The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge: Forged by the Izaak Walton League

Stephen R. Fox
Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge - credit Gary J. Wege

The year 2024 marks the 100th anniversary of the Upper Mississippi RIver National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. The refuge was a monumental achievement for the conservation movement, led by the Izaak Walton League of America and its executive director, Will Dilg, in particular.

An article by historian Steven R. Fox titled "The Will of Dilg" chronicled this campaign and was published in the Izaak Walton League's Winter 2001 issue of Outdoor America. It contains excerpts from the book Fox published in 1981, The American Conservation Movement: John Muir and His Legacy. The article, below, was printed with permission from the University of Wisconsin Press.


On January 14, 1922, a group of 54 hunters and fishermen sat down to lunch at the Chicago Athletic Association. They were mostly business and professional people of middle income. Twelve made their living in sales or advertising, the largest single occupational group among them. Aside from two in the sporting goods business, none had a financial interest in the subject at hand. None was connected with the Eastern wildlife establishment. They met to swap stories and discuss ways of meeting the latest crises in wildlife populations. Someone suggested they form a new conservation group; the idea took hold. In March they opened a headquarters in Chicago. In the next five months, as membership dues flowed in from around the Midwest, they twice had to move to larger quarters. The group was named the Izaak Walton League after the “patron saint” of sport fishermen.

Will Dilg

The Will of Dilg

The central figure in the League was a fifty-three-year-old advertising man named Will H. Dilg. “Since boyhood,” he admitted, “the call of black bass waters has been my chief weakness.” In 1921 the Outlook had published his enraptured celebration of a recent invention, the cork-bodied black bass fly. (“If you have never taken a fish on a floating bug, you have a series of indescribable sensations ahead of you.”) Warmed to his subject, he could be relentlessly persuasive. He had a worn, emaciated face set off by a long jaw and penetrating eyes. He talked fast, unstoppably, in a voice that carried. Well dressed and carrying a cane, he cut a figure of urban sophistication. His favorite idiom was the expansive hyperbole of boosterism.

Just beneath this surface Dilg had a second, more authentic personality: darker-hued, yet sentimental and nostalgic. According to one story, he was driven to found the Izaak Walton League by the death of his young son. In his grief he decided to devote himself to saving the outdoors experience for other young boys. Be that as it may, he did strike many observers as a man possessed by some messianic purpose. “I am weary of civilization’s madness,” he declared, “and I yearn for the harmonious gladness of the woods and of the streams. I am tired of your piles of buildings and I ache from your iron streets. I feel jailed in your greatest cities and I long for the unharnessed freedom of the big outside.” As head of the new League he dropped his advertising work and toiled long hours, doing — he claimed — the work of at least six men.

In August 1922 he launched a monthly magazine, at first called the Izaak Walton League Monthly and then (after October 1923) Outdoor America. Under Dilg’s direction it quickly became the most comprehensive journal in the conservation movement.

Izaak Walton League Carves a New Niche

At the time, the Sierra Club addressed itself to mountaineering and national park matters; Pinchot’s National Conservation Association covered forestry and power development; the Audubon Association discussed birds and other wildlife. (In 1921, Audubon Founder and President T. Gilbert Pearson confessed that he knew nothing about a certain park issue: “I must not allow this interest to draw me too far from our main line.”) The old groups guarded their respective domains and no one asked the large questions. Except Dilg. With a fine impartiality, he asked all sorts of questions. Most of the articles in Outdoor America reflected his own priorities — water pollution and the indiscriminate drainage of marsh areas (because of their effect on fishing conditions) and the problems of forest fires and reforestation. In addition, Dilg opened his magazine to diverse points of view within the conservation movement, making it a unique forum of conflicting opinion. The magazine also carried regular monthly departments on camping, bird lore, fly casting, firearms, and even (briefly) a women’s section.

Outdoor America was thus already unprecedented in its field. But Dilg thought big, and he was not shy. Aiming to make his magazine the first conservation journal with a mass audience, he flattered and badgered writers of large reputation into contributing work for no pay. “I am earnestly hoping that you will send us a story or an article for the magazine,” he wrote Hal G. Evarts, a regular contributor to the Saturday Evening Post. “It is obvious that each great American who declares himself for us now adds to our national prestige and our convert-drawing ability. You, of course, know what a splendid thing an editorial by you would be for the magazine and the cause it espouses.” The writers who succumbed to such blandishments included Zane Grey, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Emerson Hough, Irvin S. Cobb, Albert Bigelow Paine, Gene Stratton Porter, David Starr Jordan, and Henry Van Dyke. John Held, Jr., contributed occasional drawings and cover paintings.

In the March 1924 issue, Theodore Dreiser recalled his boyhood in Indiana and his favorite fishing spot on the Tippecanoe River.... Dreiser was not simply indulging in the nostalia of middle age for a lost, idyllic youth. He was sounding one of Outdoor America's major themes: a fretfull looking back to the old fishing hole and a dawning sense that modern progress was polluting it, filling it in, paving it over.

In the March 1924 issue, Theodore Dreiser recalled his boyhood in Indiana and his favorite fishing spot on the Tippecanoe River. Later on, said Dreiser, “some local clown or hobbledehoy of the practical variety” had turned his spot into a drainage ditch, arguing for the economic benefits it would bring to the town. "Nonsense. Pish,” Dreiser growled. “Can you imagine any sane community anywhere in the world making or permitting any such exchange?”

Dreiser was not simply indulging the nostalgia of middle age for a lost, idyllic youth. He was sounding one of Outdoor America’s major themes: a fretful looking back to the old fishing hole and a dawning sense that modern progress was polluting it, filling it in, paving it over. The lament was not merely for lost youth but for a lost America.

The outdoor life, then, seemed a compensation for everyday modern life — a notion that Waltonians sometimes expressed in religious terms. Dilg made frequent reference to an entity he called “the God of Nature.” Irvin S. Cobb, a popular humorist and cheerful cynic, let down his guard when confronted by the “wholesome idolatry” of reverence for nature: “There is no religion healthier for a man’s spiritual and physical well-being than the pagan worship of the woodsman.”

The most striking speculations of this sort were made in 1923 by James Oliver Curwood, a popular novelist and later one of the League’s national directors. “I fear that I am going to shock many people,” he wrote. While growing up on an Ohio farm, he had acquired an early reputation as a hunting prodigy who killed large quantities of game. He was introduced as such to great applause at a country revival meeting. “No one of all those Christians told me that I should stop killing.” Instead the message was that man should inherit the earth: “For me, all the universe had been built. For me, the Great Hereafter was solely created. All other life was merely incidental, and made especially for my benefit.” Then, in a process that resembled Muir’s religious hegira, he became a pantheist not by reading but simply by immersing himself in nature. When engulfed by other organisms, Curwood saw the absurdity in man’s thinking that he was “the one toad in the huge puddle of life.” That insight led to conservation. Not just wild animals and fishes, but grass, trees and flowers all had their rightful places; “every heart that beats is a spark from the breath of god.” John Muir would have approved.

Along with these themes of nostalgia and nature worship, Dilg attracted members by creating a clubhouse atmosphere of masculine fellowship. “We are composed of thousands upon thousands of HE MEN,” he trumpeted, “and our League will continue to advance in POWER AND INFLUENCE.” In camp the Waltonians might tell dirty stories, enjoy them loudly, neglect to shave or wash, and belch and scratch. Unimpressed by Prohibition, they were not ashamed to admit their fondness for drink. In 1925, six years into Prohibition, Outdoor America printed the following poem:

If you care to meet a fellow with a drop upon his hip
And can tell a fishing story as you take a little nip,
You’re the man that we’ve been wanting and your fancy we’ll intrigue
And we’ll treat you like a brother in the Izaak Walton League.

To be treated like a brother: that was the League’s most powerful recruiting device. During the 1920s the fraternal service organizations — Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary, and others — were growing fast. Dilg appropriated their methods, addressing members as “brother sportsmen,” promising friendship and the warm glow of disinterested public service for common goals. In March 1923 the League hired as executive secretary a man who previously had been office manager at Kiwanis national headquarters. By design, a typical chapter of the League resembled not one of the older conservation groups but rather a Rotary Club that liked to go fishing.

At national headquarters in Chicago, Dilg worked under the nominal direction of a nine-man executive committee. Three of its members were directors of the Continental and Commercial National Bank, one of the largest banks in the country — “and each of these men has practically given us ten thousand dollars,” Dilg informed Gifford Pinchot in November 1924. The committee’s chairman and most generous member was George E. Scott, the president of a steel foundry. He normally stayed in the background and contented himself with playing silent partner to Dilg. According to one observer, “Dilg was essentially a dreamer, an apostle; Scott is a hard-headed, clear-thinking business man.” They complemented each other well and together led the League during its early years of heady expansion.

White pelicans on an island in the Upper Mississippi River Refuge - credit U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service


100,000: The First Conservation Group with a Mass Membership

At a time when the Sierra Club, the American Game Protective Association (AGPA), and the Audubon Association each had a membership of 7000 or less, the Izaak Walton League had more than one hundred thousand members within three years of its founding. In the month of February 1924, 52 new chapters were formed; in March, another 118; in April, another 124. The local chapters in turn formed state divisions. It was a phenomenon — the first conservation group with a mass membership. Although concentrated in the Midwest, practically every state was represented. The strongest local organizations were in Illinois, Oklahoma, and Iowa. A convention of the Oklahoma Division drew a crowd of 5000; the governor delivered the main address. The Minnesota Division helped save the Superior National Forest from inroads by lumber companies. A meeting of the Indiana Division was addressed by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball. When Dilg was introduced, Landis jumped to his feet, embraced him, and kissed him on the forehead. The audience cheered.

The League was, apparently, Dilg’s personal fief. As salesman, organizer, and editor he had created it. At the first annual convention, held in Chicago in April 1923, he was described in terms recalling the struggles of the early Christian martyrs. “It was as though a second Stephen was preaching a Crusade,” one man declared. “And so he has borne the Cross.” Another speech compared him to St. Paul, “this prince among men.” He was then elected president by acclamation. A year later 1400 delegates retained Dilg in office by a unanimous vote. William Hornaday, who addressed the convention, exclaimed to Dilg: “I have been going to conservation gatherings for more than forty years and I have never seen anything like this convention.” The third annual gathering, in 1925, was again a huge success. “In the world of conservation,” Dilg said without undue exaggeration, “our League stands forth like a towering mountain set in the center of a vast prairie.”

As the wildlife conservation movement returned to a period of activism and campaigns for legislation, the Izaak Walton League held the wild cards. It brought new pressures on Congress through its sheer size and because it spoke for a different area of the country. It had Will Dilg as well, with his mercurial personality and headlong enthusiasm. Nobody in the AGPA–Audubon–Biological Survey establishment knew Dilg, and even after meeting him they were not sure what to make of him. (“I had a feeling that he might do or say something unusual at any moment,” Pearson recalled.) In the legislative struggles of the 1920s the League acted as a powerful but unpredictable catalyst, stirring up the older forces and precipitating the most bitter internal struggles in the history of conservation.

Although obscured by the smoke and confusion of the squabbling, wildlife was still the point of it all. The first years after World War I brought a crisis in migratory waterfowl populations. Ducks and geese found themselves squeezed between shrinking habitats and more hunters. The marshes and river bottoms that provided feeding and breeding grounds were being drained for human development. At the same time, a cluster of broad social changes — better roads, more automobiles, shorter workweeks, more vacation time, extra cash — sent more hunters into the field than ever before. In 1911, 1.5 million state hunting licenses were issued. That figure increased to 4.5 million in 1922 and 6.5 million in 1928. Thus the debate among conservationists: whether to save habitats or check hunting. The debate became embittered in part because no one truly understood the situation. Wildlife management was not yet a science. The first, tentative waterfowl census was not published until 1930. In the absence of hard facts, people took firm positions depending on what they wanted to believe. But it is important to bear in mind, as one sorts through the tangled history of the next few years, that no one really knew. For the time being it all came down to a matter of opinion.

Refuge map - credit U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Convincing Washington and Four States to Protect the Upper Mississippi

Out in Chicago, meantime, Dilg played one of his wild cards. In the summer of 1923 he learned of a private development plan to drain a 300-mile stretch of river bottoms on the Upper Mississippi, from Lake Pepin in Minnesota to Rock Island, Illinois. This section of the river supported large populations of wildlife and songbirds, and provided spawning grounds for Dilg’s beloved black bass. For over two decades he had spent at least sixty days each year fishing the area. Now developers were threatening his favorite fishing spot. Dilg therefore offered an ambitious solution: turn the whole 300 miles into a federal wildlife refuge financed by a congressional appropriation of $1.5 million. The largest previous sum voted by Congress for a wildlife preserve had been $40,000 for a Montana bison range in 1909.

J. Horace McFarland, who knew his way around Washington, told Dilg his chances were “not quite so thick as tissue paper.” A new hand at the business, Dilg did not know enough to be discouraged. With the help of Senator Medill McCormack of Illinois he went to the White House and for forty minutes urged the scheme on President Coolidge. Dilg in full cry was hard to resist; Coolidge promised to sign the bill if Dilg could push it through Congress. It was introduced by McCormack in the Senate and by Harry Hawes of Missouri in the House. Hawes, a fisherman in the Dilg sense of the word, was the bill’s main evangelist. (“It is a notable fact,” he told the House, “that of the twelve apostles selected by Christ, four were fishermen.”) Dilg secured the endorsement of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, with its 2 million members, and set out for Washington to pursue his campaign on the spot. From a suite at the New Willard Hotel he deployed his forces, wheeling and dealing in a way that astonished the wildlife establishment. “He had a staff of assistants, he had many callers, his messengers constantly came and went,” Pearson recalled. “He conducted his campaign on an expensive scale heretofore unknown in conservation circles.”

Dilg found a crucial ally in Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce and the rising star of the Republican Party. Amid the earnest pursuits of this dour Quaker’s life, fishing stood out as one of his solitary amusements. He belonged to the Izaak Walton League and contributed occasionally to Outdoor America. Once, on an inspection tour of Yellowstone National Park, the gregarious park superintendent tried to engage Hoover in conversation during breakfast. Hoover sat there and ate and said not a word. Later, out on the lake, the superintendent rattled on about the park, the lake, the forest. Still no word from Hoover. Then he opened an elaborate tackle box — a gift in recognition of his honorary presidency of the Walton League — and launched a monologue. “He talked about fishing in various countries of the world, Australia through Scandinavia,” the superintendent said later. “He talked almost all the way down the lake.”

With his bill passed by the House, and needing a vote in the Senate, Dilg went to see his fellow angler. The two men then called on Coolidge, who approved a parliamentary maneuver that cleared the way for a vote. Endorsed by Robert La Follette and other key senators, the bill was passed unanimously. Coolidge signed it on the following day and presented the pen to Dilg. “At last,” said Dilg, “the God of Nature and the wild places and wild things WON.” The upstarts from Chicago had made their point. “Dilg’s name swept the country from coast to coast,” Pearson recalled. “Wherever two or more sportsmen met, Dilg and the Izaak Walton League were discussed.” It was the height of Will Dilg’s career in conservation.

Crossing a Line, Leaving a Legacy

The outward success masked an unhappy fact: Will Dilg was beginning to self-destruct. In a few years he had built the largest organization and most widely circulating magazine in American conservation. The older groups had met nothing but frustration in Congress; he had passed his own considerable bill. Buoyed by these feats, he saw a future in which he and the Walton League would control national conservation policy. Racing toward this large ambition, he ran against his own literal deadline because he was dying of throat cancer. Illness gave his normal sense of urgency an even harder edge. He carried an aura of crisis around with him. After working himself to exhaustion he would disappear on fishing trips for weeks at a time. At some unrecorded point his tightly wound spring snapped, and he crossed the line between zeal and fanaticism, regarding himself not as a prophet but as the messiah.

From the start he had shown little interest in keeping the League within its budget. Busy with the tasks of expansion and publicity, he would let financial matters slide. “In truth,” he said early on, “I have not had the time to think of ways and means to raise money.” In September 1924, Dilg sent “A Plain Letter” to his members, announcing that thus far the League had spent a grand total of $252,000, nearly twice its income, leaving a deficit of almost $118,000. The League’s remarkable achievements had come at no little cost. George Scott, the League’s most generous donor, had connections to the East through his membership in the Boone and Crockett Club. The wildlife establishment, embarrassed by the League’s success, began to interest itself in Dilg’s internal problems. “I feel it is the duty of the conservative conservationists of the country,” Pearson declared in private, “to help strengthen in any way they quietly can the arm of the executive committee that is trying to bring order out of chaos.” For a time Dilg still controlled matters at the headquarters in Chicago. His opposition was principally organized by two executive committee members from outside Chicago, George H. Selover of Minneapolis and Jack Cunningham of Kansas City. These two men, along with Scott and his eastern friends, formed a growing anti-Dilg nucleus within the League.

With the League in financial trouble, the gun companies sensed an opening. During 1924, at Remington’s initiative, they started placing ads in Outdoor America. Remington enrolled its traveling salesmen in the League and instructed them to preach the gospel on their rounds. On occasion these salesmen even helped start new chapters of the League. Dilg always insisted that his organization remain independent of commercial interests. But Remington’s assistance and advertising revenue, appearing just when the League needed money badly, probably had some moderating effect. Late in 1925, Dilg was removed as editor of Outdoor America. He retained only titular authority as president.

In November he was hospitalized for more radium treatments. His conduct grew increasingly erratic, but he had his reasons. A dying man, he now saw the cherished crusade of his last years being corrupted. The scenario played out like a Greek tragedy, with the hero brought down by hubris and the ramifications of his own success. From the hospital he sent out a maudlin “prayer letter” telling members that he was dying, and asking for their prayers and support. Once out of the hospital he took an extended fishing vacation in Mississippi. In his absence Scott and Selover quietly organized a plan to elect a new president, not telling the chapters what they were doing, moving as confidentially as possible. They charged Dilg with wasting money, defying his directors over Outdoor America policy, and claiming to work without compensation while actually drawing some $28,000 plus heavy medical expenses from the League over the past two years. The indictment was tightly drawn and probably accurate enough. The matter was effectively settled even before the annual convention met in April 1926.

One observer of the convention called it “the finest piece of machine politics that I have ever witnessed.” Dilg tried to claim the chair but was shouted down. On most votes the insurgents had at least a two-thirds majority; Dilg had lost even his popularity among the membership at large. Selover, as chairman of the executive committee and head of the anti-Dilg forces, expected to assume the presidency but stepped aside at the last minute in favor of Charles Folds, the League treasurer and part of the original Chicago leadership. “With his standing,” Selover reasoned, “with the Chicago crowd happy as possible, and with peace in the League, we look forward to a wider opportunity for real service.” Dilg was voted a pension. The news of the coup raised a flurry of objections among some members. Zane Grey and James Oliver Curwood resigned from the League in protest. But Dilg was too sick to resume the battle, and he died a year later.

Dilg’s creation, the Izaak Walton League, stayed in debt for years. Outdoor America was both the League’s best recruiting tool and its biggest expense. As of June 1928 the League was still $125,000 in debt, but its largest creditors were League members inclined to be lenient about payment. A wildlife professional, Seth Gordon of Pennsylvania, succeeded Folds as head of the League in 1928. Gordon brought the League into a touchy alliance with the remains of the AGPA and broadened his group’s national base. In 1924, 42 percent of the directors came from Chicago; five years later that figure was down to 15 percent, with the difference made up mostly by increased representation from Kansas and Oklahoma. But the League also spread eastward, with a state division in New Hampshire consisting of twenty-three local chapters. Waltonians could still claim, as one official put it, “the one and only nation wide conservation organization.” With age and professionalization it lost the early, Dilg-style amateur radicalism. Yet in range and sheer numbers, with 3000 chapters in forty-three states, it remained unique in the field.

What Drove Dilg?

by Jack Lorenz

In June 1921, Will Dilg — a noted sportsman, outdoor writer and pitchman for a St. Louis brewer that sold near beer during Prohibition — was vacationing with his family on a houseboat on the Upper Mississippi River near Winona, Minn. Dilg and his wife, Marguerite, were inside while their 4-year-old son, John, played on the deck.

When Dilg went to check on John, the youngster was missing. Immediately, Dilg issued an alarm. He, his wife, local officials and other houseboaters searched everywhere for the child. After a frantic search of the entire area, a neighboring houseboater looked under his boat and made a horrifying discovery. Young Dilg was there, caught under the bottom of the craft. The boy was dead.

The drowning of Dilg’s only son catalyzed his creation of the Izaak Walton League six months later. He and Marguerite were so distraught that they decided to build a natural, living monument to their boy. That monument would be a fully protected and forever preserved Upper Mississippi River.

Dilg knew that he couldn’t achieve his goal alone, so he began to enlist the help of his friends. Other outdoor writers, members of the Chicago Casting Club and other noted sportsmen were recruited to join this great new crusade. A preliminary meeting was held right after the first of the year and, on the Jan. 14, Dilg and 53 friends joined hands in Chicago and created the Izaak Walton League of America.

Always a fiery and eloquent speaker, Dilg exhorted his fellow sportsmen to “save outdoor America for our American boys!” He told the group that their first challenge would be to preserve the Upper Mississippi, which was “being destroyed by the drainers and dredgers.” He cited the wildlife-rich backwaters of the Winneshiek Bottoms, near Winona as the primary area of concern.

Stirred by Dilg’s impassioned remarks and speaking style, everyone in the room enthusiastically agreed. They knew full well the story of Dilg’s painful loss, and they eagerly answered his call to arms.

In less than three years, those determined Waltonians, exploding with daily membership additions, not only saved the wildlife-rich Winneshiek Bottoms area of the Mississippi from dredging, they drove a bill through Congress that created a 300-mile-long Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge, the largest of its type in the world. And as that battle was being waged, such special places as Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin, Jackson Hole Elk Refuge in Wyoming and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northeastern Minnesota gained lifetime protection thanks to the efforts of this rapidly growing group of citizen-firebrands.

Editor’s Note: Jack Lorenz, the League’s executive director from 1974–92, heard this account of the League’s beginnings on three separate occasions from early Ikes, two of whom — Rev. Preston Bradley and Leonard Hopkins — were members of the famed “54 Founders.” Bradley, a pastor from Chicago, suggested the group name itself the Izaak Walton League “to honor the patron saint of anglers.” Hopkins, at 21, was the youngest when the 54 met.

Reprinted with permission from American Conservation Movement: John Muir and his Legacy (University of Wisconsin Press).

Learn more about the Upper Mississippi Refuge


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