Governor’s donation creates Pillsbury State Forest

Minnesota's first forest reserve was established in 1900 when 1,000 acres of cutover pine lands in Cass County was donated to the state by Gov. John S. Pillsbury to become Pillsbury State Forest.

Trees with vibrant fall color hug the lakeshore and are reflected in the lake
Trees, especially maples, show off their fall colors near Rock Lake in Pillsbury State Forest.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
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LAKE SHORE — The 25,612-acre Pillsbury State Forest began with a single donation by former Minnesota Gov. John S. Pillsbury just before the start of the 20th century.

Located 15 miles west of Brainerd, the forest borders Gull Lake and the city of Lake Shore to the north and is managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The forest’s namesake donated the original 1,000 acres of land consisting of a variety of deciduous and coniferous trees in 1900 that became the state forest in Cass County.

Pillsbury State Forest was the first designated Minnesota state forest and contained the first state nursery. In 1903, land clearing was started for the state's first forest tree nursery in the Pillsbury area. Tree seeds were planted the following spring.

Today, the forest is used for multiple recreation options with horseback riding trails, hiking, bicycling, walking and driving — especially during the fall color season.


Travelers on Tripadvisor spoke of driving slowly along the rolling, canopied gravel roads and seeing bald eagles, hawks, ducks, deer as well as others who were enjoying the space whether by vehicle, in a kayak, on horseback or on foot.

“Pack a picnic. Hike one of numerous trails. Or just enjoy the drive!” a returning visitor wrote.

“What a great place to go hiking,” another visitor wrote. “The dog loved being out there in the woods. Fantastic place for a horseback trail ride as well.”

Walter E. Stark was described as the second dominant force shaping Pillsbury. Stark came to the forest in 1952 when he was assigned to the ranger station. The state reported part of Stark’s vision was to provide a variety of recreational opportunities.

“Money for such projects was often difficult and sometimes impossible to find during the 1950s through 1970s, but that didn't matter to Walt,” the DNR reports on its history of the forest. “He had a dump truck and dozer, and developed the practice of neighboring rangers ‘trading time’ with each other on projects. Walter had the ideas, the equipment, and the labor; Pillsbury had the potential. It was the perfect combination.”

The ground was broken for the Mississippi Landing Trailhead Park project in Brainerd in June. The planned greenspace with trails and pathways, a community amphitheater and an outdoor classroom with

An early project was the Rock Lake Campground and day-use area, which now serves 48 camping sites, swimming beach, boat access and picnic area.

“In the early 1960s, horse riding enthusiasts Les and Ray Sellnow, met with Walt to see if a horse riding trail could be developed in the Pillsbury,” the DNR reported. “ … Over time, Walt developed an assembly area, horse camp, and the Schaffer Lake rest area. In the winter, Walt groomed the horse trails for snowmobile use.”

The forest has 27 miles of horse riding trails. The first horse endurance race in the Midwest was established on the Pillsbury horse trail.


Establishing the forest

The land formed the nucleus of the Pillsbury State Forest when it was established by the Minnesota Legislature in 1935.

Pillsbury served as governor of Minnesota from 1876 to 1887. He hailed from New Hampshire as a young man before settling in what today is known as Minneapolis.

In 1855, Pillsbury began building a successful and diverse legacy in Minnesota by constructing a hardware and lumber business, establishing the world's largest flour milling company and amassing ownership of thousands of acres of forest land, according to the Minnesota DNR.

“Pillsbury also developed a love of philanthropy. He gave generously, and often anonymously, to many civic and educational entities, particularly to the University of Minnesota,” according to the state DNR website.

The summer of 1910 brought serious drought and devastating forest fires to much of Minnesota, according to the DNR, and in response to the dangerous conditions, the Minnesota Forest Service was formed a year later to suppress and prevent forest fires.

In 1911, the first fire lookout tower in the region was erected north and west of the Pillsbury nursery. Built of wood, it was later abandoned after the construction of a modern steel structure in 1939, according to the “Centennial Edition of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch (1871-1971).”

“Lars Hope worked at the nursery and owned land just across Rush Brook from the nursery. Hisson Martin designed the tower. Lars donated the land and Martin constructed the tower for $36.30,” according to the Minnesota DNR website.

Millions of board feet of virgin pine were cut from the forest by the turn of the century. Most of the logs were transported by sleigh or railroad to Gull Lake, rafted to Gull River, then floated downstream to a sawmill just south of Highway 210 on the west shore of the river.


The land base was listed as nearly 7,900 acres in a 1971 Brainerd Daily Dispatch article. More than 1 million tree seedlings have been planted in the forest and by 1971 it had produced enough timber to build more than 3,000 homes.

“Over the years, the Minnesota Legislature enlarged the original forest reserve to its present size. Millions of board feet of virgin pine were cut from the area in the late 1800s to make way for farmland. Much of the land was found unsuitable for agriculture, and many of the farms eventually were abandoned,” according to the Minnesota DNR website.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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