Volume 30, No. 1 | May 2012
New State Park the Gift of Don Robinson
by Kally Coleman
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.”
MPA to Celebrate 30th Anniversary in Ste. Genevieve
Plan now to attend the 30th anniversary celebration of the Missouri Parks Association September 28-30 in Ste. Genevieve. The gathering will include behindthe- scenes field trips Friday, Saturday, and perhaps Sunday afternoons, the annual state-of-the-parks address and panel Saturday morning, receptions and dinners Friday and Saturday evenings, and the annual member and board meetings Sunday morning. Watch for more details in the next Heritage later this summer.
Meanwhile, mark September 28-30 on your calendar and book your accommodations now, as rooms in Ste. Genevieve fill quickly. A limited block of rooms has been reserved for MPA at the Ste. Genevieve Microtel: phone 573- 883-8884 and ask to book a room in the MPA block. Rooms are also available at the nearby Triangle Inn Motel (573-883-7191) near the junction of highways 61 and 32 and at the modest Ste. Genevieve Hotel and several upscale B&Bs in the heart of the historic district. Camping is available at Hawn State Park 15 miles west on Highway 32.
MPA Employees of the Year
MPA honored five park employees for their exemplary service to state parks during a staff gathering at Camp Bobwhite in Knob Noster State Park April 23. Awardees are selected by a committee of the MPA board.
Courtney White, senior support assistant at Meramec, has been called "the heart and soul of the park" for her willingness to help other staff and the public whenever needed not only in the office but outdoors and in other parks as well. Because of her knack for working out the bugs, Meramec has become a pilot park for trying out and improving new systems. Courtney was honored in the field category.
Mark Kunkel of Big Lake State Park was honored in the park maintenance category for rising above and beyond the challenge when his park was devastated by floods two years in a row. With his intimate knowledge of the area and multiple skills, he provided invaluable aid to the Highway Patrol in their weeks-long search for a trooper and his K-9 partner who were swept away by the flood. And while his park was closed by floodwaters, he also supervised seasonal crews and Youth Corps workers at Weston Bend.
Donna Rausch, currently acting site administrator at Felix Valle SHS in Ste. Genevieve, was honored in the interpreter category for her outstanding leadership in coordinating the State Park Youth Corps program at the site. She discovered talented artists, writers, organizers, historic costumers and dancers among her young charges, and put their hidden talents to work for the benefit of the site, the public, and the youths themselves.
In the central office, Loretta Bittle was honored for her work as merchandise manager in the Facilities and Visitor Services Program. With her good instincts and imagination she has introduced new product lines, fashion friendly clothing, and other items sought by park visitors. And with her cheerful demeanor she is able to juggle a multitude of phone calls, emails, and projects, winning the respect of her co-workers.
Prairie State Park facility head Brian Miller juggled two demanding jobs after a tornado devastated a large swath of Joplin, including several city parks. In addition to managing bison and elk roundups and vaccinations and overseeing prescribed burns on the prairie, not to mention other daily responsibilities, he trained, scheduled, equipped, and supervised a special State Park Youth Corps crew assigned to help Joplin clean up and replant in the wake of the tornado.
Legislature Ends with a Whimper
The 2012 legislative session ended May 18 with a whimper—for state parks and most other issues as well—as predicted for this highly polarized election year. Though the state park budget, funded by park earnings and half of the dedicated one-tenth-cent parks and soils sales tax, was ultimately approved, efforts of MPA and other park supporters to shore up park funding again failed to gain traction.
Representative Chris Kelly again introduced a resolution (HJR 57) to authorize an $800 million fifth state building bond fund for state buildings and facilities, which this year provided for "no less than $40 million" for infrastructure rehabilitation in state parks. The measure was heard (seemingly quite favorably) by the large and influential House Budget Committee, many members of which had previously been approached individually by teams of MPA members and other park supporters on Conservation Lobby Day. But when it appeared on the committee agenda for executive action it was never even taken up, likely owing to a realization that election year politics would preclude action.
A resolution that would have asked the U.S. Congress to support the annual allocation of at least 40 percent of federal Land and Water Conservation Fund moneys to states for state and local recreation programs (as intended when the fund was established in 1965), which could bring millions of dollars to Missouri each year, was approved by the House but died in the Senate. Another, much smaller funding measure to retain the interest on deposits in the Park Earnings Fund within the fund instead of being swept to General Revenue, where it would be unavailable for park purposes (since parks receive no appropriations from General Revenue), was approved by the House on a vote of 151-2 but also died in the Senate. And a much-needed bill to enhance the powers of state park rangers was never officially heard, apparently owing to opposition from county sheriffs.
Meanwhile, perhaps in a kind of displacement behavior, several bills related to parks were introduced, heard, and advanced some distance through the legislative process, even though they were opposed by MPA and other park supporters because they could cause more problems than they would solve. They included a Renewable Energy Pilot Program for State Parks (an appealing idea but one that could divert already scarce funds from more vital purposes), a bill codifying policy for liability insurance in parks, and a resolution favoring the "no action" alternative in National Park Service planning for the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, none of which passed. A bill that would open state park roads and trails to commercial vehicles transporting persons, bicycles or watercraft (in order to help an aggrieved canoe outfitter near Bennett Spring) was included in an omnibus "must pass" DNR bill, but it fortunately was amended in conference committee in a satisfactory way.
The result has been the fourth year in a row of disappointing efforts to solve the park funding problem. The bond issue, MPA's principal goal, has been heard by three different House committees in four years, with two additional committees and the Sportsmen's Caucus having seen and discussed MPA’s slide show about park funding needs. The issue has also been a priority of the Missouri Conservation and Environmental Alliance and of the annual Conservation Lobby Days. Four years of effort have at least managed to change the formerly widespread perception among legislators that state parks had no funding problem to a realization that there is indeed a problem, even if there has been no will to deal with it.
MPA leaders are determined that next year will either see legislative action or it may be necessary to go directly to the people for a solution through an initiative petition. Stay tuned for further information about a gathering of park supporters, probably after the November elections, to develop a strategy for success.
What You Can Do
In this election season, please make every effort to talk with candidates for the Missouri House and Senate about the critical funding needs of Missouri State Parks and seek their support for inclusion of state parks in a bond issue for state buildings and facilities. And also ask candidates for governor to support a bond issue that includes parks. For more information, see articles in Heritage since April 2009 and other information on the MPA website: parks.missouri.org.
Q&A with Dakota Russell,Nathan Boone Historic Site
with Mary Barile
Where did you grow up, and how did you become involved with state parks?
I grew up near Warrensburg, Missouri, and started working as a seasonal interpreter at Battle of Lexington State Historic Site when I was 16. State Parks offered me the interpreter position here at Nathan Boone Homestead State Historic Site in 2001, and I’ve been here for close to eleven years now. I live in Willard, Missouri with my wife and my three kids.
The Nathan Boone Homestead is one of the gems of Missouri’s settlement period. Can you tell us a bit about its history? How did it come to be in the park system?
We preserve the last home and grave of Nathan Boone, one of Missouri’s most celebrated frontiersmen. Nathan is probably best known as Daniel Boone’s son, but he had an eventful and important life of his own. He first came to Missouri in 1799, and moved here to Greene County in the 1830s. The centerpiece of the site is his log house, built in 1837. We also have two cemeteries: the family cemetery where Nathan is buried and a cemetery used by his former slaves. In addition to all that, we preserve 370 acres of the original Boone property.
Missouri State Parks actually expressed an interest in the site way back in the 1920s, but circumstances kept getting in the way, and they weren’t able to purchase it until 1991. That they succeeded at all is due, in large part, to the support of the local Ash Grove community. For nearly seventy years, the community worked in tandem with Missouri State Parks to make the purchase a reality. They held festivals to raise awareness of the site, wrote books and pamphlets, and solicited the help of their legislators to see the project through. As a result of this partnership, Nathan Boone Homestead State Historic Site opened to the public in 2003.
How and why did you end up working there? Was it by chance or choice?
A little of both, I guess. I didn’t really come into interpretation from a history or science background. My experience was in writing, and just fiction writing at the time—plays, screenplays, short stories. Once I started working in interpretation, though, I latched on to it. It’s a great writing exercise: you’re provided with the plot, the characters, and the setting, and then it’s your job to craft that into a meaningful story. It’s very cool to be in a profession that can also serve as my creative outlet. MSP has even backed my fictional work, when they published my kid’s book, Belle (now available online in the State Parks Store!).
One of the reasons I chose Nathan Boone Homestead was that, when I started here, it was a blank slate. The site was still in development, and I thought it would be exciting to see how a historic site is made. I don’t know if I realized at the time what a tremendous responsibility that was. Suddenly, I was one of the people who decided how the site was going to look, and what the story was that we were going to tell. I wanted to get it right, to be as accurate as possible, so I took a major crash course in the science end of my job. I learned how to research history, and I learned about resource management, architecture, planning, and interpretation theory. I was extremely fortunate to have some amazing mentors to teach and support me, so it was never a scary experience. It was thrilling to be a part of it, and I came away from it much better at my job.
I know you do a lot of first person interpretation. Can you tell us about the techniques involved, and why it appeals to you as a way of interpreting a site?
First person is a style of interpretation where you present, in character as a historical figure, either a real person or a composite character. The format appealed to me initially because it was the kind of writing I was used to, speaking from another person’s point of view. But that’s also what can make it really challenging. The costume and the persona can either be the hook that draws your audience in or they can create a barrier that separates you. It’s something you have to approach very cautiously.
Some time back, I wrote a first person program about Ozarks witchcraft folklore, from the point of view of a mid- 1800s witchmaster. Whenever tragedy struck in their community, these witchmasters would step in and accuse someone of being a witch, then attempt to get paid to “fight” the dark magic. They were basically fear mongers, preying on their neighbors and pitting them against one another. And that kind of character can be very fascinating to watch—from a distance. It’d make a great movie. But I discovered that that kind of personality isn’t someone an audience wants right up in their face. It made people uncomfortable, and that was preventing me from getting my point across. That’s one type of situation where you have to take a step back and decide if first person is the right approach for a program.
In the right setting, with the right story, first person interpretation is a fantastic way of engaging people that might duck out of a “history talk.” It can humanize a story that might otherwise be difficult for an audience to connect with. I think my witchcraft program is a good example. After struggling with it, I decided to keep it as a first person program. I had to make some major changes to the piece, but it just didn’t work any other way. In third person, it came off like any other ghost story program, and it didn’t convey the sadness and the message I wanted it to.
What are some of the more unusual skills you need for first person?
You definitely have to learn how to select your material. Not every story lends itself well to first person. You have to remember you’re presenting from a very limited viewpoint. A lot of stories require a broader perspective to be told properly. You can’t just switch all the pronouns to “I” and expect it to work.
You also need a solid understanding of the role that drama plays in an interpretive program. Personally, I learned a lot from studying professional storytellers— how they used those dramatic elements to stage and unfold a story. Learning how to work a crowd like that, how to read and respond to your audience, is a skill that’s vital to first person, and really useful in any kind of interpretation.
What about Missouri parks is important to you? Why should the public care about historic houses?
I like to think we’re preserving a sense of wonder. You can read about Nathan Boone but, for all it concerns you, he might as well be a fairytale character. The worlds you inhabit are that different. But if you walk into his house, suddenly it’s all very real. This thing we call history actually happened, and it’s still happening, and you’re part of it. That’s a sense of perspective that can be very frightening, and very exciting, and very comforting—all at the same time.
I think parks provide a similar feeling, when they confront you with the vastness of nature, or the complexity of the tiniest ecosystem. It’s good to feel dwarfed by the world once in a while. It reminds us to keep exploring.
What do you like the most about Missouri parks?
What I’ve enjoyed most about working for state parks is being able to draw on the collective knowledge and experience of the other staff. If you need more information about something, or you have a specific problem, there’s almost always someone in the system who knows it or has faced it before. You have so many great minds at your disposal.
Anything else you think we need to know?
I’ll just take this chance to say thanks to the MPA membership for supporting your parks and historic sites. Keep up the good work!
Word has just been received as Heritage was going to press of the death of Ken Oidtman. Ken was a long time employee with Missouri state parks -- 36 years -- and a good friend to MPA in its early years. He managed many different aspects of field operations at parks, and for MPA he grilled steaks, drove the tour bus, and entertained us with his unfailing good humor. Ken will be sadly missed by family and friends.
MPA Thanks Governor Nixon
MPA directors presented the governor with a framed photograph of the iconic view of Taum Sauk State Park from Mina Sauk Falls looking toward Church Mountain in honor of his unique accomplishment in having visited every state park and historic site in a single year. Shown, left to right, are Bob Painter, State Park Deputy Director J. C. Kuessner, MPA President Susan Flader, State Park Director Bill Bryan, Governor Jay Nixon, Roger Still, Steve Nagle, Mike Sutherland, and Steve Mahfood.
Missouri Bats Fly the Highways
Bats will be flying the highways on 1,900 new U-Haul moving vans beginning this summer, drawing attention to the fascinating species and to Missouri state parks where they may be found. The new van was unveiled April 29 at a bat festival at Onondaga Cave State Park. It was the brainchild of a U-Haul employee who had learned about bats at Rock Bridge State Park near Columbia while attending the University of Missouri. The attention comes at a critical time for bats, which are a front-line defense in the control of mosquitoes and other insect pests but are gravely endangered by white-nose syndrome, a rapidly spreading fungal disease first discovered in New York in 2006 that has now reached Missouri. Visit any of Missouri’s cave parks to learn more about bats and the disease.
UPOP Kids Need your Help
MPA’s Urban Populations Outreach Program is all set to go again this summer with educational field trips to introduce inner city kids to our state parks, working as usual with partners in Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbia, and Joplin. To help us serve more UPOP kids, please donate by check payable to MPA (for UPOP) and mail it to the Missouri Parks Association-UPOP, c/o The Callaway Bank, P.O. Box 10, Fulton, MO 65251-0010.