The Adventures of Frederick S. Robbins

Sep 19, 2018

The name Frederick S. Robbins might ring a bell for those in the Rhinelander area.

As part of our continued series A Northwoods Moment in History, local historian Gary Entz has the story of his life.

Frederick S. Robbins is a fairly well-known name in Rhinelander history.  He came to the city in 1886, built a sawmill in 1887, and ran the Robbins Lumber Company for many years.  Robbins lived an active and adventurous life, but what is less well-known is how tough and vigorous he really was.

Frederick Robbins was born in Potter County, Pennsylvania, in 1842, but grew up in Michigan after his family moved there in 1855.  When the Civil War broke out Robbins joined Company F of the Third Michigan Infantry and fought with the Army of the Potomac.  Illness forced him out of service before the war ended, and for a while he took work as a civilian clerk in the commissary department and served along the Rio Grande border in Texas.  After the war Robbins returned to Michigan and worked the land along with his family.

His time in the army gave him a taste for adventure and the frontier life, so in 1884 Robbins left for Duluth, Minnesota, and became a partner in a fledgling sawmill.  However, he saw even greater opportunity in Wisconsin, and in 1886 sold out his share of the Duluth mill, moved to the new town of Rhinelander, and started his own lumber business.  Robbins built a narrow-gauge railway into Forrest County to move timber directly to his mills, and at its peak operation the Robbins Company was handling 33 million feet of lumber per year.  He also invested heavily in local agriculture in an effort to develop the cutover areas of northern Wisconsin.

Robbins sold his lumber business in 1915 but couldn’t stay inactive and started a new one in 1917.  It was in 1917 that Robbins had his near brush with death.  Out in his roadster, Robbins was driving along the Wisconsin & Peninsular Division of the Soo Line Railroad.  Turning his vehicle to cross the tracks, Robbins failed to see an oncoming train.  The train struck the roadster a glancing blow, which was enough to completely demolish it.  Robbins was thrown from the vehicle and landed twenty feet away.  He was badly bruised but at the age of 75 walked away from the incident.

Frederick Robbins continued on as a vigorous member of Rhinelander’s business community until 1928.  He drove cross country to Pasadena, California, where he retired.  He died in Pasadena in December of 1929.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. Some sound effects for this commentary came from Freesound. The photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.