By VIVIAN (MAKELA) SAZAMA
For Gill Gigstead of rural Frazee, living the simple life is what gives him the greatest satisfaction, as long as it includes wildlife -- the four-legged kind.
Gill has been around wildlife at his game farm since he was three years old. His father, Gill Sr., was the first refuge manager at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge, located 20 miles northeast of Detroit Lakes. The refuge was established in the 1930’s, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was encamped on the refuge from 1937 to 1941. The CCC provided labor for the majority of the infrastructure of roads, bridges, and trails during that time. They also built fire lookout towers, picnic areas, campgrounds, a power plant and water plant, and cleaned and restored dams.
After serving at the Tamarac Refuge, Gill Sr. and his wife Lorraine served at the Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge in Tennessee, then the White River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. Tiring of life in the South, Gill began looking for a way to return to Minnesota. He remembered a hunter he had arrested for an overlimit on ducks while managing Tamarac -- George Stewart. He and George had become good friends, and George had offered him a partnership on raising mink if ever he wanted to return to Minnesota. In 1950, Gill Sr. and Lorraine, along with a young Gill Jr., returned to Minnesota and bought a 160-acre farm near Frazee for $5,000 . They established a very productive mink farm, which they operated until the early 1980s when they sold out due to reduced demand and a drastic drop in prices.
Along with the mink farm, the Gigsteads established a game farm which they named Needlewoods. They had a large variety of animals, ranging from badgers, fishers, and martens, to red and arctic fox, coyote, and wolves. They also had a large variety of birds, including exotic pheasants, and a herd of deer. Among the deer, peacocks freely strut around the grounds.
The game farm was open to the public for 47 years, with school groups and others getting a tour of the wildlife. Chief Little White Cloud from the White Earth Indian Reservation was a frequent highlight at the farm, where he would set up a teepee and talk to the various groups. In 1968, the Gigsteads were given the honor of being adopted into the White Earth Chippewa Tribe. Gill Jr. was given the Indian name Bena, which means Partridge Hunter.
Needlewoods also had horses and offered trail rides.
“Most boys my age had a bike to ride around on,” Gill laughed. “I had a pony that I rode everywhere!”
Gill grew up helping with the mink and game farm chores. After selling out the mink, Gill Jr. then began to expand the game farm.
“My son Darren was a welder and a cement worker at his job. He would get laid off every winter so he would build a cage. God forbid I leave it empty so then I’d have to fill it with something,” laughed Gill. Currently, there are 20 different species of pheasant at the game farm.
During the peak years of the game farm, professional wildlife photographers Erwin and Peggy Bauer were regular visitors. “They would come out twice a year,” said Gill. “They had traveled the world and were getting older, and they said it could take a lot of time to get one good wildlife photo in the wild. They could come to Needlewoods and get many photos in a short amount of time.”
Many of Gill’s animals have been featured in the Bauer’s wildlife hardcover books, as well as calendars and other magazines, including, “The Big 3,” Outdoor Life, Field and Stream, and Sports Afield. Bauer had been a game warden in Lawrence County, Ohio, then editor of the Ohio Conservation Bulletin, before becoming a full-time freelance writer. But then Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) decided that all game farm deer needed to have ID ear tags, which ruined the photography shots. When the DNR added an annual $500 fee per deer, the deer herd was sold off (in 2021) as it was no longer affordable to keep them.
After the mink ranch was discontinued, Gill went to work at a manufacturing facility. He served there for 11 months before realizing that factory life was not for him. He needed to be outside again.
“I went to the Minnesota Job Service Office, and they just so happened to have one position left working for the Youth Conservation Corp (YCC) program on Tamarac Refuge as a Work Coordinator,” he said. “I worked there nine years and it was a fun time, working with a bunch of great people.”
The YCC gave area youth summer jobs on the refuge. They helped with banding ducks and woodcock, clearing and maintaining trails, clearing culverts of beaver debris, counting deer tracks, washing vehicles, painting, and whatever else the Refuge Manager needed them to do. “Some of the YCC are still in touch with me,” said Gill.
Throughout the years, Gill’s wife Kathy was right beside him. Together they raised their four sons on the farm, and Kathy was his hunting and fishing partner.
“We never had an argument and never had a fight,” Gill said.
For many years, Kathy ran Kathy’s Country Beauty Shop in their home. “It was fun having people come in for a haircut or something,” said Gill. “There was always something to talk about.”
Kathy passed away in 2017, and Gill misses his partner of 44 years and 4 months, but he still keeps busy with the game farm -- though it is no longer open to the public. His animals are at both the Becker County and East Otter Tail County fairs every year. He continues to trap mostly fisher and smaller animals.
“The beaver have gotten too heavy for me to carry,” said Gill.
Over the years, Gill has won many trap shooting trophies, though he no longer shoots trap. His house is a reflection of his passion of hunting and fishing with dozens of a variety of birds and ducks, most of which he did the taxidermy himself. He has bear and deer mounts, an albino fisher, and even an albino deer. “I shot the albino deer on a ranch near Circle, Montana. The rancher hadn’t even known it was there!” Gill loves to try for paddlefish on the Yellowstone River in both North Dakota and Montana. His walls reflect his success over the years.
Gill also has a soft side. He has a library of VHS tapes of many years of fishing trips with family and friends, some of whom have now passed on. Several years ago, at his granddaughter’s wedding, Gill was able to present her with a tape of all her birthdays and events over the years, bringing her to tears.
Whenever he can, you can find Gill out in a boat fishing, or working on his cabin on his private island on Bad Medicine Lake in northern Becker County. Or, at the time of this writing, setting out bait for another bear hunting season. He may also be found sitting on his porch with a ready smile, ready to swap stories and a laugh or two.