The terrain of eastern Kentucky, the Highlands, provides a natural basis for both the region’s economy and its culture. Early settlers in the 1840s found the Highlands area in a nearly pristine state, with abundant old growth forests lining the mountains, and with tillable, narrow spits of land surrounding creeks and river bottoms. It was the forests, climax old growth forests of the Cumberland Plateau, that provided sustenance for those early settlers; abundant game, wood for housing, and creek beds full of fish allowed those settlers to live well, but isolated. Their cabins were situated along the creeks and river bottoms, in some measure because those waterways were the early settlers’ only highways, and would remain so for some isolated pockets into the 20th century.

      By the turn of the 20th century, the area continued to be isolated and still the tall forests persisted with only a few species, such as tulip poplar, having been harvested much at all. However, all of that was to change by the teens of that century.

Old Robinson Station Group Photo

      In about 1912, E.O. Robinson and F.W. Mowbray, Cincinnati area businessmen, purchased or leased great tracts of land throughout 29 counties in eastern Kentucky for logging. America was growing rapidly and with that intense growth came the need for lumber for home and factory construction, as well as for furniture, woodwork trim, and flooring. Logging was lucrative, if you were well equipped with the machinery and organizational skills to bring down the large trees and process them into lumber. One tract in particular, about 15,000 acres that Robinson and Mowbray purchased from Miles Bach (later generations have spelled the name Back), yielded billions of board feet of lumber that was shipped throughout the world. By 1922, the 15,000 acres – about 23.5 square miles of forest in Perry, Knott, and Breathitt Counties – had been harvested, processed, and sold by Robinson and Mowbray and the proceeds had made them very rich indeed. Their operation, not unlike those of others who pursued riches through logging in eastern Kentucky, left some tracts virtually worthless, save for the minerals that underlay them.

      The concept of the Experiment Station substation in Kentucky had its origins in 1908, when the Kentucky General Assembly passed a bill to establish a sub-experiment station in eastern Kentucky and a similar one in western Kentucky. But the governor chose not to sign it; therefore, it was not passed into law. Again in 1910, a similar bill passed both houses but an amendment, passed by the Senate, cut the maintenance for substations to $3,000 a year at each location. Because the amendment was not passed by both houses, the concept was voided at that time.

      In 1922, C.N. Manning, president of the Security Trust Company of Lexington, approached College of Agriculture Dean Thomas Poe Cooper about a plan conceived by E.O. Robinson to give practical aid to the mountain people of eastern Kentucky. Robinson believed it was his duty to put the bulk of his immense fortune to good use for the people of eastern Kentucky. To achieve that end, Robinson had established the E.O. Robinson Mountain Fund.

      Manning, as director of the E.O. Robinson Mountain Fund, which consisted of about 16,000 acres in Breathitt, Perry, and Knott Counties and which had an endowment of about $1 million, suggested to Dean Cooper that 14,000 acres of the land be used as a demonstration tract for reforestation. Cooper agreed that this would be a fine use of the land, and that the College of Agriculture would be interested in working with the E.O. Robinson Mountain Fund for that purpose. However, Cooper further suggested that because most of the research conducted by the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station was conducted in and around Lexington, it did not apply directly to the situation of the mountains and that this site could be used for other research studies, besides reforestation.

       Manning proposed that the E.O. Robinson Mountain Fund lease for 75 years to the College about 14,000 acres of the harvested land in the three counties for research that was far more inclusive than reforestation research.

      Cooper was careful to make sure that Manning was aware that the University was not in a position to finance the work he alluded to, but that he believed if a gift could be secured or an agreement of cooperation were struck, it might be possible for the state to make modest appropriations necessary to begin work.

Robinson Station Horse and Buggy

      By April of that year, a memorandum of understanding had been drafted for consideration by the University. The draft included the provision that the E.O. Robinson Mountain Fund lease to the University about 15,000 acres in Breathitt, Perry, and Knott counties for 75 years, with renewal possible. The University would establish and maintain on the lands a model farm or farms and would conduct experimental research in agriculture and reforestation. The E.O. Robinson Mountain Fund would provide the University up to $10,000 annually to carry out the work. The University would match that amount each year to support the endeavor.

      Doubts and questions were raised when the draft was proposed to the University. Cooper came to conclude that the lands to be taken over needed to be granted to the university in fee simple, meaning that they would be deeded to the university rather than leased. The University’s reluctance to agree with the draft also had to do with concern that the university would be funding the experiment station for 75 years, only to turn over the renewed forest that would be worth between $15 to $20 million in 1922 dollars.

      The University of Kentucky Board of Trustees took up the issue in detail in July 1923, and agreed that the University would accept a gift of the land, without mineral title, if the E.O. Robinson Foundation Trust were interested.

      The trustees of the fund agreed and by early September of that year conveyed to the University about 15,000 acres of land in fee simple; the land was deeded over in October 1923. Eight tracts of land on the borders of Breathitt, Knott, and Perry Counties comprise the main forest. They are known as Clemons Fork, Buckhorn, Coles Fork, Laurel, Beaverdam, Bear Branch, Fishtrap, Lewis Fork, and Hurricane. Two other tracts, Little Caney and Rose’s Branch, consist of about 1,000 acres and are located near Robinson Station. Cooper requested that University of Kentucky President McVey ask the Board of Trustees to authorize him to establish a sub-experiment station on the land. At the same time, Louisville and Nashville Railroad deeded their right of way which ran through the sawmill area to DuMont Tunnel for the Experiment Station.

      In his request to McVey, Cooper stated that “this substation should deal with the problem of reforestation which would represent its activity upon the major portion of the land and the various lines of agricultural experimental and demonstration work necessary for development of an accurate knowledge of the possibilities of mountain territory.”

      The next step was the general assembly, which passed a bill that established the Robinson Substation and was signed by Governor William J. Fields in March 1924. The act provided for an annual appropriation of $25,000 for the establishment, operation, and management of the fixture.

      Cooper moved quickly after that and by the next month, he had hired Roger W. Jones, known throughout his career as Major Jones due to his rank when he served in the army in World War I, to be superintendent of the Station.

      Miles Bach deeded directly to University of Kentucky a 10-acre tract at Quicksand that had been used by the lumber company for a machine shop, sawmill, housing for workers and a movie theater as the site for the headquarters of the new Experiment Station. These appurtenances were quickly dispatched to clear space for the Experiment Station buildings. An office, known as the Club House, was erected and used until 1962 when the current office building was erected. Other small acreage plots were acquired by either purchase or donation over the years to expand the Station. The only remaining structure from the sawmill days is a farm storage warehouse referred to as Cooper Hall during the early years of the Station.

      Major Jones began immediately to prepare the Experiment Station for its intended use. Crops were planted that spring and poultry and stock barns built and initial work was completed to beautify the 10-acre headquarters. The river bluff on the farm was established as a camping site for those who wanted to use it.

      Dean Cooper, upon the recommendation of Major Jones, hired Lula Hale, a local teacher, to establish a model or demonstration house on the grounds of the headquarters and to present lessons on cooking, sewing, and weaving to young girls and occasional classes in homemaking for women. Later, Hale would establish a library at the demonstration house that included 172 volumes. She also made home visits on horse to the people of the surrounding communities.

      C.H Burrage, a forester, was hired in August 1924 to manage the reforestation efforts. His efforts were to establish boundaries, organize fire protection, and map the farm and headquarters tract. J.S. Barnes was hired as farm manager.

            A dairy herd and operation were established with Jersey cows. (Later Brown Swiss would replace the Jersey; the herd would be terminated in 1957 as sheep were added to the Station.) Crops produced that first year proved that scientific agriculture was greatly superior beyond imagination. In that first year, corn grew to 18 feet tall and yielded the unheard of 80 bushels per acre at the Station.