Oregon is a private, not-for-profit organization funded entirely by donations, membership, memorials, grants, and gate admissions. It was formed in the early 1960s by Portland citizens interested in promoting a more intimate relationship between the peoples of Japan and our city and state. In 1958, Portland became a sister city to Sapporo, Japan. This created a broad interest in Japanese culture. Soon after, several business leaders and Mayor Terry Shrunk decided it would be wonderful for Portland to have a traditional Japanese garden.

Portland's Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden
The development of a display and test garden was initiated in 1950 by the Portland Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society. Sam Jackson, owner of the Oregon Journal, had donated 10.9 ha (27 acres) on Terwilliger Blvd. for the garden, but the site was deemed unsuitable because of its steep terrain. Claude I. Sersanous, one of the group assigned to select a new site, suggested the garden's present location near Reed College. Referred to as Shakespeare Island by Reed College students because of the Shakespearean plays that had been performed there, it was abandoned and overgrown with brush and blackberries. Through the efforts of Chapter members and other volunteers, and with the support of Park Superintendent C.P. Keyser, the garden flourished. In 1964, the garden was officially named Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden.

Originally, the garden was developed as a test garden, which meant that new rhododendrons could be evaluated over a period of several years. Lack of security and adequate protection made this impractical and the concept was dropped. The original garden, on what is now called the Island, was designed by Mrs. Ruth Hansen, a landscape architect and Portland Chapter member. The portion of the garden known as the Peninsula was designed by Wallace K. Huntington, a well-known Portland landscape architect, and was dedicated in 1977.

The more than 2,500 rhododendrons, azaleas, and companion plants in the Garden have all been donated by volunteers and interested individuals, or purchased with specially donated funds. Beginning in early spring and continuing into summer, they provide a magnificent display of color, giving visitors the opportunity to view many varieties rarely seen in the Pacific Northwest. During the fall, many companion trees add dramatic coloring. Spring-fed Crystal Springs Lake surrounds much of the garden, attracting many species of birds and waterfowl.

The care of the plants and general garden maintenance is provided by a devoted group of volunteers from the Portland Chapter and the Master Gardener program, who work every Wednesday from February to November. Portland Parks & Recreation staff mow the lawns, do the manual irrigation, empty the trash cans, and keep the restrooms in good condition.