This article first appeared in the May/June 2021 edition of Home & Harvest magazine.
The days are getting longer and warmer, trees are beginning to bud, and the birds are encouraging us to join them outside. Summer is on the way! If your family is anything like mine, you are eagerly looking forward to spending time in the great outdoors. There are so many wonderful places to explore that are just barely beyond your front door. Latah County’s Robinson Park is conveniently located just east of Moscow and provides lots of opportunities for fun. While generations of locals have taken advantage of the amenities, most users know very little about the park’s interesting past.
In his self-published book Blood on the Tail of a Pig, Moscow resident Dr. Frank B. Robinson recounts an exchange that he claims to have had with President Roosevelt while visiting the White House sometime in the 1930s. According to Robinson, “the subject of the conversation was the gift of a parcel of land to Latah County, Idaho.” The men agreed that if a person would donate an appropriate spot, the government would “construct a dam, which, in turn, would give us an artificial lake – something much needed in this part of Idaho.” Robinson went on to write “fortunately, I had been able to buy the land and deed it to the county.”
LCHS Photo 25-01-019: Aerial view of Robinson Lake, undated.
Frank B. Robinson was a generous man and his philanthropy took many forms, including the gift of the park to Latah County’s residents. His wealth was a product of Psychiana, the “psychological religion” he formed in the early 1930s. His new religion was based upon an assertion that he “TALKED WITH GOD (Yes I did, actually and literally).” The pharmacist-turned-evangelist promoted New Thought ideals such as the power of positive thinking and the use of affirmations. Psychiana is often called a mail order religion because followers sent off a dollar or two in exchange for religious lessons to be delivered through the mail. In fact, Pyschiana, Inc. produced so much media that Moscow’s post office was bumped up to first-class ranking. The publishing and mailing enterprises made Psychiana the largest private employer in town during most of the 1930s.
As a way to give back to his community, and perhaps to avoid overt criticism of his thriving business, Robinson dreamt of creating a park. In a letter dated December 13, 1935, Robinson wrote to the Latah County Board of County Commissioners to inform them of his plans. “This is to advise you that I have this day purchased from the Federal Land Bank of Spokane, a tract of land situated at Rowland’s Park, which land I am giving to the people of Latah County.” Recreation was a primary concern of Robinson’s. “I think it is generally admitted throughout Northern Idaho that the one great drawback to Latah County has been its lack of recreational water facilities, and I am happy indeed to give to the residents of Latah County, the land which will make this lake possible.”
LCHS Photo 01-10-010: Mrs. Floyd Trail with two of her children, Tom and Marilyn, picnicking at Robinson Lake, 1941.
Robinson assured the county that the United States Soil Erosion Service would construct the dams and other features required to make a lovely lake of approximately 20 acres. “No expense of any sort will fall upon the tax payers of Latah County,” Robinson wrote. Given that the country was experiencing the depths of the Great Depression that was no doubt a relief to the commissioners at the time – James Blane, Rudolph Nordby, and Walter Driscoll.
The Soil Conservation Service was formed in response to America’s Dust Bowl, a catastrophic environmental disaster that rocked America’s heartland during the early 1930s, when poorly-informed farming practices led to soil erosion on a scale that can scarcely be imagined. Young men who joined the Civilian Conservation Corps became the primary workforce for the SCS during much of that decade, and they contributed to hundreds of projects throughout the country. A 1938 contract with Region 11 of the Soil Conservation Service reads in part “the County of Latah, Idaho requests the cooperation of the Soil Conservation Service in the development of Robinson Park through the development of trails, control of erosion on road banks, construction of the necessary tables, fireplaces, garbage pits and latrines.” The value of the CCC-contributed labor was $34,600, which is equivalent to at least $500,000 today. This New Deal project was just one of thousands across America that improved the lives of residents.
LCHS Photo 01-10-059: Frank Robinson with CCC workers in front of the old Rowland Park building next to Robinson Lake (Robinson in fur coat and black hat offers lunch to a worker. Man on back of truck is W. T. Marineau.) 1938-9.
When describing the park in his 1941 book, Robinson wrote “Many thousands enjoy this Park and Lake, both winter and summer. In the winter there is wonderful skating, and in the summer it is used as a picnic place and, after the heat of the day, many thousands drive to this beauty spot, eat their lunches, and relax under the trees.” A county commissioner assessment of the park in 1954 spoke in similarly positive tones, noting that maintaining the park would provide “local privileges to many of our younger generation, as well as to a number of more mature persons who still wish to enjoy a short period of tranquil relaxation.”
LCHS Photo Murphy.M.01: Maxine Murphy by Robinson Park sign noting fishing restrictions, 1947-8.
Despite the efforts of Soil Conservation Service and the county, erosion ultimately foiled Frank B. Robinson’s hopes for a long lasting recreational water facility. Within a decade of officially opening the park it became clear that the lake was filling with silt. The relatively small size of the water feature, at just about 8 acres, was simply too small to handle a watershed area of more than 5,400 acres. In the 1950s the lake was dredged and 30,000 cubic yards of sediment was removed, at a cost of 18 cents per yard, but the improvements were relatively short-lived.
In 1974 the Soil Conservation Service issued an inventory and evaluation to assess the challenges facing Robinson Lake Park and offer alternatives. The number one problem was sedimentation, but others included a lack of ongoing maintenance, vandalism, and funding for improvements. A series of possible solutions were also detailed, which ranged from allowing the lake to slowly fill with sediment to entirely filling the lake and converting it to playfields to selling the land and choosing a different location for a park. Robinson, however, had specifically stipulated that his gift “forever remain the property of the people of Latah County,” making the SCS’s final alternative impossible.
Besides the physical deterioration of the park, it had also fallen out of favor with many Latah County families because of the frequent, rowdy behavior found there. A September 1975 article appearing in the Argonaut under the headline “Mad keggers blasted” detailed a particularly raucous party at Robinson Park. “Residents in the area surround Robinson Lake Park have voiced numerous complaints to the County Sheriff’s Office and the Latah County Recreation Department,” the paper reported, “concerning some of the keggers held at Robinson Lake recently and last year.” The story went on to note “the most recent keggers occurred Wednesday, when, according to the caretaker of the park, approximately 35 cars arrived, with their occupants, at the picnic area. As the evening proceeded, the yet to be identified group grew rowdy, not to mention inebriated, and the party became, again described by the caretaker, a ‘mad kegger.’” The county recreation director was also interviewed, saying taxpayers were demanding action to create a more family-oriented facility.
Not everyone, of course, saw Robinson Park’s party atmosphere as a problem, as evidenced by one letter to the Argonaut editor following the “mad kegger” story. “The statement ‘…group grew rowdy, not to mention inebriated…’ nearly made me fall off my chair in laughter,” the letter writer explained. “Have you ever seen a kegger party where any of the participants were anything but inebriated?! I don’t want the people of Moscow to get upset with the college students because we are going to be here for a long time…I’d hate to see what would happen to this town if suddenly there weren’t any more students.”
The letter writer may have been disappointed to watch as Latah County did indeed reinvest in the upkeep of Robinson Lake Park. Draining and filling the lake was the first order of business, as it had become clear that yearly dredging would be needed to maintain the spot as an attractive water feature. New trails were built and fixtures such as picnic tables and parking lots were upgraded. Public input was sought and incorporated into the long-range care plans. Families began returning to the park for summer grill outs and softball games.
LCHS Photo 25-08-051: A band playing on a stage on a flatbed truck. The sign underneath the band reads - Harvest Fair Folk Festival - Robinson Lake Park September 19 & 20. 1981.
Today Robinson Park is again enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year. It is a great place to take a nature walk, exercise your dog, host a gathering of friends, or even camp. It is also a great place to sit and have a think. In the end, that seems to have been Frank B. Robinson’s chief hope for the park. He concludes the reminiscence of his conversation with President Roosevelt in this way: “the chief executive turned to me and said, ‘Doctor Robinson – you and I are trying to do the same thing – we are trying to make people think.’”