April 13, 2010

Local Legacies: The Roberts

J.R. Roberts in his store on Sixth Street in downtown Redmond.

One hundred years ago this month a young man named J. Roy Roberts came to Redmond to join his friend M.A. Lynch in the retail business. In the decades that followed both men would make numerous contributions to the growth of their chosen community. This is the story of the Roberts family.

Growing up “it seemed as though he was pretty important,” said Margaret Schinkel of her grandfather J.R. Roberts. "He always was a gentleman, very quiet, very soft spoken. He wore three-piece suits with a bow tie, a white shirt, vest, and jacket. Sometimes he would take the jacket off at the store."

J. Roy “J.R.” Roberts was born in 1882 in the north central Iowa town of Steamboat Rock. He came west from Marshalltown, Iowa, to Portland, where he met Lynch, a pharmacist, and another young man, Guy Dobson, whose plan was to open a bank in Central Oregon. J.R. recalled in later years that he and Lynch jokingly asked Dobson to find a place in Redmond for them, too. He did, and Lynch headed to the settlement of Redmond in December 1909, liked what he saw and set up shop in January 1910. Roberts followed in April.

Lynch & Roberts’ first store was on the southeast corner of Southwest Sixth and Evergreen, next to the Hotel Oregon and across the street from the Hotel Redmond. Business boomed as eager settlers anticipated the coming of the railroad.

In a letter J.R. wrote to Oda Fuller in 1911, he boasted that the store earned $51,000 in its first year and the property doubled in value.
Oda and J.R. met in Iowa through some sort of card game that they continued playing by mail once J.R. moved to Oregon, Schinkel said. She has a stack of letters, bearing 2-cent stamps, that J.R. wrote in 1911 as he tried to persuade Oda to move to Central Oregon and marry him.One letter mentioned Sunday trips by motorcycle to play baseball in Prineville – 1 hour, 25 minutes each way. He also chronicled the progress of the railroad as the tracks got closer to Redmond. As workers built the bridge over the Crooked River Gorge, he wrote to Oda, "It would scare most anyone to look down in this canyon...The river below looks like a small creek. ... Someday you'll come west and this will be an item of interest."

During the July 4th holiday, he accompanied other young men on a trip to Silver Lake, Fort Rock and Odell Lake in a 60-horsepower Pierce Arrow.He wrote from Odell Lake and described its beauty with another hint, "This certainly is the ideal place to camp, and if I ever get the chance to take a honeymoon trip I think it would be appropriate to bring honey up here to look at the moon."

Going through the letter Schinkel said, “You can see he really does want her to come out, but she’s a bit reluctant."

But eventually Oda relented. They married in Iowa and the couple arrived in Redmond in November 1911, on the first passenger train into town. Son Maurice was born in 1912 and daughter, Ruth, in 1913 in a little house in the 300 block of Southwest Seventh Street. When Maurice was six the family moved to a house at 8th and Antler and added a second story.

When Maurice married he and his wife, Lovelle, lived in little house just across the driveway from his parents. Then they built a house on Southwest Canyon Drive. When Schinkel was 11, the family moved into J.R. and Oda’s home where Maurice had grown up.

“It’s a neat house, so many nooks and crannies,” Schinkel said.
The store continued to prosper and in 1917, Lynch & Roberts built a new brick building at Southwest Sixth Street and Deschutes Avenue. The building was completed in time for the 1917 Potato Show displays.
But tending the business was not the only interest for either Lynch or Roberts. Both involved themselves in community affairs, local and state government.

J.R. Roberts belonged to a number of Masonic orders, was secretary-treasurer of Redmond Airport Commission from 1946 until shortly before his death, served on the Oregon State Board of Aeronautics for 18 years, and on the board of directors of Pacific Power.

Early on, J.R. saw the potential of the airplane, and was active in the development of Redmond's airfield, which was officially named for him in June 1941. After Pearl Harbor J.R. saw the advantage offered by Roberts Field as location for an airbase and lobbied military officials, congressmen and anyone else who would listen. He was succesful but the Army abandoned the base soon after the WWII. Undaunted, after the war Roberts lobbied to have the field returned to the city. In 1964, state, city and federal aeronautics officials honored him for his role in building, expanding and improving the airport, pursuing commercial air service, and promoting aviation in the state.

Maurice Roberts, too, played a role in Redmond's development. J.R. had the airport plans, but it was Maurice who put in the physical labor and learned to fly and while it was who J.R. owned the store, Maurice ran it, Schinkel said.

Though Maurice was blind in one eye (he was hit by a spit wad containing a pin during his sophomore year at Redmond Union High School), he learned to fly in his mid-20s when, in 1936, he and a group of other young men formed a flying club.

Like his father, Maurice saw service on the school board and as Redmond mayor – J.R.in 1920 and 1932, Maurice in 1945. Schinkel called her father a "gentle giant." At 6'3’’ and close to 220 pounds, he was adored by children and animals, she said.

In 1946 Lynch and Roberts divided the business. J.R. and Maurice, who started delivering groceries when he was 8 years old, took over the grocery, dry goods and women’s ready-to-wear, while Lynch kept the men’s department.

Like her father, Schinkel, now 70, started working at the family store when she was young, At age 14 she was wrapping packages. Though her first real job was working at Milt and Flossie Odem's theaters – the Odem and Mayfair downtown and the drive-in south of the city center. At the indoor theaters she was an usherette complete with cute little uniform and flashlight.

"I could tell the kids to behave,” she said with a laugh.

Schinkels's adult life has been spent in accounting-type jobs, she said. "I always gave my dad credit, because he got me interested by letting me balance the cash and such."

Today, semi-retired, she lives on acreage outside Bend near her son, where the “city girl” has learned to change water, act as midwife to goats, and feed a variety of farm animals.

“It’s been great fun,” Schinkel laughed. "Central Oregon has been very good to me, I think it's been very good for my family."

-- story by Trish Pinkerton

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