William Bryan Robbins (1896 - 1972)

William Bryan "Bill" Robbins
(1896 - 1972)

My great-grandfather William Bryan Robbins was born 6 June 1896 in Hesperia,  Michigan.  Hesperia is a small town that lies on the Newaygo – Oceana County border, Bill Robbins, 1917 which means half the town is in Newaygo County, while the other half is in Oceana County.  His birth is not recorded in either county's birth records, so it is unknown exactly in what county his birth took place.  His parents were Angelo Merrick Robbins, Sr. and Mary May Kimball (a.k.a. Lula Weaver).  He was the third of six children; his siblings were Floyd Arthur Robbins (1893 - 1916); Lloyd R. Robbins (1894 - 1978); Reva L. Robbins (1898 - 1926); Angelo Merrick Robbins, Jr. (1904 - 1982); and Donald Charles Robbins (1914 - 2002).  A stillborn baby boy was also born in 1906.

The year Bill was born was a presidential election year, with the candidates being the silver-tongued orator William Jennings Bryan (Democrat) versus the eventual victor, William McKinley (Republican).  It is obvious that Bill's father Angelo was an ardent Democratic supporter!  Bill was referred to throughout his life as both "Bill" and "Bryan".  Eighteen Ninety-Six was also the year gold was discovered in the Yukon, and Utah became a state.

Polar Bear Cubs Reunion commemorative ribbon, 1936During World War I, Bill served in Co. I, 339th Michigan Infantry, 85th Division, U.S. Army.  Originally, the 85th Division was called the Custer Division, in honor of General George Custer of "Custer's Last Stand" fame.  He was a brigadier general during the Civil War, and his brigade was made up mostly of Michigan men.  The Custer Division later became known as the “Polar Bear Division”, because it served in the far north of Russia during and after World War I.

At the beginning of World War I, Russia was one of the Allies.  Allied munitions were stored at Murmansk off the Barents Sea.  Germany arranged to smuggle Lenin into Russia in order to bring about the Bolshevik Revolution and the downfall of the Russian monarchy, effectively removing one of the Allies from the war.  When the communists took over the Russian government, they signed an armistice with Germany, basically switching sides mid-war.  The United States sent in troops to guard the munitions stores in Murmansk to keep them from falling into enemy hands and being used against the Allies.  The troops ended up being stationed about 400 miles southeast of Murmansk at Arkhangelsk (Archangel), across the White Sea.  Morale in the Polar Bear Division was low, especially as the war ended and most of the American troops in Europe were sent home.  As well, the Influenza Epidemic hit.  The climate was severe, and there appeared to be no hope of going home.  They were forgotten.  It took a literal Act of Congress to bring home the 85th Division.  They arrived back in Detroit in December 1919.

There is a museum in Michigan that houses the Polar Bear Division’s memorabilia; a few years ago, my grandfather Bob Robbins donated one of his father's uniforms and war-time memorabilia to this museum (the other uniforms were gone – cut down to fit Bill’s sons during the Depression, when money for new clothes was scarce).  I remember that Bill had a little polar bear statue that ended up in front of my grandfather’s house in Coopersville, Ottawa County, Michigan – this was a birthday gift to him from my grandfather.

During the course of World War I, Bill was gassed (while in the trenches?) and never quite recovered his health.

Several stories of Bill’s war days have come down to us.  One was that during his time in Russia, it was so cold that the soldiers had to light small bonfires to keep warm.  They would drag snow-covered logs over near the fire on which to sit while they warmed themselves.  When spring came, at least one “log” turned out to be a frozen corpse.

Another time, Bill fell ill, possibly during the great Influenza Epidemic, but refused to go to the infirmary, knowing that under the contagious conditions there, he would probably not survive.

While in Germany, he came into a sum of German money – whether he found it, or was paid it, I don’t know.  This was at or after the end of the war, when the German government had printed up money that was worth less than the paper it was printed on.  Men who worked at the factories would be paid several times a day, because the value of the money would deteriorate hourly.  Their wives would wait outside the fences, so that during their breaks, the men could run outside with bags or barrels of the worthless money to hand to them so they could go stand in bread lines just to buy a loaf of bread.  Bill found a little old lady sweeping the street, and handed over to her all the German money he had.  She hugged him and wept; she was probably starving.  Who knows if it was even enough to buy her a little bit of food?

My favorite story is the one where Bill and his Army buddy were in London, seeing the sights. There was a commotion on the streets, and someone called out, “The King is coming!”  People started bowing and curtsying as the carriage approached.  Bill and his buddy were Americans, and knew that we do not bow down before any monarch.  But they did wish to show their respect for the political and military leader of their ally, and they were dressed in uniform.  As the carriage started to pass, they smartly saluted.  King George V, grandfather of the present monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, leaned out of his carriage to return the salute of the two young American soldiers.

Back in Michigan, Bill had driven a taxi before his military service.  One day in 1917, he drove a young woman to the funeral of her grandfather.  Her name was Marie Lewis; during the war, they corresponded.  On Christmas Day 1919, within days of Bill's return from Russia, they were married at Marie’s parents’ home at 1132 Hoyt Street in Muskegon Heights, Muskegon County, Michigan.  They lived there with Marie’s family for some time.  When the census taker came around in June of 1920, the house was filled to the gills with Bill and Marie, her parents and seven of her siblings.  At this time, Bill was working as a millwright in a local foundry.

Eventually, Bill and Marie had five children, three sons and two daughters.  They lived nextBill Robbins with two eldest sons, 1924 door to Marie's parents in Muskegon Heights.  Then, for a while, they lived in the City of Muskegon.  In 1930, they were living on East Broadway in Norton Township.  During this time, Bill was involved as a school board member for the Norton Township school district.  He helped to start up what today would be called a parent-teacher association.  Parent-potluck dinners were held in the school basement.  Everyone had to contribute a nickel in a raffle-style drawing for a bag of groceries.  The very first time they had the drawing, he won!  He wouldn't accept the prize and insisted another name be drawn.  The money was used for school equipment and other needs, such as a merry-go-round for the playground.  Another item was something Bill was instrumental in obtaining: an early version of a "water cooler" for the school with paper cups to drink out of, instead of a communal dipper and bucket which were definitely unsanitary.

Because of Bill’s poor health, his oldest son, Bob (my grandfather), left school after the eighth grade to help support the family.  These were the Depression Days, and hard times for everyone.  Bob got a job as a telegraph boy for Western Union.  With Bill's Bonus money (from the war), he bought a bicycle for Bob which was used for delivering telegrams.  One day Bob got badly bitten by a dog on one of his delivery routes, and came home so Marie could patch him up (they couldn’t afford a doctor in those days).  Bill was livid when he got home; he promptly got out his old Army service revolver, went over to the house, and shot the dog dead.  When the owner came out screaming, “What are you doing?  You shot my dog!”, Bill looked him in the eye and said, “It wasn’t that long ago that I was shooting people!”

Bill Robbins, 1957By 1942, the family was living in Coopersville, Ottawa County, Michigan.  After some time, Bill and Marie bought a farm called “Five Acres” near Conklin, Ottawa County, Michigan.  This farm had an artesian well, as did the school house across the street; both wells had eight-inch pipes with water flowing out of them like a water main.  Later on, Bill and Marie lived in a house in the town of Conklin.  All three sons served during World War II; the youngest in the Navy and the other two in the Army.  One of the sons who served in the Army during World War II also served in the Korean and Vietnam Conflicts.

Bill worked his later years at Robbins Body Shop in Coopersville, owned by his son Bob.  His work coveralls had "Dad" on the name patch.  Bill would spin yarns with the customers, and with Bob's family during lunch hour.

On 6 August 1972, Bill passed away in a hospital in Grand Rapids, Kent County, Michigan.  I remember traveling to Michigan with my parents, so that they could attend his funeral – this was held 9 August 1972.  Bill was buried in the Coopersville Cemetery, Polkton Township, Ottawa County, Michigan. (obituary)

Bill Robbins's grave, Coopersville Cemetery

There is also a U.S. Veterans marker posted next to the grave.  His wife Marie is buried next to him, and at the foot of their graves is a large family stone with the inscription:  ROBBINS.

Deceased Children:

Robert Lewis Robbins - my paternal grandfather

Shirley Marie Robbins was born 14 Aug 1925 in Muskegon, Muskegon County, Michigan.  Shirley owned an antique store in Sawyer, Michigan; her apartment was upstairs, and had beautiful woodwork.  My parents, siblings, and I visited her in 1979 at this home.  She had some antique furniture in her home that had been made by her maternal grandfather, George Emmett Lewis.  The building Shirley lived in had at one time been owned by gangster Al Capone, who owned a lot of property along Lake Michigan, which he used as hideouts; possibly they were used to store the illegal liquor he smuggled from Canada during Prohibition.  Shirley died 17 February 1992, of cancer, in Diana, Harrison County, Texas.  She was buried in Colleyville, Texas.  She had been married and had a son and step-daughter.

More about my great-grandfather, William Bryan Robbins, can be found in the AnceStories of his parents, Angelo Merrick Robbins, Sr. and Mary May Kimball, his wife Marie Lewis. and his son Robert Lewis Robbins..

Many thanks to Grandpa and Dad for passing down the family stories, to Aunt Cathy for taking me to the cemetery, and to Aunt Louise for helping me access the Robbins scrapbook.

Top photo: Bill Robbins, 1917.  Second photo: Polar Bears Division Reunion Ribbon, 1936.  Third photo: Bill Robbins and sons, c. 1924.  Fourth photo: Bill Robbins, 1957.  Last photo: Bill Robbins' headstone, Coopersville Cemetery, 2002.  Photos courtesy of Bob Robbins, except for the cemetery photo, taken by yours truly.

Miriam Robbins Midkiff
created: 29 Dec 2003
updated: 17 Aug 2006

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