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Charles Mulford Robinson

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charles mulford robinson

Charles Mulford Robinson, photo courtesy of the Local History & Genealogy Division, Rochester Public Library.

I became the Corn Hill historian in October 2014. I knew little about our neighborhood’s past and immediately set about reading everything I could find. The first significant fact I learned was that, for most of our history, this was Rochester’s Third Ward. Over the years, I’d become aware of the Corn Hill Arts Festival but had never attended it and had no idea why our name was changed. My introduction to that story was Rob Goodling’s book Corn Hill and Its Arts Festival: the First Forty Years. The value of his book goes beyond the facts that Rob reports but in the numerous interviews he conducted to pull together a story about the people that created the first art show, how they grew it into an art festival and made numerous other changes over the years.

History is not about facts alone. The Third Ward/Corn Hill story is about its people: who they were, what they did, how they contributed to the neighborhood, the city, or even the world. Unfortunately, because most of my research is in the Nineteenth Century, I can’t interview people the way Rob did. And so, I begin with findable facts and wait for their stories to emerge.

For several years I have had an interest in a man named Charles Mulford Robinson. I first became aware of him when neighbors Robert Conklin and Sue Porter stopped by my house several years ago and presented me with a book Robinson wrote entitled “The Third Ward Catechism.” It was a witty collection of questions followed by the proper responses that should be cited by everyone who lived in the ward. E.g.:

  1. How may Third Warders be known?
  2. Their blood is blue and their shirts are said to be ruffled.
  3. How can one become a Third Warder?
  4. By birth or marriage or immemorial usage.

 I found several of his other writings at the Central Library and they all confirmed that he was droll in a somewhat old-fashioned way. In one of his written pieces, he commented on the Third Ward’s tradition of open houses on New Year’s Day and I made him a character in my December tour that pays homage to that custom. But I still didn’t fully “get him.”

I soon learned that he was active in city planning and I liked to tell people that Robinson designed my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Then, during the past year, I learned something that helped me realize he was part of a much larger movement and created American cities far beyond Indiana. At last, his story emerged.

Charles Mulford was born to Arthur Robinson and Jane Howell Porter on April 30, 1869 in Ramapo, Rockland County, New York. According to the 1870 Census, Arthur was a stockbroker who had already acquired some wealth. Their household included two domestic servants and a coachman. By 1872, the family had relocated to Rochester into a house that still stands at 67 South Washington. Within a few short years, the family added three daughters.

The Robinsons had deep roots in our nation’s history going back to 1635 when an ancestor first reached America’s shores. More than two centuries later, Charles’ great-grandfather, Reverend William Robinson married Elizabeth Norton. She was the daughter of Ichabod Norton, who fought in the Revolutionary War. Through Ichabod, Charles Mulford would, in 1894, claim membership in the Sons of the American Revolution. His grandparents were Charles Robinson and Nancy Maria Mulford who each contributed to his distinguished name.

Robinson’s pedigree was just as impressive on his mother’s side. In 1816, Jane Howell Porter’s grandfather, Augustus Porter purchased Goat Island, located between the Niagara River’s Canadian and American Falls, because he saw its potential as a tourist attraction. Within a couple of years, Augustus built a pedestrian bridge connecting it to the American side and, today, the island remains accessible only from New York.

Augustus never cleared away the island’s dense vegetation, a decision that would later be heralded by Frederick Law Olmsted who said that in all his travels he had never seen “the same quality of forest beauty…still to be observed in those parts of Goat Island where the original growth of trees and shrubs had not been disturbed….”

Soon Olmsted and Charles Mulford Robinson would bring innovation to American cities.

(to be continued)

This article was first published in the Corn Hill Gazette February – March 2020