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Chad Lewis: Gangster hot spots in WI

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX  — “I went from things that go bump in the night to things that will bump you off” is how Chad Lewis describes his research adventure into gangsters in Wisconsin.

Lewis, the author of “The Wisconsin Road Guide to Gangster Hot Spots,”  spoke about Wisconsin’s gangster history at the Colfax Municipal Building auditorium Sunday, April 22.  

The event was sponsored by the Colfax Municipal Building Restoration Group.

Lewis is the author of a series of “road guide” books to various locations around Wisconsin as well as other states, such as “The Wisconsin Road Guide to Haunted Locations,” “The Wisconsin Road Guide to Mysterious Creatures,” “The Most Gruesome Hauntings of the Midwest,” and “The Florida Road Guide to Haunted Locations.”

He also is the author of several “hidden headline” books, including “Hidden Headlines of Wisconsin” along with California and Texas.

Lewis describes himself as having a background in psychology, and for the past 20 years, he has been traveling the world looking for the strange, the unusual and the weird.

One of the reasons gangsters — such as Al Capone, George “Bugs” Moran, the Barker Boys and John Dillinger — loved Wisconsin is because of the proximity to Chicago, Lewis said.

Wisconsin also was the bootlegging capitol of the world, he said.

“We had so many speakeasies in Wisconsin, I think Prohibition was more of a suggestion than it was a law,” Lewis said.

“Prohibition” banned the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States from 1920 to December 5, 1933.

During Prohibition, a speakeasy, also called a blind pig or a blind tiger, was an establishment that sold alcoholic beverages contrary to federal law. The term came from the fact people spoke quietly about such places, or spoke quietly while they were in such places, so as not to alert the police.

Gangsters loved to rob banks, and they also ran bootlegging operations and prostitution rings, Lewis said.

“When the gangsters weren’t robbing banks and kidnapping people, they liked to relax at the speakeasies,” he said.

Gangsters also “bumped off anyone who got in their way,” Lewis noted.

Little Bohemia

And while the gangsters are no longer operating here in Wisconsin, many of the buildings associated with them, such as Little Bohemia, still are in existence.

The Little Bohemia Lodge, located in Manitowish Waters (Vilas County), is described as a cabin-like restaurant with bullet holes and artifacts associated with a John Dillinger shootout in 1934.

Lewis was working on a book about ghosts in northern Wisconsin when a tire blew on his car. After he changed the tire, he noticed he was close to a lodge called Little Bohemia, and it seemed like an opportune place to go in search of a soda pop after the effort of changing his tire.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but it seemed as if fate had intervened,” Lewis said.

The Hideout

Another gangster gathering place was Al Capone’s Northwoods retreat,  “The Hideout,” in Couderay, near Hayward.

“You can’t throw a rock today without hitting a building that was believed to be owned by Al Capone,” Lewis said.

But the one location “for sure” associated with Capone is The Hideout. Capone and his brother were avid outdoorsmen, and security was “a number one factor,” Lewis said.

Capone  built a tower, and the tower was occupied 24 hours per day with men armed with tommy guns, he said.

The tower was a roadside attraction for decades, Lewis noted.

Another building was a “jail” of sorts. If other gangsters did not see things Capone’s way, they would end up at the bottom of Capone’s private lake on the property, he said.

“They were afraid to dredge the lake because of the number of bodies they would probably find,” Lewis said, noting Capone had bootleg liquor flown in from Canada, and the seaplanes would land on the private lake at his retreat.

The Hideout was reportedly auctioned off for $2.6 million in 2009, and according to information Lewis has, is now owned by the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwa.

Lewis said he has contacted the Lac Courte Oreilles a half a dozen times to find out what they plan to do with The Hideout but has never received a call back.

Kraft State Bank

In 1931, the Kraft State Bank in Menomonie was robbed.

The gangsters wanted “every penny the bank had,” and told everyone to get down on the ground, Lewis said.

“Stick-em-up” was a misconception. Most of the banks had front windows, and anyone walking by, if they saw people with their hands up, would know it was a bank robbery. So the gangsters would tell everyone to get down on the floor, he said.

Mr. Kraft refused to open the bank vault, so they shot him, which set off alarms. People in Menomonie did not wait for the police. They opened fire on the gangsters.

“It was like something out of the Wild Wild West,” Lewis said.

One restaurant operator was so eager to join the fight, he shot through the window of his restaurant, he said.

The gangsters took one of the Kraft boys as a hostage, along with a female clerk.

Gangsters loved taking young girls because they believed the police would be less likely to shoot at them. The gangsters also made their hostages ride on the running boards of their cars as they drove out of town, Lewis said.

In the Kraft robbery, two of the gangsters were shot as they were leaving Menomonie. The young lady pretended to faint and fell off the running board, so they left her and took the Kraft boy. One gangster died and was dumped off by the side of the road. The other died, and they dumped his body off by Shell Lake. They shot the young Kraft boy in the head, and he died as well, Lewis said.

The Kraft State Bank building is gone now but was located in the parking lot next to the Burger King in Menomonie, he noted.

In 1931, the bank in Colfax also was robbed of $1,500. The Kraft State Bank lost $100,000, Lewis said.

Researchers believe the gang who robbed the Kraft State Bank in Menomonie also robbed the bank in Colfax, he said.

Someone at the presentation said his or her father was at the Colfax bank when it was robbed, and when asked what he had done, he said he had got down on the floor as instructed. The bank robbers would shoot anyone who raised his or her head, Lewis said.

While many of the bars, restaurants, safe houses and “houses of ill repute” associated with the gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s are still in existence, many of them also are being torn down.

Lewis urged the audience to get out and see some of those places before they are gone.