St. Paul Park's Alice Robinson named Preservationist of the Year
Most people set out to make a name for themselves by carving their own path in life. However, longtime St. Paul Park resident Alice Robinson is looking to her past to help define who she is today.
While working at the South Washington Heritage Society since its inception in 1997, Robinson helped chronicle the history of the county and helped many families trace their roots as well as discovering where she came from. Informally dubbed the county historian, Robinson has been named the society’s Historic Preservationist of the Year.
Born in Newport during the heart of the Great Depression, Robinson always knew where her ancestors were from. Some were French, others Swedish, and a few were Native American. But it wasn’t until she was in her late teens that her family's lineage and love of history would begin to take shape.
“I worked at the Minnesota Historical Society in 1949. I was only 19 years old and was shocked that they would hire someone as young as me,” she said. “I would do research for some of the editors and catalog items that would come in. One day while I was doing some work I came across my family name, LaBathe.”
Francois LaBathe, it turned out, was a French fur trader, the son of a young Mdewakanton Sioux woman and lived during the 1800s. He was also a prominent figure in the Dakota War of 1862, also referred to as the Sioux Uprising. Francois LaBathe was Robinson’s great-great-great grandfather.
“After that, I thought that I’ve just got to find out who this man was,” she said.
Robinson eventually married, had children and moved to Davenport, Iowa, for several years before settling back in St. Paul Park in the late 1960s, all the while she continued to think about her family tree.
On and off for the next three decades, she traced her lineage back to that fur trading post and found LaBathe was one of the earliest settlers in what is now Prairie du Chien, a rivertown in southwest Wisconsin. She was able to track down information that verified that LaBathe was present for many historic moments such as the signing of the Treaty of 1837 and the signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851 and was close friends with pioneers Alexander Faribault, Henry Sibley and Alexis Bailey.
“It was just one clue after the other,” Robinson said. “I think I was supposed to find this stuff and I’m sure there is still a lot more out there.”
Passion for research
When the South Washington Heritage Society opened its doors in 1997, Robinson was headlong into her own research when she was asked to become a volunteer. She declined at first, citing a heavy workload with her own family tree, but eventually accepted the invitation.
“Phyllis Jones, who was a judge on Grey Cloud Island, called me and said that I’ve got to be part of this organization,” Robinson explained. “I ended up being the secretary and then the president.”
Reluctant to be in a leadership role, Robinson said her passion was in the research and planning events. It is because of her hard work that there are placards with family information scattered throughout Grey Cloud Island cemetery.
“If someone who hasn’t been here for awhile comes down to the cemetery and wants to know more about their family, the placards tell their stories,” she said. “They can talk about their relatives while looking at their grave.”
Robinson is also a driving force behind the visits to other historical societies, monthly presentations and detailed exhibits at the history center at St. Paul Park City Hall.
The LaBathe Family History also debuted at the society last month, a culmination of years of research.
“I think it’s important and makes you feel good to know where your people came from,” Robinson said. “It’s interesting to find information and photos and see just how hard they must have worked to create a life in a land that was once foreign to them.”
Herb Reckinger, the society’s current president and longtime supporter of Robinson’s efforts, expressed his excitement in bestowing upon her the recognition, saying the organization would not be the same without her.
“Her knowledge of Minnesota history is vast, and her expertise in our part of the county is unique,” Reckinger said. “When someone calls city hall for some aspect of local history or one of us in the society, you can bet that the caller will end up talking with Alice, who always seems to have some information for them. Every little historical group in this country should have an Alice.”
“It’s just a pleasure to be honored and I am so proud of the society that we have here,” Robinson added. “I think there are hidden gems and stories everywhere in our community that people need to know about. It’s fun to learn about your past and what your history is. The minute you learn about yours, you’ll only want to know more.”