Big Bill Wenstrom – Last Man Standing

Ranger Bill Wenstrom at the USFS Station on East Bearskin Lake.
Ranger Bill Wenstrom at the USFS Station on East Bearskin Lake.

Sig Olson’s readers were introduced to Big Bill Wenstrom in Open Horizons (p. 97).
Sig wrote: “It was Big Bill Wenstrom who taught me how to throw on a canoe.
He didn’t tell me, but I noticed the ease with which he did it, the balancing on his thighs, the short kick of the hips, the twist of the arms as the canoe went overhead.
It took many tries before I could drop one neatly on my shoulders, but when I was finally able to do so, it was the easiest way of all.”

To his friends like Sig, Bill Wenstrom was Big Bill, Willie or Bill. To us he was dad. But Big Bill Wenstrom would probably like best to be remembered as the last man standing at Basswood Lake. Let us explain.

Big Bill Who?

William John Wenstrom was born on May 24, 1899 in Section 30, a mining settlement outside of Ely, MN. Bill attended school through the eighth grade. Following the death of his mother he left school and town, riding the rails to California. As he later recounted on numerous occasions, Bill survived by picking olives, “for 25 cents a day and a catsup sandwich that they didn’t even put butter on.”
Lying about his age, he enlisted in the Navy at 17. Bill served in WWI aboard the transport ship USS America, ferrying troops to and from Europe.

Bill returned to Ely in 1921 guiding for Wilderness Outfitters and working for the U.S. Forest Service. He was one of the earliest commercial guides in the Superior National Forest and Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park. He was locally known for his wilderness skills and his fine looks. As recently noted in an upcoming book by Connie Ahola, Bill was the ‘local catch.’ In 1932, he bought 9.8 acres on Basswood Lake, which he developed into Basswood Beach Resort and Canoe Trips.

When and how Bill met Lillian Schaefer and when they became an item is unclear. Little is known about their courtship. From a tribute written about our mother in 1975 upon her 50-year membership in the Order of the Eastern Star, we learned that Lillian, daughter of Peter Schaefer, editor of the local newspaper, the Ely Miner, became quite smitten with Big Bill while she was attending Carleton College in Northfield, MN. Bill and Lillian managed a successful elopement on October 13, 1932. They moved to Basswood Lake in 1933, living there year around for 13 years. Big Bill took another time-out to serve his country during WWII. He was conscripted as a civilian worker to construct early warning radar sites in the Canadian Arctic. After the birth of their son, William Peter in 1946, they relocated to a permanent home in Ely. After moving into town, Lillian was known to have said that their home on Chapman Street was as close to the woods and wolves as she then cared to get.

Basswood Beach Resort

Basswood Beach Resort was a fishing camp typical both of the period and a small town mom and pop operation. It operated for 35 years boasting seven housekeeping cabins and canoe outfitters. Big Bill built all seven cabins: three were hand-hewn log structures and four were of traditional wood framing. Clients came primarily from the upper Midwest and became ‘family.’ They booked their summer vacations a year in advance usually for the same two weeks and usually in the same cabin every year.

We looked forward to summers with our friends. We explored the lake, and went fishing, canoeing, and swimming. We built evening bonfires at Sandy Beach, we picnicked at Basswood Falls, hunted night crawlers, cleaned fish, picked blueberries, and occasionally motored down to the Paul Bunyan Trading Post at the Four Mile Portage. We hiked to neighboring Basswood Lodge for a Coke or to next-door Hubachek’s Wilderness Research Station, to see how the other half lived. In many ways, ours was the perfect childhood.

Ranger Wenstrom on Saganaga Lake, circa 1920


Big Bill Wenstrom’s Quetico Guide’s License, 1923


Big Bill with fish caught on Burntside Lake, West Arm.


Challenging Change

Forty years later, it is reported that some folks in Ely have not worked through their opposition to the establishment of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. You can feel and see the palpable angst about the role and actions of the federal government and ‘those Cities folks telling us how to live and how we can use our wilderness.’

Our Basswood Beach was the last resort operating on Basswood Lake. Big Bill would not sell. He was the last man standing. As the final holdout, the federal government condemned Big Bill’s property under eminent domain.

Now, did he have angst over losing his land – undeniably yes. Did he have angst over losing his livelihood – you betcha. Did he have angst over not having the resources to fight the government – yes sir. Did he have angst over being too old to start over – absolutely. Most importantly, was there angst over having the wilderness he loved and to which he devoted his life memorialized in perpetuity as a treasured national resource – no way. Big Bill felt passionately that the wilderness should be protected and preserved.

Embracing Change

Big Bill was a big man and as such had a big vision. Visionaries and leaders generally do. He loved nothing more than introducing someone, especially children, to his wilderness. He loved raising two kids on Basswood Lake. He said over and over, Basswood Lake is not a good canoe lake for beginners. It needs protections from those who don’t understand and appreciate the wilderness.

Basswood Beach Resort has been gone for more than forty years. Basswood Lake however remains as the heart of the Boundary Waters. It is in great shape. It is pristine. It is protected. It is there for all who love the wild, and want a real wilderness canoe experience. Reflecting on our years at Basswood Lake, our family has held our love and passion for the wilderness. Do we wish we had our place on Basswood Lake, yes. Are we angry, no. Remember, Big Bill taught Sig Olson how to shoulder a canoe with grace and ease. His other lessons are worth remembering as well. Move on, get over it, and appreciate what has been done to preserve his wilderness.

Big Bill and Lill will reside at Basswood Lake in perpetuity. After their deaths in the 1980s, we deposited their ashes at the base of Big Bill’s favorite lilac bush at Wenstrom’s Point. Not being too sure how our mother would have reacted to this news, Big Bill Wenstrom, at least, undoubtedly remains a happy camper at the place we all very early learned to love and continue to respect.


By Barbara Wenstrom Shank and William P. Wenstrom


This article appeared in Wilderness News Spring 2010

Get Quetico Superior Wilderness News straight to your inbox

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap