The initial construction phase is about to begin on a new 843-acre state park in Jefferson County, Mo. The visitor entrance will be from Byrnesville Road.
Trails will be developed through the area, including an ADA-accessible trail. Water, sewer, electric and public restrooms will, of course, be built. The park will be called the Don Robinson State Park.
It all started with Don Robinson, who was an incredibly interesting character. A self-made man of means, he chose to live his life simply without the material possessions most of us think we can’t live without.
Robinson lived in a one-bedroom home with a dirt-and-stone floor. When visiting him in 2000, Missouri Parks Association board member Kally Coleman was all set to remove her muddy boots at his door. When the door opened, she saw that the floor was the “same dirt hilltop” she had been standing on outside. The only room in the house that was heated was his second floor bedroom.
The stories about his frugality, or miserliness as some would call it, are legend. It is said that he once combed through the rubble of a grocery store that had burned, picking up cans with no labels. When he was ready to make a meal, he had no idea what he was going to be eating until he opened the can.
What he ate, wore, or drove just wasn’t important to him. Anyone meeting Robinson on the street would have believed the man didn’t have a nickel to his name. Such was not the case. He was the son of an attorney and, like everyone else, the family had struggled during the Great Depression which might have contributed to his frugality.
He never married and told people he had never held a “real job.” He bought the rights to the well-known “Off” laundry stain remover, then produced and marketed the product himself, thus ensuring his financial future.
Always a proponent of conservation, Robinson fell in love with the Jefferson County property in 1964 when he bought a 320-acre parcel there. A farmer neighbor told him, “All you can raise up there is hell.”
Robinson wasn’t interested in farming the land. He said it was hilly and rough and he liked it. He described the land as “prehistoric.”
He continued to add to his holdings until he owned 843 contiguous acres, which as he often stated, was exactly the same size as the 843-acre Central Park in New York City.
When asked why he had continued to buy land, he said, “I didn’t want to have neighbors for God’s sake.”
It was Robinson’s dream that his land be preserved in its natural state for the public to enjoy.
In 1978 Robinson, who had been living in Kirkwood, moved to his rural paradise. The roads on the property were muddy and not worthy of the name. The best way to see the land was to hike up and down the hills and bluffs.
Robinson died at the Pacific Care Center of congestive heart failure at age 84 on March 19, 2012. He left his land to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
In 2009, Robinson was featured on KETC’s Living St. Louis. He was asked why he was leaving this legacy to the Missouri State Parks system and his response was, “I had to do something about it or else my melon-head cousins from out of nowhere would come out of the woodwork and sell the joint over a weekend or something.”
He did not want to see the property turned into trailer parks and subdivisions. He wanted it to remain unchanged.
Don Robinson’s story can be seen on YouTube. Just go to YouTube.com and key in, “Don Robinson.” It will be the first “hit” that comes up.
The property, valued at more than $5 million, is located 38 miles southwest of St. Louis or 10 minutes south of Pacific. The land, comprised of deep sandstone hollows, is in the upper watershed of LeBarque Creek, a more-or-less undisturbed space inhabited by over 700 species of plants, 44 species of fish, and 158 bryophytes, including 106 varieties of moss.
The challenge now facing the Missouri State Parks system is to develop a park where visitors can see the unique ecology, but where the delicate landscape can be protected from damage.
In addition to the Jefferson County property, Robinson owned a 19th century hotel in nearby Pacific, which the city eventually forced him to have demolished. Pacific resident Neil Brennan, now 91 years old, recalls that Don Robinson was a tall, thin fellow who dressed sloppy.
Another Pacific resident, Vicki Leah, recalls that Robinson was always upbeat and was an exceptionally intelligent man. She recalls that he was knowledgeable about world affairs and could carry on a conversation about anything.
This amazing man has left a wonderful legacy to the citizens of Missouri – a place that will be visited by people from far and near.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to Don Robinson.
By Sue Blesi
(Sue Blesi is a staff writer for the River Hills Traveler. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)