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Charles Burton Robbins


CHARLES BURTON ROBBINS is a native of Iowa who has packed into a life of a little more than fifty years a heaping measure of experience, service and achievements, representing not only an exceedingly busy but a most useful career.

He was born on a farm near Hastings in Mills County, Iowa, November 6, 1877, son of Lewis and Harriett E. (Benson) Robbins. The earlier generations of the Robbins family were found in New England, and members of the family were soldiers in the Revolutionary war. His grandfather, Joseph Robbins, was a miller at Nelsonville, Ohio, and Lewis Robbins also followed that occupation in Ohio until his marriage with Harriett E. Benson. She was born at Buffalo, New York, but before her marriage had taught school in Nelsonville. Her father, James Benson, was a native of England.

On coming out to Iowa Lewis Robbins took up a homestead in Mills County, and made a good farm out of it. He remained in Mills County until March, 1893, when he moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, and died in that city in October, 1893. The mother passed away in May, 1896.

Charles Burton Robbins spent his early years on an Iowa farm, attended country schools in Mills County, was a student in a private school at Hempstead on Long Island, and in 1898 took his A. B. degree at the University of Nebraska. Shortly before graduating from that school America declared war on Spain, and on April 27, 1898, he enlisted as a private in Company B, First Nebraska Infantry. On May 10, 1898, he was promoted to first sergeant, and on June 17th left San Francisco for the Philippines. The regiment participated in the battle of Manila on August 13, 1898, and was engaged in duty during the Philippine insurrection from its outbreak until June 18, 1899. All told, the regiment participated in twenty-eight battles, more than any other regiment in the Philippines. Colonel Robbins was cited for gallantry on February 5, 1899, and was wounded in the head at the battle of Marilao, March 27, 1899. He was commissioned a second lieutenant April 24, 1899, in Company I of the First Nebraska Infantry. He accompanied the regiment in June, 1899, and the regiment was formally disbanded in August of that year. After leaving the army Colonel Robbins did some post-graduate work in the University of Nebraska and in April, 1900, started on a trip around the world, revisiting the Philippines, and at the close of the trip entered Columbia University at New York, where he won his Master of Arts degree in June, 1903. While in New York he was a member of Company C, Seventh Regiment, New York National Guard, from 1901 to 1903.

He studied law while in Columbia and after returning to Iowa entered the law offices of Grimm, Trewin & Moffitt, at Cedar Rapids. He was admitted to the bar in October, 1904, and then became junior partner of Grimm, Trewin & Robbins. His time and abilities were taken up by private practice until July 16, 1909, when Governor Carroll appointed him judge of the Superior Court, and he was on the bench until 1919. His service on the bench was distinguished by something more than the able conduct of the routine of office. It was he who instituted juvenile court work at Cedar Rapids, and he was in large measure responsible for getting through the Legislature the contributing dependency act, the Perkins law and widow's pension act, all important pieces of legislation in Iowa social welfare.

Judge Robbins for many years has been known as an authority on insurance law, and since 1905 has been associated with the Cedar Rapids Life Insurance Company, being general counsel and chairman of the executive committee of the board of directors until 1914, and since that year president and general counsel of the company. He is also a director of the Cedar Rapids National Bank and the Cedar Rapids Candy Company.

His military record did not close with his service in the Philippines. He was captain of Company D of the First Infantry of the Iowa National Guard from 1914 to 1916. On November 2, 1916, he was commissioned major in the adjutant general's department of Iowa, while on duty on the Mexican border. From August, 1917, until May, 1919, he was major and adjutant of the Sixty-seventh and later the Sixty-ninth Infantry Brigade, with the United States Army, and was with the American Expeditionary Forces during 1918-19. In 1921 he was commissioned a major in the United States Reserves, lieutenant-colonel in 1923, and colonel in 1926, and is now colonel and commanding officer of the Three Hundred Forty-ninth Infantry. Colonel Robbins was chosen commander of the Iowa Department of the American Legion in 1922, and in 1924 was civilian aide to the secretary of war for the Citizens Military Training Camps.

In 1928 he was called to Washington as an assistant secretary of war, and served in that capacity until March 5, 1929. When he left his post in Washington, after a year of service, the department employees voted him the most popular man who had ever held an assistant secretaryship, and subsequently the seven major general in charge of the Army Supply Department presented him with an American flag in appreciation of his work. In commenting on this signal recognition of one of Cedar Rapids' citizens, a local newspaper editorially said: "In other ways Colonel Robbins achieved a remarkable record during his short term of service in Washington. Hanford MacNider had set an enviable record, but Colonel Robbins kept well abreast of it. He could see no reason why the Government should be victimized just because it is supported by taxpayers. On one occasion the department was to sell one and a quarter million uniforms. The assistant secretary discovered that all of the bidders had gotten together on their bids. The plan was to split the profits. The uniforms were promptly withdrawn from sale and later were disposed of at an increase of several hundreds of thousands of dollars above the former high bid.

"Col. Robbins' skillful maneuvering also is responsible for the appropriation of $250,000 annually for three years to furnish tanks for the army, and mechanize it in other ways. His own experience in war taught him the importance of tanks and motor trucks. Doubtless his keen appreciation of army needs contributed to the high esteem in which he is held by the generals. He brought to his post a rare combination of business ability and first-hand knowledge of military affairs. Add to this his knack of making friends and getting things done and you have the secret to his brilliant record as assistant secretary of war."

Like many other very busy men Colonel Robbins has a hobby. He is collecting old coins. He is a Republican in politics, a member of the Universalist Church, a member of the Iowa State Bar Association, Iowa Historical Society, Delta Tau Delta fraternity, and is a thirty-second degree Scottish Rite Mason, also belongs to the York Rite bodies, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and is past exalted ruler of the B. P. O. Elks. He is a member of the Sojourners Club of Washington and was twice president of the Cedar Rapids Commercial Club. While with the organization he was chairman of the committee that started the movement, later became chairman of the election committee, for the bond issue to provide for the Memorial Building. The result is the million dollar building that is one of the finest war memorials in the country, serving a great utilitarian purpose as a community center of Cedar Rapids, being used as city hall, Chamber of Commerce quarters, armory for the National Guard, club rooms for the Grand Army of the Republic and Spanish War Veterans, and also as a civic auditorium. Colonel Robbins is president of the American Life Convention.

He married, September 19, 1903, Miss Helen Larrabee of Clermont, Iowa, who died August 9, 1919. Her father, the late William Larrabee was the distinguished Iowan, educator, author, manufacturer, farmer and banker, member of the State Senate, and with a career culminating as the twelfth governor of Iowa. He was also the first president of the Iowa state board of control. Colonel Robbins has two daughters, Anna Marcella and Julia Larrabee, both at home, and one son, Lewis Frederic, a student in the State University of Iowa.

~ source: A Narrative History of The People of Iowa, Edgar Rubey Harlan, LL. B., A. M., Chicago and New York, 1931

~ transcribed and contributed by:  Debbie  Clough Gerischer, Iowa History Project