Long was born December 17, 1850, in Shelbyville, Kentucky, one of nine children born to Samuel M. Long and Margaret Kinkead White. His mother was a cousin of Joseph Clay Stiles Blackburn and Luke P. Blackburn. Three of Long's older brothers, Thomas, E. S. and Belvard, served in the American Civil War but Robert was too young.
Long moved to Columbus, Kansas in 1873 where his uncle, C. J. White, was a banker. In 1874, Long met 19-year-old Martha Ellen Wilson. She was a Quaker and became a school teacher. After a year of courtship the two were married December 16, 1876. A son lived only a few weeks but the couple had two daughters. In 1879, Sally America Long (Ellis) was born, and in 1881 their youngest daughter, Loula Long (Combs) (d. 1971) was born. Long started a hay bale company along his cousin Robert White and a friend, Victor B. Bell; the hay venture failed but the three were able to sell the lumber from the hay sheds. Seeing that lumber was in demand they order more lumber. Business was good and the partners opened more yards. In 1877 the youngest partner, Robert White, died and the remaining partners bought out his share. Robert and Victor formed the Long-Bell Lumber Company in Columbus, Kansas.
While in Columbus he bought 1,520 acres (620 ha) and developed a profitable coal mine with two shafts at Stone City. The location exist only on historical maps, as the town no longer exists today, but was just east of NW 40th street south of the junction of NW Meir road, which is northwest of Columbus.
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