John S. Pillsbury, Jr. Remembers NWNL’s Ile de Bord

John S. Pillsbury, Jr. Photo courtesy the Star Tribune
John S. Pillsbury, Jr.
Photo courtesy the
Star Tribune

John S. Pillsbury, Jr. died on March 28th at the age of 92. We’ll remember John as the former chief executive of a life insurance company, a Minnesota gubernatorial candidate, a civic leader and, as an avid and enthusiastic, sportsman. In an interview given to Wilderness News in November 2004, John recalled his fond memories for the Northwestern National Life Insurance Company’s lodge, Ile de Bord, on Basswood Lake.

by Diane Rose, Wilderness News Contributor

From the 1930s through the 1950s, today’s Boundary Waters Canoe area (BWCA) was home to a thriving community of private resorts, and Basswood Lake was a prime destination. More than 30 buildings once ringed the lake, most of which were independent lodges catering primarily to vacationing fishermen.

Unique among the Basswood structures was a collection of cabins and other buildings on an island near the southern tip of the lake. The island, known as Ile de Bord because of its location next to the Canadian border, was owned by Northwestern National Life Insurance Co. (NWNL). Every summer from 1933 to 1958, the 20 winners of a sales contest conducted the previous October were treated to several days of fishing, feasting and relaxing at Basswood Lake.

John S. Pillsbury, Jr. was president of NWNL at the end of the Ile de Bord era. He presided over the company’s sale of the island to the government in 1958, as international wilderness protection efforts grew. By the 1950s, seaplanes had been banned and government land purchases were accelerating. The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibited road building, logging, motorized travel and commercial businesses in the BWCA.

Pillsbury was sorry to see the property go, and he remembers the days of what were known as the “ABC Club parties” fondly. “Ile de Bord was highly regarded by the NWNL agents, and was my home on the lake as long as we went up there,” Pillsbury said, recalling private trips to Basswood Lake with his wife and three children.

Fishing was the highlight of all visits to Ile de Bord, according to Pillsbury, and photos printed in an NWNL newsletter provide evidence that the walleye, northern and bass were plentiful and sometimes very large. The insurance salesmen didn’t leave their sense of competition back at the office while at Ile de Bord. In fact, $10 jackpot prizes were awarded each evening for biggest fish of the day. One of the 1958 prizes was won by Pillsbury but, he said with a twinkle in his eye, “not legally.”nwlildebord

Meals were also a big hit. The N/W National News newsletter from August 1, 1958, describes the preparation of fresh-caught fish for a shore lunch. The fish “are prepared by the guides with a few expert strokes of a sharp knife, and immediately immersed, after a coating of flour and corn meal, in a boiling cauldron of lard and bacon drippings. In a minute or two the fillets are done to a golden brown and are served with sliced tomatoes, onions, beans or corn, toast, bread, jam and topped off with fruit, cookies and cake.”

The NWNL newsletter describes the ABC parties as “one of the finest outdoor experiences available on the North American continent.” The long, descriptive story about that summer’s party begins: “Tanned by the sun, armed with anglers’ proverbial tales and refreshed after four days of fishing in the invigorating, pine-scented air of the wilderness country on the Ontario-Minnesota border, members of the 1958 ABC party returned home earlier this week.” A full page of photos carried this headline: “Be a Basswood Leader in October and This is What You’ll Have in Store Next Summer!”


This article appeared in Wilderness News Summer 2005

Get Quetico Superior Wilderness News straight to your inbox

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap