Reminisce: Robison was Spencerville’s ‘official unofficial historian’

Ernie Robison found part of William Siegel’s gold pocket watch in the spring of 1933, some 29 years after an explosion at a nitroglycerin magazine shattered windows in nearby Spencerville and rained bits of dirt, wood, horse flesh and Siegel, who had been working at the magazine, on to surrounding fields.

Robison told the Spencerville Journal-News in March 1933 that he had found the back lid of the watch carried by Siegel, who was working with nitroglycerin as a “shooter” in the oil fields when he was killed in July 1904, while burning over a stretch of pastureland on his farm a half-mile north of Spencerville on state Route 66.

“The lid of the watch was found about 150 feet from where the explosion occurred,” the Journal-News wrote. “Following the explosion a part of Siegel’s body was found in the branches of a tree that once stood exactly on the spot where the watch lid was found.”

For Robison, the watch lid was a fascinating, if gruesome, link to the area’s past, and Robison had an abiding interest in local history.

“Ernie’s interest in local history began years ago when, as he was cleaning out the upstairs in the Pohlman Hardware building, he found five negatives of pictures taken in the 1800s,” the Journal-News wrote in June 1963 when Robison, described as “Spencerville’s official unofficial historian,” gave up writing a weekly history column after more than two decades. “The negatives started Ernie on what turned out to be a never-ending quest for information about the community in which we live, and he has spent countless hours poring over ancient documents, old newspapers, talking with old-timers and collecting dates of births and deaths from headstones on the numerous extremely old cemeteries in the area.”

Charles Ernest Robison was the son of John T. and Mary Van Sweringen Robison. His father came from Gallatin County, Kentucky, settling in Van Wert County in 1871 before moving to Spencerville, where Robison was born in a West North Street house on April 10, 1894. The family moved to the farm just north of Spencerville in 1899. Robison lived most of his life not far from the Miami and Erie Canal, which flows through many of his stories.

He was a veteran of World War I, an experience he wrote about in 1963. Robison described his unit advancing toward the front in the summer of 1918, the fear rising as the sounds of war grew nearer. Finally, the unit was ordered to stop while the lieutenant in charge asked the men if there were any questions before he went forward for final orders.

“Private Long asked, ‘Sir, how near are we to the front?’” Robison wrote. “A slight pause and again out of the rain and darkness came the lieutenant’s cold voice, ‘Are there any important questions?’ None at that particular moment were able to think of a more important question.”

The Lima News wrote in March 1958, “After working at various vocations, Robison took up farming in 1924 on a 55-acre property he now owns and rents to other farmers. He also is a former employee of Pohlman’s Hardware, a business with which he was associated at intervals over a 32-year-period.”

He told the Journal-News in December 1971, “I’ve done a little bit of everything… farming, clerking in a hardware store, jewelry shop, you name it. If you had lived in those days, it was plain that a fellow had to do a little bit of everything.”

The thing he did a lot of was write about area history. In 1941, he began his association with the Journal-News, penning a column on local history. He also became a member of the Allen County Historical Society, the Ohio State Historical Society and the Canal Society of Ohio.

“The canal was the center of community social life since it offered facilities for boating, ice skating and swimming,” the Journal-News wrote in a December 1971 story. “We used to swim in the nude, and we had to duck every time a buggy came by,” Robison told the newspaper.

For Robison, the canal also was a source of stories, like one related to the Journal-News about a boat traveling the canal by night with a small boy driving the team.

“There was one shrill cry and his body was not found until the next day, beneath some brush, the victim of one of the area’s last wildcats,” he wrote.

During the 1960s, Robison wrote a series of biographical sketches he called “Tombstone Tales” about some of the more well-known people buried in local cemeteries, among them men who operated canal boats.

“In an unmarked grave in Spencerville sleeps one of the first boat captains on the Miami and Erie Canal,” Robison wrote in his 1963 story on Conrad Norbeck, who also might have been one of the unluckiest captains on the canal.

Norbeck, Robison wrote, managed to lose his canal boat, which sank with a load of wheat, his farm, which was seized to cover those losses, his wife, who died leaving him with five small children and, finally, his life when he was struck by a train in 1884 near Kemp while walking on the Erie tracks from Lima to Spencerville.

Robison drew on his own boyhood memories for a story on the last days of the canal.

“The passage of a boat was a time of great excitement for the small fry, and even their elders who would gather to watch,” he wrote. “The horses, far ahead at the end of the long tow rope, seemed to have little connection with the boat moving so quietly past. The only sound was that of the water rippling under the bow.”

In 1964, he wrote a story for the Ohio Historical Society on the Deep Cut portion of the Miami and Erie canal, which was dug by hand through a formidable ridge near Spencerville. Robison also wrote a history of Spencerville’s phone service for the Journal-News in 1962 and, in 1965, compiled a history of Spencerville’s physicians and surgeons.

Other stories were more limited. Asked in 1963 what he considered the most interesting item he’d uncovered in his 22 years writing for the Journal-News, Robison said it was a story about a combination ottoman and spittoon manufactured in Spencerville at the turn of the century.

“The spittoon was designed to be sat on when not being spit in,” the newspaper noted.

Over the years, Robison would donate more than 70 items to the Allen County Historical Society, including many articles of clothing from bygone days, including his World War I uniform jacket and hat. He also donated several small paper advertising fans touting the wares of Spencerville merchants.

In 1970, a bust of Robison by sculptor Ann Whitney joined his many donations for display at the Allen County Museum.

“She took a lot of pictures of me and did the sculpture on the basis of her pictures,” Robison told the Journal-News in 1971. “When Mrs. Whitney had it practically finished, I went over. All she had to do was dig a little out of both sides of my face – and there I was.”

Robison died in Spencerville at the age of 82 on June 21, 1976. In the final years of his life, he lived at 402 N. Broadway St., in sight of the long-abandoned Miami and Erie Canal.

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Ernie Robison appears in a photo from 1971. Robison was a member of the Allen County Historical Society, the Ohio State Historical Society and the Canal Society of Ohio. He was also described as Spencerville’s “official unofficial historian.” Robison appears in a photo from 1971. Robison was a member of the Allen County Historical Society, the Ohio State Historical Society and the Canal Society of Ohio. He was also described as Spencerville’s “official unofficial historian.” Courtesy of Allen County Historical Society

By Greg Hoersten

For The Lima News


This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


See past Reminisce stories at

Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected].