Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Rokeby Museum

Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh, Vermont, was the home of the Robinson family from 1793 to 1961. Four generations of Robinsons lived at Rokeby, so named after the poem Rokeby by Sir Walter Scott.

The museum includes the main house, pictured above, various outbuildings, trails, and a visitor center constructed in 2012. Foundations are visible of three other major buildings that were once part of the complex: a sheep barn, a dairy barn, and a school called the Brick Academy.

Nancy and I visited Rokeby today. This museum is well worth a visit. I encourage you to include a house tour in your visit. Reservations for the house tour are recommended. Check the website for times.

Following are brief comments about a few of the Robinsons in each of the four generations.

First generation

Thomas Robinson (1761-1851) and Jemima Fish Robinson (1761-1846) were Quakers from Newport, Rhode Island. They moved their young family to what is now called Rokeby in 1793. In 1810 Thomas purchased some of the first Merino sheep that were imported from Spain, and eventually the farm had more than 1500 sheep. (Sheep in Vermont peaked in 1840 at 1.6 million. See The Spanish Sheep Craze That Forever Changed Vermont.)

Second generation

Rowland Thomas Robinson (1796-1879) was born at Rokeby. He married Rachel Gilpin (1799-1862). Rowland T. and Rachel Robinson were abolitionists who made Rokeby a stop on the Underground Railroad and sheltered dozens of fugitives from slavery.

Third generation

George Gilpin Robinson (1825-1894) and Rowland Evans Robinson (1833-1900) were sons of Rowland T. and Rachel Robinson. They transitioned the farm from sheep to dairy.

George never married. Rowland E. Robinson married Ann Stevens (1841-1920). He was an artist, but turned to writing when he began to experience problems with his vision. Although blind in his later years, he continued to write with Ann's help.

Fourth generation

Rowland Thomas Robinson (1882-1951) ("Rowlie") was the son of Rowland E. and Ann Robinson. He married Elizabeth Donoway (1882-1961). They continued the dairy farm operation, and also took in tourists when travel by automobile became popular in the 1920s. (One of the outbuildings is the Tourist Cabin.) Rowlie and Elizabeth had no children and when Elizabeth died in 1961, she left the site, buildings, and contents to be operated as a museum.

Other children, relatives, friends, and employees also lived at Rokeby at various times.

Elizabeth Robinson believed that the most important legacy of Rokeby, to be preserved as a museum, was the work of her father-in-law, Rowland Evans Robinson, probably the most popular Vermont author of his day. (For more information about Rowland E. Robinson see Wikipedia or this recent column by historian Mark Bushnell. Books by Rowland E. Robinson can be purchased in the gift shop at the visitor center.)

But today much of the interest in Rokeby concerns the second generation and the abolitionist work of Rowland T. and Rachel Robinson. The visitor center includes the permanent exhibit Free & Safe: The Underground Railroad in Vermont which features the stories of Simon and Jesse, two fugitives from slavery who were sheltered at Rokeby in the 1830s.

Rowland T. Robinson was a leader in the Vermont Anti-Slavery Society. In 1843 anti-slavery societies across the northern United States held 100 conventions "to examine the question of American Slavery." Below is the announcement for the convention in Ferrisburgh, organized by Rowland T. Robinson, which included Frederick Douglass as a speaker:

Rokeby was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1997. (Only 3% of the places in the National Register of Historic Places are designated as National Historic Landmarks.) Both nomination forms contain interesting information: the 1974 nomination form includes information about Rowland E. Robinson (the author in the third generation); the 1997 nomination form includes considerable information about Rowland T. Robinson (the abolitionist in the second generation).

The Robinsons apparently never threw anything away. The house is much the same as when they lived there, and its rooms are crammed with housewares, furniture, art work, books, and other "stuff." (The guided house tour is recommended.) New discoveries are still being made. In 2017 a small, wooden boat in rough shape but with the legible name of "Lucy" was discovered in one of the outbuildings. The 150 year old boat was restored and "Lucy" is now on display in the house. See Rokeby's tiny boat poses historic puzzle.

In addition to the site, buildings, and artifacts at the museum in Ferrisburgh, more than 15,000 Robinson family letters from Rokeby are kept in the Middlebury College Special Collections.

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