New State Park the Gift of Don Robinson

by Kally Coleman, MPA Board

I first met Don Robinson in March 2000, after a late winter storm had blanketed his property with snow. After several hours exploring sandstone canyons, glades and deep hollows with his long-time friend, John Higgins, we made our way back to the house for proper introductions. As I began to take off my muddy boots so as not to track the floor, John opened the door to reveal the ‘floor’ was the same dirt hilltop I was standing on outside. It was at that moment I realized Don was as unique as his 843 acres.

On March 19, 2012, Don died of congestive heart failure, leaving his magnificent property to the Department of Natural Resources to become Missouri’s newest state park. "I think it should be the Don Robinson State Park, not the Robinson State Park," he had told an interviewer in 2008. "There's a lot of Robinsons, but only one me." With prices for undeveloped land in the area averaging more than $6,000 per acre, the estimated value of the donated land is more than $5 million. State Park Director Bill Bryan notes this is among the largest gifts in the 95-year history of the state park system.

It all started in the 1960s when Don fell in love with a small piece of land he found near Cedar Hill in Jefferson County. With a small fortune from producing, marketing and selling a spot remover called “Off,” he was able to continue buying adjoining parcels until his property equaled the exact size of New York City's famed Central Park. This was an intentional decision in which he took pride.

But it is more than just a Central Park-sized tract of land. In Bill Bryan's view, it’s unparalleled. “It’s just a place where people can experience biological richness in a small area that you can’t find literally anywhere else." The park is situated in the upper watershed of LaBarque Creek, a relatively undisturbed watershed close to St. Louis that has attracted increasing attention for conservation. More than 700 species of plants, 158 bryophytes, and 44 species of fish have been identified in the watershed.

State park staff and volunteers are currently inventorying what’s on the property. In the next few months they’ll be reaching out to the public, including Robinson’s friends and neighbors, about what they’d like to see the park become. Robinson also left a portion of his estate, including a small amount of cash and some additional tracts of land, to the Missouri State Park Foundation to defray development, operation and maintenance of the park.

In true Don Robinson fashion, when asked in a 2009 segment on KETC’s Living St. Louis why he decided to leave his home to the state park system, he responded “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.”

Battle of Island Mound Site Dedicated in October 2012

The Battle of Island Mound State Historic Site, the newest addition to the Missouri state park system, was dedicated October 27 during a sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War battle on the Missouri-Kansas border.  The 1862 battle marked an important—though long overlooked—milestone in American history, the first time that African-American troops experienced combat during the Civil War.

Most Civil War buffs, including a good many historians, have long thought that this distinction fell to the men of the 54th Massachusetts, whose July 1863 attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, was made famous by the film Glory.  That assault, however, came eight months after the First Kansas Colored Volunteers dispersed a band of pro-Confederate guerrillas in a brief but furious engagement in Missouri.

The organization of the First Kansas Colored Volunteers marked a fateful turn in the long, bloody struggle over slavery along the Missouri-Kansas border.  Commissioned by controversial Kansas Senator James Lane, the regiment consisted of nearly 500 recruits.  Its African-American members included a small number of free blacks and Cherokee-owned slaves.  Most recruits had only recently escaped from slavery in Missouri and Arkansas; some volunteers had been liberated by Lane’s own Jayhawker brigade just a year earlier.   The regiment’s Company D, led by William D. Matthews and Patrick Minor, was perhaps the first American unit to be led by African-American officers.

Union officers sent the First Kansas Colored into Bates County, Missouri, in late October with orders to clear out a gang of guerrillas that had taken refuge at Hog Island, a brushy mound along the Marais des Cygnes River.   The Kansans commandeered the home of Enoch Toothman, just north of the river, and dubbed their new position “Fort Africa.”   Two days later—on October 29, 1862—a diversion force clashed with mounted guerrillas as a foraging party left to find corn meal and salt.  The Missourians set fire to the tallgrass prairie, and advancing Kansas forces were soon overtaken by guerrillas on horseback.  The ensuing skirmish was marked by fierce hand-to-hand combat and resulted in nineteen casualties, including eight deaths, for the Kansans and an unknown number for the guerrillas, who abandoned several horses and nearly a hundred cattle in their retreat.

The tenacity of the First Kansas Colored Volunteers challenged assumptions among many southern whites about the fighting abilities of former slaves.  Days later after the skirmish, guerrilla Bill Turman reportedly told friends, “Those black devils fought like tigers.”  In January 1863, the Kansans were mustered into federal service, joining more than 170,000 African-Americans who would eventually fight for the Union army.  By war’s end, the service of these veterans proved to be a critical factor in their push to gain the ballot and other civil rights.

Battle of Island Mound State Historic Site is located nine miles from the town of Butler, just west of Interstate 49/U. S. Highway 71.

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