The North Woods takes pride in its gangster past

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Public Enemy No. 1 was a legend in some parts of Wisconsin.

Minocqua resident Bryon Black speaks with a mixture of pride and caution about one of his most prized possessions — a .25 caliber Colt pistol. The black nickel-plated Colt, tucked neatly into a black ankle holster, was given to Black’s grandfather, Ted Blazkowski, by “Skinny” Mazurka, a driver for gangster Al Capone. The gun was taken as payment for Mazurka’s bar tab.

Mazurka had taken the train to the northern Wisconsin resort area in the early 1930s. He spent an evening drinking at Blazkowski’s tavern, the Sportsman’s Bar (now known as The Longshot) in neighboring Woodruff. When it came time to settle up, Capone’s henchman realized he’d lost his wallet.

“He gave my grandfather the only thing of value he had — his gun — to settle his debt,” Black says.

Anecdotes about legendary gangsters are sprinkled throughout Wisconsin’s North Woods like so many empty shell casings. Ironically, the area’s gangster past is a source of pride to residents. Family histories in the area are loaded with tales of Capone, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and many of the lesser lights of Chicago’s organized crime scene of the 1920s and ’30s. The criminals were area celebrities.

A Northwoods hideout

From Rhinelander in the south to Hurley in the north, from Eagle River in the east to Al Capone’s fortified hideout in west Wisconsin town of Couderay, the North Woods is rife with lore involving gangsters on vacation or hiding out from the law. They helped grateful local concessionaires survive Prohibition and the Great Depression.

Their gambling, prostitution and bloody shootouts with Federal agents added darker shades to the otherwise pastoral vacation destinations.

Chicago’s vacationing gangsters didn’t introduce gambling and prostitution to the North Woods — credit for that goes to lusty loggers and randy railroaders who arrived earlier with an appetite for indulgence. As enterprising businessmen, however, the gangsters recognized opportunities when they saw them, capitalizing on the area’s remoteness to provide them with a safe and entertaining haven.

The passage on Jan. 17, 1920 of the Volstead Act, which started Prohibition, is credited to giving rise to organized crime. It also helped bolster the attractiveness of the Wisconsin’s northern resorts as an integral link in alcohol’s illicit distribution chain. Whiskey from Canada was often brought to the U.S. by seaplanes, which landed on any of the region’s 2,300 lakes. The whiskey, along with local bootleg spirits, was ferried by truck to Milwaukee, Chicago and points south.

The area’s remoteness and relative difficulty to traverse in the early 20th century also gave the gangsters extra escape time in the face of Federal officers, supported by a well-honed early warning system of locals who appreciated the money the hoodlums spread around the resorts, says Woody Woodruff, a local merchant and member of the Minocqua Chamber of Commerce executive committee.

“To a country drowning in the Depression, they were seen a little bit like Robin Hoods in the way they fought the authorities and the banks,” Woodruff said.

A brothel in every town

Today, there’s no official “gangster trail” through the nearly contiguous communities of Manitowish Waters, Arbor Vitae, Woodruff and Minocqua that formed the epicenter of gangster activity. However, Woodruff and other locals are happy to point out establishments that had past connections to gambling and prostitution. In addition to Norwood Pines Supper Club (10171 Hwy. 70, Minocqua), which had a small prostitution operation and today boasts its own 1930s-era ghost named “Edgar,” popular locations include the following sites:

• The Belle Isle (501 Front St., Minocqua), now a restaurant and bar, started life in the 1890s as The Minocqua, a restaurant and hotel that was popular among Chicago’s underworld. The stop was so popular, in fact, that earlier owners installed a series of direct telephone lines to the Arlington Park Racetrack in the Chicago suburbs so gamblers could keep tabs on their horses. 

• Trixie’s, once located on the lakeside site now home to BJ’s Sport Shop (917 Hwy. 51 N., Minocqua), was considered the finest brothel in Wisconsin’s north woods. The destination was popular among locals and visitors alike, according to reports of the times. Legend has it that when Trixie died, city fathers would not allow her remains to be buried in the church cemetery. A local resident reportedly rowed her body out to Jossart Island in Lake Minocqua and buried Trixie with her diamonds and jewels. Thus far, Trixie’s treasures have not been recovered.

• Ma Bailey’s, now a private residence (8591 Woodruff Rd., Woodruff), was the area’s other leading brothel. Margaret Bailey and her husband, Vaudevillian Bill Bailey, developed the original structure by moving four separate outbuildings located on the site of a former logging camp together to form a single building, then added to it over time. While husband Bill toured, “Ma” Bailey ran her house of ill repute, reportedly appearing behind the bar in a nurse’s uniform. Bill Bailey died in 1937. Ma Bailey, charged by Federal authorities with tax evasion in 1945, settled her debts, sold her business and bought another bar nearby. She eventually returned to her native Nebraska and died in the 1950s.

Shootout at Little Bo

The area’s most notorious location is also its best known. Little Bohemia (142 Hwy. 51 S., Manitowish Waters), built in 1915 and taken over by Czech immigrant Emil Wanatka Sr. in 1927, was a favorite among travelers, including gangsters John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson. The pair, along with eight others, descended on the resort on Little Star Lake on Friday, April 20, 1934, offering Wanatka $500 for three days of food and lodging. That weekend, the gangsters and their molls relaxed, played cards, read magazines and behaved like other guests. 

By Sunday night, a cadre of heavily armed FBI agents alerted to Dillinger’s presence had gathered at Voss Birchwood Lodge (311 Voss Rd., Manitowish Waters) a mile south of Little Bohemia preparing to apprehend or kill the gangsters. However, all did not go according to plan. Three departing guests, mistaken by agents for Dillinger’s men as they approached the FBI roadblock at Little Bohemia’s gates, were gunned down by mistake. The gunfire alerted the gangsters, who safely fled along the lakeshore as the FBI pumped bullets and lobbed teargas grenades into the lodge occupied only by Wanatka and his family. 

The bullet holes are still visible in the walls and windows of Little Bohemia, used as one of the settings for the 2009 film Public Enemies starring Johnny Depp, which still operates as a restaurant. Glass cases display personal artifacts the Dillinger gang in its haste left behind, including clothing, shoes, purses, suitcases a shotgun, a machine gun and personal items, including aspirin and Ex Lax.

“That just shows you that Dillinger was not a regular kind of guy,’” says Woodruff. Despite the pun, what Woodruff said was true. In this part of Wisconsin, Dillinger is not a guy at all, but a genuine legend.