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The real story of Hernando's Chinsegut Manor House

Here's what visitors to the Chinsegut Manor House used to be told about its most famous former occupant, Raymond Robins:

He was a local boy, who as a young man traveled to the Yukon, where he found God, saved souls and struck it rich mining gold. He used his new wealth to buy the county's only true antebellum mansion and gave it the Inuit name "Chinsegut,'' meaning "the spirit of lost things.'' Between speaking engagements and visits with friends such as former President Teddy Roosevelt, he acquired more than 2,000 acres north of Brooksville, which he would later generously donate to the federal government.

Here's the real story.

Robins came from a distinguished but troubled family, and as a boy lived in New York, Ohio and Kentucky, as well as Florida. His sister Elizabeth, a famous actress and writer 11 years his senior, bought the Manor House and its grounds on the top of the hill. Their plan for the property — as an idyllic, shared retreat — and the tone of their letters may be explained by the fact that relatives were less shy about expressing affection in those days. Or maybe, considering that their parents were first cousins, this was a family that had trouble setting boundaries.

"Darling,'' Raymond wrote his sister in 1903, "I have loved you more than sister, more than mother, more than wife, more than all combined.''

A third possibility, of course, is that he was buttering her up so she would part with the cash needed to buy and improve the estate, plans for which he laid out in a 26-page letter to her in April 1905.

This was followed a few days later with a note that began, "I have just had a vision.'' By this he meant Margaret Dreier, a woman "of first social position, splendidly educated and reportedly quite wealthy. ... I am under a profound conviction that I will marry her within a year from this date.''

Just two months later, in fact, he legally acquired a new darling and funding source.

Elizabeth deeded half-ownership of the house and original grounds to Margaret as a wedding present. Though Raymond liked to call himself the owner, his name was never on the deed.

Dreier's money helped save the Manor House, which had become such a wreck that Raymond originally considered scrapping it for its cedar timbers. In later years, she financed a new kitchen, music room and study. Her money, primarily, bought the tracts of land that now include the Chinsegut Nature Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture research center. She eventually gave it away because property taxes were hiked sky high during the Depression and she suffered major losses on the stock market.

"Behind every good man is a good woman,'' said Christie Anderberg, manager of the nearby Ahhochee Hill Sanctuary.

"Or in this case, two women,'' said Kate Hughes, a former guide at the Manor House, which has been closed since July 1 of last year when its longtime renter, the University of South Florida, announced it could no longer afford to manage the property.

Hughes said the plan for the house and grounds to be run jointly by the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Hernando Historical Museum Association and the county tourism bureau is still moving forward.

But slowly. No date has been set for the Manor House to reopen.

When it does, visitors will have a much clearer picture of the three Robinses because of the work of Hughes and Arenberg. Members of a group called Friends of Chinsegut Hill, they met with me on the porch of the Manor House on Wednesday and shared the results of several years of research, including archive searches at the University of Florida and at New York University of the trio's constant correspondence.

"They documented everything,'' Arenberg said.

"If you led an interesting life, your letters ... became your biography,'' Hughes said.

It makes you wonder what will happen to historians trying to study our era of regularly purged in-boxes. I also wondered about Raymond Robins, who besides being credited with defining the landscape north of Brooksville with his land grant, is one of a handful of county residents with a national reputation — in his case as a champion of workers' rights.

Was that all a lie, too?

Not at all, Hughes and Arenberg said. If anything, his letters make him seem more brilliant and committed than advertised.

While still in his teens, he traveled the country, working in mines and organizing miners. He earned enough money to put himself through law school, despite having little formal education. He led charity efforts, such as the Red Cross' campaign to feed starving farmers in the former Soviet Union in 1933, and was far ahead of his time when it came to race relations.

When he was away from Chinsegut, which he was most of the time in his younger days, he left it in the hands of a black supervisor, Fielder Harris, who was perhaps his closest lifelong friend, Arenberg said.

That his furious work sometimes came to a complete stop due to fits of depression adds one more facet to an already complicated character.

He may not be the quasi-saintly man we used to hear about, but he was very impressive, even if he never really owned "his'' Chinsegut — which, by the way, may be a word that doesn't even exist in the Inuit language, Hughes said.

"As far as we know, there's not even a 'ch' sound.''

The real story of Hernando's Chinsegut Manor House 08/26/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 26, 2010 7:41pm]
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