St. Louis area entrepreneur Don Robinson died last month, leaving 843 acres of land to Missouri—the same size as New York's Central Park.
South west of St. Louis, at the end of a winding road, there’s a house perched on top of a hill. It’s covered in ivy and looks old fashioned. All you can see in every direction are hill-covered trees. This is where Don Robinson lived. And all that land? It was his.
Though Robinson grew up in an affluent community in University City, it was the depression. His father was a lawyer, who friends say he lost his money in the stock market, forcing the family to take in boarders.
It very well could have been this upbringing that triggered Robinson’s entrepreneurial spirit.
While he developed a handful of products, Robinson was best known for, Off, a stain remover that he created in the early 1950s and advertised on late-night television.
Neighbor Nancy Rice met Robinson through her husband about 12 years ago. She sums him up this way:
“He was a conglomeration of every weird off the wall thing that you’ve ever dreamt about or seen and every nice thing all at the same time.”
Robinson was a lifelong bachelor and often depended on the kindness of his friends and neighbors. Rice and her husband often looked in on Robinson over the years: she would drive him to the store if he needed something, her husband would go over and help out around the house. Robinson would contact Rice several times a day, frequently around mealtimes.
"I'd see him on the caller ID and I'm like, 'oh I know what's coming.' He'd say, 'Madame, what delectable morsels might you be cooking this evening?' And if I didn't feel like having company I'd say something like, 'chicken and dumplings' because he hated chicken and dumplings. Cause I cooked for him all the time I knew everything he liked and everything he didn't like.”
Frank Curotto met Robinson working odd jobs for him on college summer breaks. This was in the 1970s. The two stayed in touch over the years and Curotto eventually became his trustee. Curotto described Robinson as, “weird and eccentric and extremely frugal and people liked him because he was weird and eccentric.”
Robinson could also come across as crotchety. Often this was part of an act say some friends, including Don Salamane, a neighbor who met Robinson over 40 years ago, grew up playing on Robinson's land and has since taken over the Off brand. In fact, Robinson could be generous, he would help friends invest in a project or loan them money to buy a house.
Salamane explained: “He did things in return is what a lot of people don’t realize. He always had something for the underdog.”
Despite his success in business, and his occasional generosity, Robinson chose to live more simply; cheap would be an understatement.
“He would spend like $2.50 a year on his wardrobe,” said Rice.
“His clothing, if you looked at him you would think he was homeless. His shoes were falling apart. That was the look he wanted,” added Curotto.
Friends say Robinson wore things past the falling apart stage. Shirts were threadbare, sweaters had holes, shoes were held together with duct tape. And that’s just his clothes.
Robinson's house was only headed upstairs, in the bedroom where he slept. He referred to this area as "the comfort zone." How cold was it? “In the wintertime it was so cold in the kitchen that the thermostat wouldn’t kick on because it was colder outside than it was on the inside,” said Rice.
It wasn’t just limited to his house and clothes. Rice said Robinson’s motto was “anything for free.”
Whether it was a car tune up or going out to eat, Robinson hoped for freebies, but would settle for a discount.
“We had a grocery store close to our house burn down," said Rice. "And he got permission and went down through the rubble and pulled out every burned-up piece of canned good that there was. He had boxes and boxes of canned goods stacked up. He didn’t know what he was going to eat until he opened it that night."
So how did someone so cheap amass 843 acres?
“He wanted to be a land baron," said Curotto. "He thought it was a good investment. Don was interested in money because of the things you could do with it. He had tons of projects going and his life was an unfinished project. That’s because he enjoyed the journey a lot more than the destination and he loved the journey of buying the land.”
Even if that journey meant persisting where other people might balk.
“He would show up at people’s funerals with a contract, ‘well now what are you going to do with Grandma’s property?’ and he would show up at the wake. But he would eventually most of the time buy the property from those people. He said if it takes me 25 years I’ll wear them down and he meant it,” said Rice.
But this is more than a large portion of land—it’s unparalleled said Director of Missouri State Parks Bill Bryan.
“It’s just a place where people can experience biological richness in a small area that you can’t find literally anywhere else”
By richness Bryan means the sheer number of species found on the land: over 500 kinds of plants, plus another 150 bryophytes which are things like ferns and mosses and 50 types of fish. And new species are still being discovered.
One reason why is because the land is in the upper watershed of LaBarque Creek, a conservation area that has remained relatively undisturbed. Plus new species of plants are still being discovered.
I meet up with Bob Coffing, director of the LaBarque Stream Team Association, for a tour of what will be Missouri’s 87th state park. Since I was only able to spend an hour with Coffing, what I saw was just a small sliver of the land.
Coffing’s here every Thursday to do habitat restoration. His work involves removing invasive species and creating dams to ease erosion.
We start by heading down the hill, Coffing marching ahead pointing out notable plant life with his walking stick. Bright green sumac rises above our knees. The topography changes as we get lower and where there’s a gorge at the bottom.The land looks pretty unremarkable, woody with stony ridges, but it’s the plant and animal life that make it interesting.
Right now the Missouri Department of Conservation is inventorying what’s on the property, said Bryan. In the next month or so they’ll be reaching out to the public, including Robinson’s friends and neighbors, about what they’d like to see the park become.
“He’s really proud of the fact that it’s going to be Don Robinson State Park," said Curotto. "He did that and that’s a project that he finished. He’s done what needed to be done so that we would all know that he finished the project.”
Robinson died at the age of 84 at the Pacific Care Center in Pacific Missouri.