As Year of the Park continues, we will be documenting every park in Champaign, Urbana, and Savoy, Champaign County Forest Preserves, along with other odds and ends between July 2020 and more like August or September 2021. You can see what has been covered thus far by clicking here. If you have suggestions or ideas or feedback, feel free to contact us at [email protected].

NAME

Robeson Park

LOCATION

1984 S Duncan Rd, Champaign

The Robeson Park sign Photo by Maddie Rice. 

HISTORY AND FEATURES

The name Robeson is synonymous with the history of the City of Champaign. It is ubiquitous to anyone who has lived here over the past century plus, and while this article will not detail all of the reasons why, it is worth it for me that I should mention Robeson*s Department Store (yes, that asterisk is there for a reason) here first. Same people, obviously.

It was a monument to retail in this city and in this area. Travelers from a fairly broad radius would make the trek here just to spend a day browsing and shopping, having a bite to eat, and if it were Christmastime, you'd have thought you were at Marshall Field's in Chicago or Macy's in New York City. It was a classic, timeless spot. 

the front cover of Remembering Robesons Provided image from the book cover of Remembering Robeson*s.

My memories of it are vague, in that I was just ten years old when it shuttered, and I am quite certain that some of that magnificent veneer, its halcyon days, had worn off by then. After having to fight against the malls and an expanding base of retail options since the 1950s, an actual and literal mom and pop department store didn't stand much of a chance, particularly in a Downtown that had gone belly up, essentially.

But when it closed, it literally made national news. Oh sure, Bill Geist, who grew up and went to school here is the reason it got that airtime, but nevertheless, it was well deserved. It was believed to be one of the last remaining independent department stores in the country when it finally closed after 116 years. 

This is a great watch: 

The history of Robeson Park is detailed well in Remembering Robeson*s, the book cover that is featured in the above image. It is an expansive history of the family, the store, and the philanthropic efforts that Frank K., Roby, and Kyle and his wife, Phyllis, put forth into the City of Champaign. 

Kyle Robeson passed just last month at the age of 91, and this little piece on Robeson Park is certainly dedicated to his honor. I didn't know the man, only met him once accidentally, but his children, Eric and Kim, are two of the kindest, and most generous folks you might meet here in Champaign-Urbana. Legitimately, if you try even a little bit, you can know people here in Champaign-Urbana. If you were to meet them, you would agree: nicest damn people and genuine as all get up. They, too, are continuing the tradition of meeting community needs through donorship and philanthropy in many ways across many verticals here in Champaign-Urbana. Good deeds don't go unnoticed here at Year of the Park! 

I asked them to share a bit about the founding of the park, and they provided some choice bits from the book, and I'll share that here: 

The park was a memorial gift in honor of our (Kim/my) great grandfather, F. K. Robeson Sr. (who founded Robeson*s Department Store).  The gift of 27.5 acres for the park was made in 1973 by our grandparents (Frank/Ethel Robeson) and parents (Kyle/Phyllis) initially to CCDC (Champaign County Design & Conservation Foundation).  After holding the land for a time, CCDC transferred ownership to the park district (as was the intention).  That land, as well as the land donated to the school district for Robeson Elementary School, was originally purchased by F. K. Robeson Sr. in 1906.  The idea of the park was to have an additional play area for students of Robeson School and a recreation area for residents of West Champaign.  There was also an additional donation of part of that land to the McKinley Family YMCA for their gymnastics facility.  Later, in 1980, Kyle donated land that would become part of the Roby Recreational Trail, a bicycle/pedestrian trail that extends from Robeson Park all the way to Mattis Ave.

Robeson Park sort of has it all as far as a neighborhood space: wide open fields, walking paths, baseball and soccer fields, an elementary school(!), a big playground with sandboxes, the Roby Trail, which works for both walking and biking and is a mile and a half long. 

a wide open field in Robeson Park Photo by Maddie Rice. 

Look at that open field! You can do mushrooms in this field and feel really relaxed. I know this because I did mushrooms in this field and felt very relaxed, back in the 1990s when I thought it was a fine way to spend a day. And it is a fine way to spend a day if you are right in the brain and feeling well. Things were well at the time.

Piece of advice: do not eat mushrooms if things are not very well in your life unless you are doing it for particular reasons, and with a trusted guide. What? You don't think a bad trip can't happen to you? Try going to a high school basketball game on mushrooms and seeing your Dean staring at you like you were the Son of Sam. That's not a good thing. I wasn't well then. But I put myself in that position by choosing to eat mushrooms and try to go hang out at a high energy high school basketball game with authority figures and police officers present. 

This was a very bad decision. It took me some time to get over that particular trip. I went home and tried to do normal things, like watch Star Trek, but the damn Klingons kept melting on me, and then when I would get up to sort my head out, my fingers felt long, and then they felt short, and I was convinced I would be tripping for the rest of my life. I ended up calling my Mom who was in Chicago and while I didn't tell her I was booming on mushrooms, her calm voice brought me back to a good place. I put on Meddle by Pink Floyd and dreamt of some very weird shit, and didn't eat mushrooms for a long time. 

Anyhow, Robeson Park is a place to be well and do mushrooms, but honestly, you can and should also be sober as a judge when you come to enjoy this park. You do not need drugs to enjoy most of what life has to offer. This is optimal, and you can and should have a lovely day at Robeson Park and soon! 

Look at this heartwarming photo right below here of Kyle and Phyllis Robeson on a tandem bike. Seems like things were well for them then too. They are not on mushrooms here, trust me. Sometimes, you just need your partner on a bike, next to you, in love with you. That will make anyone well. 

By all accounts, these two were sweethearts from start to finish. Gosh, that looks like love to me. Look at those smiles! 

a man and woman couple on a tandem bicycle in black and white Photo provided by Kim and Eric Robeson. 

Here is a picture of that same trail today in 2021. And that lil bridge! Woosh, that is truly some idyllic stuff right there. I love it! 

a small wooden bridge over a stream in robeson park

Photo by Maddie Rice.

ASSESSMENT

I do not know that there is a sufficient way for me to rundown the best and worst parks in this community that is going to satisfy everyone, or even myself, once it comes time to do it. I am gonna do it! In like, September or so. Dohme Park will be very low on the list. Carle Park will be very high on the list. Hessel Park: high. Skelton Park: low.

I grew up in Urbana, so I am partial to Urbana parks, because I have a sentimental attachment to them in a way that I simply do not with Champaign parks. But I can state with absolute certainty that Robeson Park will make the Top Ten, if not higher. 

a rock in a park with an emblem on it Photo by Maddie Rice. 

I think what I love the most is the simple idea that a merchant like F.K. Robeson, and his family who came after him, when developing the land acquired during their decades of success, made it a point to carve out such a massive space to enjoy for the people who built homes on these tracts of land. 

I've sort of written this before, but it bears repeating here. To develop neighborhoods in this community, or in any community, the requirement for land donation towards green space, and the financial commitment to not only keep it up, but grow it and sustain it, should be not just required but celebrated. I do not think the city planners of the past did enough of this. I think we are headed in a better direction now. But still, probably not enough. 

We've lost some things along the way here in Champaign, and in America, in general. A simple trip to any pueblo in Mexico will showcase that for you. 

Needless to say, I love this park, and I am grateful to the family for all they've brought to the City of Champaign. 

Top image provided by Eric and Kim Robeson.