Mo. man to donate property the size of Central Park

Sunday, October 26, 2008

CEDAR HILL, Mo. -- A long, bumpy road leads through the woods to Don Robinson's unfinished house, where he lives in conditions he calls a step above camping.

Wearing dirty sneakers, worn corduroys and a shirt with visible holes, Robinson doesn't look like a man who owns hundreds of acres of rustic property here. But he does. And he has made arrangements to donate a piece of land as large as New York's Central Park to create a new Missouri state park.

Robinson -- who when asked his age says, "I'm not going to tell you, but in 19 years, I'll be 100" -- will turn at least 843 acres of his land over to Missouri's Department of Natural Resources after his death, along with a trust fund to help maintain the property.

The Department of Natural Resources hasn't had a land donation as large as Robinson's with money to support it in the 25 years spokeswoman Sue Holst has been with the department.

Both Robinson and the state want to keep the land unspoiled.

"We don't anticipate a lot of development here," said Holst, explaining it isn't expected to become a campground or have a big visitors' center.

Self-made businessman

Robinson, who never married and doesn't have children, said he didn't want to leave his land to "melonheads" or let it get overrun.

"You've got to have somebody here, or they'll turn it into a dirt bike track," he said.

The self-made businessman grew up in suburban St. Louis. He earned money producing and marketing Off household cleaner, then developing three subdivisions.

The small, wooden-shingled house where he has lived since 1964 has rough stone floors, more than a few cobwebs and few of what most people would consider creature comforts. One room holds his bed, a few mismatched chairs and a desk.

Scaffolding, along with uncompleted renovation projects, are around his house and yard. Partially built concrete arches stand next to his now empty in-ground swimming pool, which local children occasionally use for skateboarding.

If his lodging is Spartan, his view is not. His land could become a hiker's paradise. Sunlight cascades through trees that look like they've been lit on fire by autumn.

'Wild and wooly'

Robinson likes the howl of the coyotes at night, the call of crows that wake him in the morning. He doesn't approach nature from a particularly scientific viewpoint, but he has talked to enough who do to realize his land holds deep appeal to them.

The land that Robinson describes as "wild and wooly" includes sandstone canyons, cliffs, glades and forests with more than 300 species of plants.

Robinson said he doesn't know what his donation is worth, and those who know him say they can't imagine he cares. Tom Pounders, 48, of Denver, used to work summers for Robinson helping to make the Off cleaner.

He described Robinson as "somewhat eccentric," as well as witty and easygoing.

"He doesn't think material objects are important," Pounders said, recalling that Robinson wore the same cutoffs repeatedly during the summer and that he once repaired a broken tennis shoe with a spare tire.

Pounders and other young people would camp and swim on Robinson's property.

"To go up to his place was just an escape. It was like paradise to us," Pounders said.

Conserving the land

Robinson's neighbor, Bob Coffing, said efforts spanned more than a decade to encourage Robinson to allow conservation of the land. "I can't overemphasize the high quality and diversity of this area," Coffing said.

Robinson does have a wish for his land. "I think it should be the Don Robinson State Park, not the Robinson State Park. There's a lot of Robinsons, but only one me," he said.

Plus, he said, it's a nice enough donation that he thinks people could remember to use his full name down the road.

"I think I should get a couple of brownie points."

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