Singing nomads have come home
By Peggy Kreimer, Post staff reporter
For 24 years, the view out Jackie Robinson's front window was over the steering wheel of a rolling tour bus as he led the Robinson Family Singers on a never-ending concert tour of state fairs, military bases and truck stops.
This year, the Robinson family parked its caravan of buses, trailers and equipment trucks on a hillside in Owen County and turned off the engines, ending their nomadic lifestyle.
''We've come home,'' said Robinson, 69, as he glanced through a picture window to watch his grandson play on a green hillside.
''Home 'n the Hills'' festival is June 22-24 at 4245 Swope Road, Owenton.
Admission: $8 per day, $20 for the weekend ($15 before May 30); free, 15 and younger.
Primitive campsites: $8 per day, $20 for the weekend ($15 before May 30).
Children's activities each day; Saturday: softball, horseshoe-pitching, rock-skipping, bluegrass, country and big band music; Sunday: religious service, all gospel music and $5 brunch.
Details: call (702) 658-3151.
After years of singing and preaching about the value of families to audiences across the country, the Robinsons are hoping to bring some of those families to them.
''When I look out on that hill, I picture it filled with families listening to the music,'' Robinson said.
The hillside forms a natural amphitheater overlooking a stage where the family presents its annual ''Home 'n the Hills'' music festival every June.
Robinson envisions families using paddleboats on the lake and playing baseball in the field. They'll be camping and cooking on grills, and eventually they'll be playing golf. Some will be eating in the restaurant or buying fudge in the gift shop.
He and his wife, Taylor Mill native Mary Ruth Stephenson Robinson, are using the gift shop temporarily as their first permanent home in 25 years while the rest of the dream - admittedly years from reality - takes shape.
The Robinsons bought 238 acres just outside Owenton in 1988 and are steadily turning it into what they call ''Home 'n the Hills.''
''We want to build a family reunion center,'' said Mark Robinson, the son of Jackie and Mary Ruth and the group's business manager.
Families could reserve campsites and have a weekend of music, boating and outdoor games. Singing groups would perform on an outdoor stage.
''Our dream is to have that absolutely free for the families,'' Mark Robinson said. ''We'd like to hold two really big events a year that would allow the farm to pay for the reunions.''
The big events would be major concerts featuring national singing stars.
The plan is for ticket sales from those events to defray expenses of the reunion center.
It's a big dream, but the Robinsons have experience making dreams come true.
Robinson was a sociology teacher at Syracuse University in New York with a growing family and an ear and voice for music when he and his wife decided to pack their bags, rent their house and hit the road as a family singing group.
''I was 46. I had a secure job. A nice life. My colleagues didn't think I'd do it,'' Robinson recalled.
The two parents and six children set off in their new home, a 1948 Greyhound bus and a bread truck, pursuing a dream together.
Jackie and Mary Ruth had met when Jackie was a youth minister at Latonia Christian Church.
Since then he drove a truck, worked in a steel mill, served in the Army and taught at college. But he never lost his zeal to spread God's message.
''It was the age of LBJ and the Vietnam War. Students were protesting against the war. I was a former officer and a conservative Christian on the Syracuse campus,'' he said.
The Robinsons and the students would sit up late discussing ideas and principles. Sometimes they'd sing - Kentucky Bluegrass and old church songs.
The family formed a Bluegrass band and were soon playing all over the state.
They represented Herkimer County at the New York State Fair, and spent their $800 prize money putting out their first album.
In April 1977 they piled in the bus and headed for a convention in Las Vegas, where fair promoters book talent.
''When we arrived, I had $87,'' Robinson said. ''We were 3,000 miles from home. No savings account. No checking account. And no guarantee of work.''
''A guy gave us his card and said 'I could really use you selling balloons,' '' Mary Ruth recalled. ''We're singers,'' she told him with indignation. ''But we kept the card.''
Several weeks later, in Costa Mesa, Calif., they pulled out the card and started selling balloons at malls.
''We had to buy a valve and a tank of helium, and we had $17 left,'' Robinson said. ''The first day we sold $30 worth. But the next day we sold $200 to $300. Some weekends we sold $3,500.''
The family knew how to hustle. But they couldn't get a singing break until a man from Herkimer County in town for a convention recognized them at a mall.
''You should be singing,'' he said.
He got them a job singing at a California naval base. Gigs at more naval bases followed, and then Army and Air Force bases started calling from across the country.
Between songs the family would move through the audience - talking to people about the importance of family, love and God.
They were in demand for county fairs and played trucking shows and truck stops. Delo Oil signed them to be the oil company's official representatives, with the slogan ''People you trust, trust Delo.'' They sang the Delo commercials on radio and appeared in magazine ads from 1985 to 1990.
Between engagements, the family found jobs that lasted weeks or sometimes months - restaurants, construction, receptionist in a hospital.
In Georgia, the family met a man with a 30-foot sailboat who needed it moved up the Gulf of Mexico.
''Our 30-day cruise,'' joked Mark's wife, Sharron. ''Eleven people on a 30-foot boat that sleeps eight. It was running 24 hours a day. We rebuilt the engine on the way. We almost got run down. But the guy paid us good money.''
As children married, the family added new trailers and new members. A few left to establish their own families, returning for special concerts.
The family made music and friends across the country, putting out 10 recordings - record albums in the early years and now CDs.
''We have a different way of looking at music,'' Mary Ruth said. ''We look people in the eyes and say 'We love you.' We find songs that are positive and uplifting.''
The family still has the same goal it had when it started, Jackie Robinson said: ''To change the world by changing family hearts and family attitudes.''
They bought the farm in 1988 and between concerts cleared brush, cut down brambles, moved rocks. Their first construction project was the stage.
The Robinsons held their first concert at the Owen County farm in 1990 when they invited neighbors to meet them.
That neighborhood concert turned into a community festival four years ago called ''Home 'n the Hills,'' a combination reunion and music festival, with local singing groups joining the Robinsons and festival-goers watching the progress of the family's dream.
Over the years they bought earth-moving equipment at an auction and built a dam, turning a trickling creek into a five-acre lake. They built the gift shop and a water tower - with family and friends providing the labor. The restaurant and golf course remain dreams. Electricity and plumbing at the campsites are expected in two years.
Eventually, homes for Jackie and Mary Ruth and other family members will dot the farm's hillsides. Until then, most of the family is still living in their trailers parked on the hills.
''This is like an unbelievable dream every time I walk
down to the lake or look at the amphitheater,'' Mary Ruth said. ''It's
been a lot of work. But this is how American dreams come true.''
Publication date: 04-21-01
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