Frank Kern Robeson. Of the many business establishments in Champaign County perhaps none has a wider connection with the families of this section of Illinois and a better reputation due to many years of successful business relations than the Robeson Department Store, founded and built up by the veteran merchant Frank Kern Robeson, who has the distinction of having developed the first real department store in the city of Champaign.
While his success and position in the community are now so well established, it is noteworthy that Mr. Robeson did not always have an easy course and one free from obstacles. He was born in the state of Pennsylvania. His parents, Alexander M. and Jane (Kern) Robeson, were natives of the same state. Their ancestors had come to America prior to the Revolutionary War. Both the Robesons and the Kerns were engaged in the great iron industry of Pennsylvania until a short time before the Civil War.
In 1863 Alexander M. Robeson and his family moved to the pineries of Northern Michigan. During the next winter they and four other families endured the hardships of frontier life. When navigation closed in the fall there was no communication with the outside world except mail every two weeks brought in on sledges drawn by dogs. When navigation opened in the spring the Robesons took the first boat, a sailing vessel that left for Bay City, and thence proceeded by rail and by stage over corduroy roads to Rensselaer, Indiana. Rensselaer, now the county seat of Jasper County, was then a sparsely settled section in swamps and with no railroad communications. The Robesons became farmers in that vicinity.
Many of the boyhood recollections of Mr. F. K. Robeson are of the old Indiana farm. He lived on the farm until past sixteen, and was educated in the country and county seat schools. His first experience in business was as clerk in a store at Logansport, Indiana.
One of the strongest points in personal character is ability to recognize and seize opportunity. After Mr. Robeson had been clerking about two years he was offered a partnership in a store to be opened at Danville, Illinois. He accepted the offer, and thus came to Illinois and was at Danville nine months. He prospered there, but then went to Decatur, Illinois, and formed a business partnership which in eleven months time brought him near to the brink of disaster and he lost in it nearly all the money he had saved.
It was after this experience and when just past twenty-one years old that Mr. Robeson came to Champaign, where he arrived in April, 1874. Here he opened a store on Neil Street in the first block north of Church Street. What he lacked in capital he made up in energy, pluck and business judgment. The small stock of merchandise grew with the growth of population, his success was soon recognized in the community, and there has never been a time when his business and his personal character has not been’ recognized as important assets in the city. About forty years ago Mr. Robeson moved to the David Bailey building. The store has a frontage at 219-221 North Neil Street, and the building runs back to a side entrance at 113-115 West Church Street.
For many years his store has demanded more commodious quarters. To meet this demand for more room and more up-to-date housing, Mr. Robeson in the fall of 1915 began preparation for the construction of a new store building at the corner of Church and Randolph streets. The building is 132×132 feet square, five stories and basement, modern throughout, and as nearly fireproof as possible to make it. It is a steel frame building with pressed brick walls. This is the largest store building in this section of Illinois, and in every feature it attests the rugged character and sterling integrity of the man responsible for it.
Besides this large department store Mr. Robeson has extensive agricultural interests, owning land in Champaign County, in South Dakota and in Iowa. A part of his land he rents out and a part he farms himself, employing his own help and directing the farm operations. His business as a farmer has been no less successful than as a merchant.
Mr. Robeson married in 1897 Miss Hortense M. Bartholow, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. J. M. Bartholow, and a native of Champaign County. Dr. James M. Bartholow is a prominent physician of Urbana. After leaving college he enlisted in the Civil War and served until the close of that conflict. In 1869 he began his practice at Philo in Champaign County, but removed to Urbana in 1885. Dr. Bartholow was married May 28, 1867, to Florence Ford, of Macon City, Illinois. They had two children, Otho, a minister in New York; and Hortense, Mrs. Robeson. Mr. and Mrs. Robeson have two children: Frank Kern, who followed his high school graduation with a course at college, and Florence Louise Robeson.
Mr. Robeson is a Knight Templar Mason, also a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. His public spirit as a citizen has always been prominent. He enters whole heartedly into any plan for the general benefit of the community. Mr. Robeson is a man of broad intelligence and pronounced convictions, and is never afraid to let his opinions be known. He stands for all that is best in community life, in business and in politics. He served on the building and finance committees that erected and paid for the University Place Church of Christ. For twenty years he was a member of the Republican County Central Committee and for ten years was chairman of that organization. He never sought public office, but on two occasions was induced to accept official honor, once in the City Council as alderman from his ward, having been elected without opposition, and again as a member of the State Board of Equalization for a term of four years. Though repeatedly urged to accept other official positions he always declined. He prefers private life, his home, his business and his farm. In many ways Mr. Robeson is an ideal citizen. His friends are legion. Not even his most intimate friends are aware of the extent of his good works and good deeds. The keynote to his success has been hard work. He personally mastered the smallest details of merchandising, and from the details has risen to the power of constructive planning and the supervision of extensive interests.