Building Historic Chinsegut Hill’s Family
Chinsegut Hill, Manor House Museum and Retreat is a magnificent venue, featuring rich history, impressive architecture and natural beauty. The land was originally claimed by Colonel Byrd Pearson of South Carolina as part of the US Government land grant program, 160-acres he called Mount Airy.
In 1904, siblings Elizabeth and Raymond Robins purchased the home and property for $6,000. Before they moved into the house, Raymond married Margaret Drier.
Their furnishings, architectural style, liberal views, political connections, art and vision fill this unique piece of National history with more than enough fodder for a fine tour on a hot August afternoon.
On September 26, 1954, Raymond Robins passed away. He had made previous arrangements to donate the property to the government, as long as he and his “family” could live at the Manor House tax free until that day. At that point, the Federal government took ownership of the house and its contents, due to the Robins having no children.
After the Robins
In 1958, the University of Florida’s lease on the property expired and they removed over 8,000 books from Raymond Robins’ library, essentially abandoning the property.
University of South Florida took leasehold of Chinsegut in 1962. It was used as a conference center, with seven cabins having been built near the Manor House and a kitchen/dining and educational conference rooms being added separately. In 1982, the USDA transferred title to of the 125-acre property to USF.
On November 21, 2003, Chinsegut Hill was added to the US National Register of Historic Places, but the manor house was becoming dilapidated. In 2008, the University of South Florida returned the property to the State, and the Friends of Chinsegut Hill, Inc. was formed “to preserve and sustain a historical, cultural, environmental and educational center pertaining to the homesite and property of Chinsegut Hill.” The Friends oversaw a $1.5 million renovation and began operating the Manor as a museum.
Important People in Restoring Chinsegut
A manager was hired, a website created, and events were held to help reconnect Brooksville with its local treasure. Volunteers conducted tours. Florida’s Adventure Coast Tourism Board joined in the mission to bring back “the Hill” with the Retreat Center being a great place for rentals, conferences and events. DAB Constructors, Inc., Cheyenne Asphalt, Inc. and Hernando County Department of Public Works (DPW) worked together to repair and pave the driveway up to the house in April 2016.
The cabins were offered for rental, weddings were scheduled, quarterly dinners and monthly luncheons were held under the guidance of Chinsegut’s property manager Natalie Kahler, which drew crowds primarily from the local area.
A New Direction
In May 2018, a new Executive Director was brought on board to help the Manor House Museum and its grounds fulfill its potential.
“I was recruited by someone who was intimately involved with Chinsegut’s revival. They found me on LinkedIn and asked me to just visit the location,” Melissa Kehler shared. “I was on my way farther south, where I have family and was going to move, but I fell in love with this place.
Chinsegut is an Alaskan word meaning “Place where lost things are found.” It worked its magic on me. Now it is my goal to get our community with its many organizations involved with this amazing piece of U.S. history. It’s OUR place.”
Melissa is a dynamo who has worked to unite people in a common cause for many years. She spent ten years with The Good News Center in Utica, New York, building roots that connected the retreat center to its local community – and she “loves a challenge.”
She described her vision for Chinsegut Manor Museum as connected to the local area as well as to historical resources nationwide. “When people go the the Edison/Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, they should be planning to stop and see Chinsegut Manor Museum as well. Right now, we need to make them aware that we exist and of the valuable history connected to this amazing property,” Michelle passionately explains.
She will talk to Senator Wilton Simpson and other legislators to seek funding for renovations on the air conditioning and an operational budget, work with Florida A & M Agriculture College to get speedy internet, and have Chinsegut join reciprocal museum and historic membership programs for starters.
“By reaching out to those throughout the U.S. and the world who are interested in history, Chinsegut Manor Museum and the Hill will draw more people to the Nature Coast and raise the perceived value of this National treasure,” Melissa shared, “I am simply the facilitator. Our community will benefit.”
The previous property caretakers, Ron and Sandee Lester, purchased a home in Brooksville and have chosen to move on, spending more time on their Resurrection Power Marriage Ministry. Ron gave tours on August 15, during the first luncheon under Melissa’s tenure. His knowledge of the property, it’s former residents and his skill at storytelling were evident as visitors learned about the pioneers of the area, its history with slavery, post-slavery, the labor movement, the women’s suffrage movement and the cold war. It was akin to a full U.S. history lesson from the 1840s through the beginning of WWII.
Historical Artifacts and Fine Food
The Manor Museum is full of furniture, art, letters and properties of the Robins’ family. It is in fabulous shape and going on the tour offers the opportunity to see what life was like, as well as imagine entertaining the movers and shakers of the age. We were invited to stay as long as we like to view photos, letters and artifacts in the second story museum area.
The stories go on and on. The photos, letters, books and properties are all here.
A new caretaker couple has come to live here. Joshua McAdams is a skilled naturalist who can lead foraging expeditions throughout the property and his wife, Tayor, has added the cottages to Airbnb. To kick off our luncheon, Josh rang the 1776 Liberty bell just outside the dining hall.
The new caterer, Albanese Catering, provided a wonderful North meets South buffet menu of pulled pork sliders, Italian sausage with peppers and onions, cole slaw, salt potatoes with butter, and several dessert options, including brownies, peach cobbler, and cookies… topped off with root beer floats. The dining hall appears upgraded with seat covers over the chairs and a sparkling clean kitchen.
The view is still magnificent, and guests commented on how far one can see from this special place. At 350-feet above sea level, it is the third highest point in Florida according to our tour guide. Melissa shares with us excitedly that the windows are slated for replacement with single pane models to improve the view.
Volunteers who Make things Happen
“We couldn’t have gotten this far if we didn’t have dedicated volunteers who have stuck with us through the years. Myra has worked for this property selflessly and I would be lost without her,” Melissa explains. “One of my priorities is to get the funding to pay our staff.”
There has always been an air of magic on this hill. Visit the Manor Museum and tour Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Saturday any time between 10:30 am and 2 pm. Guided tours are only $5 and self-guided tours are $3. Ages 10 and under are free, although the tours are definitely more geared to adults. The grounds are great for running around, with lots of open space, nature trails and huge grandfather oaks surrounded by azalea bushes near the main house. There is a family graveyard that houses several of the previous inhabitants of the house featured in the tour that you can visit.
If you haven’t made it up to Chinsegut Hill Manor Museum, take the time to get over for a tour. And if you love history and old pictures, schedule yourself some extra time to spend in the museum researching what is there.
October 6 from 11 am to 3 pm, there will be Antiques on the Hill with the Mudds Live Blues and Jazz.
A Veterans Day brunch is planned for November 11.
The museum is seeking volunteers now. Would you consider being a docent or helping with landscaping or other tasks? If so, please call the museum at 352-799-5400. Leave a message if you don’t get an answer.
They are also seeking Board members for the Friends of Chinsegut Hill, as well as members of the Friends group. The Friends of Chinsegut Hill will hold their annual meeting September 15 at 6pm with Peggy Macdonald providing a talk on the 15th First Lady of Florida, Floride Lydia Pearson and a report from the Board President, Eric Kessel. Wine from Sparacia & Witherell Winery and light hors d’oeuvers by Albanese Catering will be served.
To get there: Chinsegut Hill Manor Museum is located at 22495 Chinsegut Hill Road, Brooksville, FL 34601. You can find a map and more by clicking here.