Today, October 25, marks Robinson House’s 50th birthday of being a museum! To celebrate this anniversary, we’re looking back at the history of this home.
Robinson House is the youngest of our three museum buildings, constructed in the mid-1850s for members of the Robinson Family. For many years, it was believed that the construction was overseen by John Robinson, the patriarch, however, research in the early 2010s has proven this to be untrue. In fact, John may have never stepped foot in the home which is his namesake, having moved to Iowa and re-settling there sometime in the 1850s. The original inhabitants of Robinson House were John’s wife Ruth, their daughter Eunice, her husband Richard, and their family.
Robinson House later was owned by Eunice’s brother Cornelius, arguably the Robinson with the strongest ties to the home and certainly well remembered by those in the community. Douglas Mackie, a child living in Henry House in the 1910s, remembered Cornelius as such:
“The face and figure of Cornelius Robinson remain shadowy to me except for his long grey beard. But I do remember his lantern. He would walk from Robinson House, as it is called now, to our place in the evening, carrying this lantern. Our farm lanterns were ordinary everyday lanterns designed to shine light from all sides, but his was a beautiful red one, with one side shielded by a metal reflector, to light his way while walking. He would talk and talk long after my brother and I were put to bed. Oddly enough, I can’t remember if he was married, had a family, or was a bachelor. If the thought ever crossed my young mind it seemed to me he lived alone.”
Dr. Hoig also paints a picture of this man, describing Cornelius as “a very dark man who wore earrings and lived in the white brick house where the road turns east along the water front.”
Upon Cornelius’s death in 1921, the house was passed to his daughter, also named Eunice. After a number of decades, the house sat vacant, a shadowy place for children who grew up around Oshawa-on-the-Lake.
“It was more of a mystery to the kids of the area. We would dare each other to go into the Robinson House, because in the winter months no one tended to live in the house. We would climb up to the main level. For some reason on the main level of the house there was a pile of leather cuttings. The kids used to dare one another to get pieces of leather to prove their entry into the house. You were really brave if you brought back a piece of leather!” ~Douglas Mackie
“It was a place we didn’t go near for fear it would fall on us, or a ghost would appear.” ~Darlene Williams
“Once we discovered an entry into the house, it became our playhouse. We swept out the old kitchen and it seems to me that there was an old bed. I remember telling my Mom about the fun we were having over there. She told me not to go on the bed in case it had bedbugs. That was enough to scare us for a while. ~Linda Cory Bazowsky
Eunice died in Toronto in 1963 and the City of Oshawa purchased the home the following year with the intention of demolishing the then-derelict house and improving the park land. The Oshawa and District Historical Society saw potential in the building and put forth a number of proposals to save the building; the City transferred ownership to the ODHS in 1965 for the purpose of restoration and use as a museum. The society already operated the Henry House Museum and saw potential in Robinson House as being a Centennial project.
One of the largest stumbling blocks was fundraising for the restoration, however, this project was truly championed by Verna Conant who wrote letters, advocated, and truly spearheaded the fundraising initiatives. A building permit was issued in 1967, and on October 25, 1969, the Robinson House Museum officially opened to the public.
One of the earliest exhibits in the Robinson House Museum was the tavern. For decades, it was believed Robinson House was once an inn and tavern, and this exhibit reflected that believed myth. While it makes an interesting story, Robinson House was never an inn or tavern. Other long-time favourite exhibits were the Children’s Discovery Gallery, the General Store Exhibit, and the one-room Schoolhouse exhibit.
Today, Robinson House is our exhibition space. The upper storey is home to our permanent exhibit A Carrying Place: Oshawa’s Indigenous Story, while the bottom floor is used for feature exhibition space. The Oshawa Museum celebrates the history of our city, and this history is certainly diverse! Past feature exhibits have included Tales from the Tracks: Oshawa Railway, Mourning After: The Victorian Celebration of Death, Community Health in the 20th Century, Celebrating 60, and currently on display is The Vintage Catwalk.
For the last 50 years, Robinson House has been an important part of the Museum, and the house itself is one of our most important (and arguably our largest) artefact. Happy birthday, Robinson House Museum!
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