Six generations of Robinsons have called Smith Branch home.
For more than 120 years, Robinsons have raised their families on “the branch,” working full-time jobs but always farming, too.
The fifth generation to call the Robinson Farm home is Carl Robinson Jr. and his wife, Carolyn. They bought the 51-acre homeplace in 1977. Their youngest daughter lives next door and the chickens clucking in a pen beside their house indicate she, too, is continuing a long Robinson family tradition in her own way.
Carl’s parents, Carl Robinson Sr. and Vesta Reed Robinson, grew up together and married young, when they were just 16 and 15, respectively. The log house they built during the early years of marriage is still standing up the road from their son’s house. Now in their 67th year of marriage, they no longer live on “the branch” where they spent most of their lives, but it will always be home.
The first Robinsons to settle on Smith Branch were Nancy Pierce, her son Samule Robinson and his wife, Maggie. They arrived in the 1890s, after Pierce purchased more than 200 acres on both sides of the branch from the Ironton Iron Co.
Her first husband, James Robinson, had died years earlier and she remarried, settling in Ironton. Mrs. Pierce had grown wealthy and, when she came to Smith Branch, could afford to bring her Ironton home with her.
“They floated it on a barge from Ironton to the mouth of Smith Branch and then hauled it on horse and wagon up here and assembled it back together,” said her great-great-grandson, Carl Jr. Although gone now (Carl and Carolyn demolished it and built their new home, which sits at the old homesite place), the home has been the source of well-worn family lore for more than a 100 years.
“They’d say this old house was haunted,” explained Carl Jr.
“It had blood on the boards and stuff,” adds his mother.
“Carl’s aunt Ellie, she wouldn’t stay in that house all night. She was scared to death,” Vesta said.
“Maggie, Carl’s (Sr.) sister, she’d talk about hearing chains coming down the stairs,” Carolyn added.
There were other tales, too, about the old house and Mrs. Pierce — that she buried a pot of gold in an old cellar that even Carl Jr. looked for as a child.
Samule and his wife, Maggie, acquired the farm in 1902 from his mother. Together they had six children, the youngest of which was George Robinson, Carl Sr.’s father.
Although Samule died before Carl Sr. was born, his grandmother was alive during the early part of his childhood and continued to live in the house. “I remember grandma. We cut her wood and she would cook us kids cookies,” Carl Sr. said.
After her death, his parents moved into the house where George lived until his death. Carl Sr. grew up hearing tales about Samule, who had run a horse-and-buggy taxi in Ironton; he and his brothers and sisters passed them along to the next generation, too.
One of the most beloved stories was that Jesse and Frank James once gave him several gold coins to get them to the train station in Ironton. “He didn’t make that much money, and they must have been 20 dollar gold pieces,” Carl Jr. said, repeating the tale, noting he heard the story many times in his youth.
Samule’s years driving a team of horses made him skilled at caring for them. During the construction of the original Greenup dam, Carl Jr. said he was once told by “an old timer” that Sam would go down and buy the tired, worn-out work horses being used to haul the boulders. “They’d be bruised up and they couldn’t hardly go, so Sam would bring them up here and doctor them up. Then maybe a few months later, then he’d take them down there and lead them around, show them guys those big stud horses… and he’d sell them back to them,” Carl Jr. said.
Railroaders and farmers
It was Samule’s son George, however, who shaped the modern Smith Branch Robinsons more than any other ancestor.
George Robinson and his wife, Maudie Ratliff Robinson, inherited the farm from Samule. Together, they had 15 children, only 10 of whom survived to adulthood, including James, Harold, Chester, Carl Sr., Maggie, Eugenie, Melvin, Dorothy and George Jr. and Bessie.
The couple farmed extensively, even though George worked on the railroad, sometimes six days a week, said his son, who grew up working the land and eventually followed his father to the railroad.
“I worked when I was just a little boy,” said Carl Sr., now 84.
Carl Jr. added, “He worked mules and they called it a hill-side plow. You’d get to the end and you’d flop it over and go the other way.”
“I done that up on this hill,” said Carl Sr. on a recent May afternoon, pointing across his son’s front yard toward the hill on the opposite side of the creek. “I plowed every bit of that steep hill. We raised corn and stuff. There used to be a big rock ridge up there,” he said.
He recalled once he and his older brother went to get a drink from a cool spring coming out of the top of the ridge and Harold flipped him over the hillside.
“You go around these hills, they’s saw logs now but you would see big piles of rocks where they piled them up so they could plow,” added Carl Jr.
“My grandpa George, he would take a leave of absence to come home so he could raise his crop,” explained Carl Jr.
“They canned everything they ate,” added Vesta.
“Just about everything, they raised it on the farm. Pigs and cows. And when Maudie canned, George would get everybody (working). Some canning tomatoes, some canning corn, some stringing beans. He would just get everybody in and work them. He wouldn’t pay them too much, but he paid them. He always paid my mom,” she said.
“He paid her pretty good, because she needed it,” Vesta said, noting there were seven girls in her family and “a boy for each of us” at the Robinson home.
“We was all like family,” said Vesta. “All of us. Everybody around here was like family.”
In those days, she said, there wasn’t a road along Smith Branch; everyone used the branch as the roadway and they all went to school together — until the eighth grade — in a one room school house further up Smith Branch.
School teachers never lasted long, she noted, on account of all the boys on Smith Branch who would run them off with their mischievous pranks.
Their children, including their son Carl Jr., eventually also went to the same old one-room school house.
Carl Sr. and Vesta lived in many homes along Smith Branch.
Often, said Carl Jr., on his way home Papaw George would catch him and put him to work like he had his children, behind a team of mules.
“If you came around, he’d work ya,” Carl Jr. said. “I’d come up here, I’d be a boy 10 or 12 and he’d say, ‘Get to mowing, and I’ll feed you your dinner.’”
Carl Jr. eventually followed his grandfather and father to the railroad, where he worked for 30 years before retiring from CSX Transportation.
The modern farm
After George and Maudie died, Carolyn and Carl Jr. were able to acquire the farm by buying out Carl Sr.’s other siblings. Carolyn also had grown up on a farm — her parents lived on Beauty Ridge — and was steeped in tobacco culture.
It was a tradition the couple carried on until 2005, when they sold their base in the buyout.
“It was a family tradition, really. It was passed on. My dad, we always raised tobacco. I always worked in it,” Carolyn explained. The family used the money they earned from their crop to pay their property taxes and to buy Christmas gifts for their four children, Trisha, Christina, Rebecca and Carl Dean III.
Believing his grandfather’s farm needed mules, Carl Jr. would buy them and train them to walk with a smooth saddle gait, before selling them. He gave up on mules, however, after breaking his neck in a riding accident.
Carl Jr. continues to cultivate the farm, though now he uses a tractor instead of a team of mules. His rows of vegetables take up much of the bottomland around his home. He’s planted corn, tomatoes, squash, broccoli, lettuce, cabbage, peppers, potatoes, onions, garlic and more in tidy, straight rows near his barn. Rows of strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and blueberries he’s laid out near the creek in front of the home, where they will be easy to reach, even when he’s older, he notes.
His late fall greens are famous throughout the hollow, with many older relatives stopping by to get them every year, his mother said.
The couple also preserve a lot of their produce by canning, freezing or pickling it, just as his grandfather and grandmother used to do.
“Farming,” Carl Jr. said, “is not like it used to be.
People don’t look at it as a farm because anymore; it is just ‘There’s where Carl Robinson lives.’”
Whether a farm or not, he hopes his family’s legacy with the land along Smith Branch will endure. If it isn’t passed on to future generations of Robinsons, he said, “It wouldn’t be what it is. If someone else would get it — our legacy is dead.”