Chicagoland gangsters such as Al “Scarface” Capone, John Dillinger and George “Baby Face” Nelson gained fame during the 1920s and ‘30s for robbing banks, killing rivals, busting out of jails, bribing cops and politicians, running gambling dens and making millions on bootlegging and prostitution rings.
As Capone famously put it: “I am just a businessman, giving the people what they want.”
During Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, Americans were more than happy to patronize illegal bars. And gangsters like Dillinger were folk heroes during the Great Depression, when millions of Americans were unemployed and banks were often despised.
Like other businessmen, Capone and his minions needed to get away for rest and recuperation. Often, they headed north to Wisconsin, staying in resorts just over the border at Lake Geneva – just 80 miles and a two-hour train ride away. Or, they traveled even further, driving or going by train all the way to the Northwoods.
There, they curried favor with the locals by boosting the local economies. These trips also had their business side, with mobsters supplying illicit bars — so-called “speakeasies” — with booze and other contraband.
In his book, “The Wisconsin Road Guide to Gangster Hot Spots,” author Chad Lewis writes that the “rough and tumble” tourist industry up north provided the “perfect cover” for the gangsters.
Sometimes, however, they didn’t care to hide. In 1931, members of the Holden- Keating Gang robbed the Kraft State Bank in the northwestern Wisconsin town of Menomonie. They killed a bank teller, grabbed some cash and a bank official, and fled in a hail of bullets. When the shooting stopped, two locals and two bank robbers were dead. Alas, the former Kraft State Bank is now a parking lot.
The Shipwrecked Brew Pub in Egg Harbor, however, is still standing and thriving. During Prohibition, many gangsters visited Door County and stopped by the pub — then known as Murphy Moore’s — for a drink. The former speakeasy is reputed to have a series of tunnels underneath it. And Capone, legend has it, used them to escape during police raids. Unfortunately, the tunnels were closed off years ago.
Some mobsters went north to permanently escape their criminal lives. In 1929 “Czech” Joe Saltis — a rival of Capone and George “Bugs” Moran — spent $100,000 to build the Barker Lake Lodge in Winter. In addition to the expansive lodge, the resort also boasted a nine-hole golf course and three gun towers.
Arguably the best place to get a feel (and taste) of Northwoods gangster lore is Little Bohemia outside Manitowish Waters. It was there, 80 years ago, that FBI agents bungled a raid aimed at catching Dillinger, Nelson and several of their associates.
The diminutive Nelson fled through a marsh to a cottage owned by a man named Ollie Catfish. Nelson spent the night sleeping with his gun under his pillow, then persuaded Catfish to exchange clothes with him. He also got Catfish to direct him to a nearby depot where he caught a train back to the Windy City.
Today, travelers can stay in that cabin at Dillman’s Bay Resort. Back in the late 1930s, the Dillman family bought it, put it on skids in winter and pulled it from Catfish Point to Dillman Point and dragged it up to a bluff where it now sits overlooking White Sand Lake. The two-bedroom Fisherman’s Cabin, as it’s known, still retains some of its original chinked logs.
Little Bohemia no longer offers lodging, but its restaurant draws diners from around the country because of its tasty food and history. The owners — the Wanatkas and Johns families — have kept a shrine of sorts in one of the former hotel rooms that’s filled with mobster memorabilia, including clothing, toiletries and other items left by Nelson and Dillinger. The lodge still has windows with bullet holes in them from the botched gun battle.
Little Bohemia gained renewed fame in 2008 when some scenes were shot on location for the movie “Public Enemies,” which detailed the final years of Dillinger’s life. The film starred Johnny Depp.
Dan Johns, whose parents run Little Bohemia, said interest in the gangsters and the lodge has remained strong. “There is still a lot of excitement. I’d say the majority of the people who come here know something about its history. They are interested in seeing the bullet holes, the old newspapers and the items the bank robbers left behind — as well as have a meal.”
At the restaurant, visitors can eat dishes with names like Eggs Dillinger and Shoot ‘Em Up pancakes (for breakfast). For lunch, try the Dillinger Dip or the Sweet Lake in Red, a turkey sandwich named for Dillinger’s red-haired girlfriend — not the “woman in red” who betrayed him to the FBI. Her tip led to his shooting death by lawmen in front of the Biograph Theater on Chicago’s Lincoln Avenue in 1934.
Johns said former Little Bohemia owner Emil Wanatka, Sr. realized immediately after the shootout that “something worthy of preserving had happened at the lodge.”
Johns says Little Bohemia hasn’t changed much since 1934. “It’s still the same great restaurant and historical site. And we’ve preserved the historical aspects,” he says. “It’s a busier tourist area now because back then it was more difficult to reach us.”
Gangsters — including Capone — traveled to the Northwoods for many of the same reasons people do today. But for the mobsters, “getting away” had a little extra meaning.
Johns says Dillinger and his cronies were fairly low key when they stayed at Little Bohemia, though they did a lot of target practice. “I don’t think they were able to escape who they were. They were still gangsters. But they treated people here very well, as if they were friends.”
So why did the Wanatkas turn them in?
Johns theorizes that as the mobsters’ presence become more known, the Wanatkas’ concern for their safety trumped the desire to make money from the mobsters. “We like to say Dillinger only left because he had to,” Johns quips.
And while all the gangsters escaped, two locals who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time were gunned down by the Feds. Later, an FBI agent was killed by the fast-balling Nelson. But Nelson got his just rewards when the G-men caught up with him in Barrington in November 1934.
This article originally appeared in the 2014 fall/winter issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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