WISCONSIN’S quiet beauty and small-town culture have made it popular with stressed-out Chicagoans desperate for a break. But in the 1920s and ’30s it offered a different kind of getaway for harried Midwesterners.
For bad guys on the lam, Wisconsin was once the refuge of choice. Al Capone, John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson all headed for the state’s north woods when the heat was on.
Some of the places where those public enemies sought a bit of peace in their not-so-peaceful lives still exist, and visitors can follow an itinerary from the state tourism agency and disappear themselves down the back roads of northern Wisconsin for a few days.
A good starting point is the Four Seasons Resort on Miscauno Island in the Menominee River, the border with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where Capone is said to have often been a guest.
Opened in 1905 as the Miscauno Inn, the hotel first served a Chicago railroad clientele before changing hands, being destroyed by fire and becoming an exclusive club and golf course for the well-heeled from Chicago in 1925.
Today it still has a middle-of-nowhere appeal, and though management for many years flat-out denied there was any evidence that Capone ever stayed or even visited, the stories persist. I nosed around, and a staff member took me upstairs to a renovated event space that believers say was once Capone’s room of choice.
Another staff member, who — perhaps wisely — insisted on remaining anonymous, said that in the 1920s Four Seasons and three other private resorts in the area all had armed guards and barbed-wire fences. She repeated management’s contention that the gangster pedigree was only hearsay, then added, “But would you want your family to be associated with them?”
Capone’s trail leads west toward Bugsy’s Sports Grille in Rhinelander, through land once clear cut by 19th-century lumber barons and now thick with second-growth pine.
There, local legend has it that behind a basement wall is a Prohibition-era escape tunnel that Capone and others used when the T-Men came knocking.
The bartender waved it off. “You can’t swing a cat around here without hitting a place where they say Capone has been,” he said.
Even if Capone didn’t leave much solid evidence, it’s possible to follow the route taken by F.B.I. agents in April 1934 when they flew into Rhinelander and raced northwest to Manitowish Waters in hopes of capturing Dillinger and his gang of bank robbers. The coming film “Public Enemies” — er, shot around Wisconsin — has heightened interest in the gangster haunts, particularly Dillinger’s.
At the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, the gang, including Baby Face Nelson, escaped a bungled F.B.I. raid. Now a supper club, Little Bohemia became an attraction almost before the gun smoke cleared.
Emil Wanatka, the owner at the time, left the bullet holes in the windows and walls, and people drove miles to see them. Later, celebrities like Clark Gable and members of the Green Bay Packers were known to stop in for a meal.
The arrival of filmmakers last year again put the lodge on the tourism map. I asked the bartender there what “they” had eaten. He answered, “They all had chicken and ribs.”
“Dillinger?” I asked.
“Huh?” he said. “Oh, I thought you meant the film crew. Yeah, Dillinger, too.”
Appropriately, I had a Wisconsin farmhouse ale, Spotted Cow, and chicken and ribs with potato pancakes.
From there it was a 20-minute drive to Dillman’s Bay Resort in Lac du Flambeau, where I checked into Cabin 5. Back in the 1930s Ollie Catfish owned the cabin, but on a plot across the lake. At some point after the raid, it was dragged across winter ice to its present site. Escaping the Little Bohemia raid, Nelson had somehow run 18 miles through forest and marsh at night to find it, and locals say he held Mr. Catfish hostage.
Competing bootleggers weren’t the only things Chicago’s rough crowd were fond of shooting. Capone and another gang leader, Joe Saltis, enjoyed hunting game in Wisconsin, as well as fishing and a bit of backwoods golf.
Saltis, not nearly the name these days that Capone is, only reached No. 9 on Chicago’s public enemies list, despite controlling the liquor trade on the city’s southwest side. In Winter, Wis., is the Barker Lake Lodge, a two-story log structure next to a golf course, both built by Saltis in the late 1920s. Today, the walls of the clubhouse are covered with old photos and articles about Saltis, who retired to the area around 1930.
David and Brenda Palmer, current owners of the lodge, showed me a bullet hole above the fireplace, and around the property, Mr. Palmer has dug up .45 shell casings — the caliber of a Tommy gun.
The night I stayed there, Mr. Palmer shared stories and newspaper clippings. He, in turn, occasionally receives visitors with stories of their own.
He once met the son of a man who rowed the boat when Capone visited Saltis to fish for sturgeon. The six- to eight-foot fish can live up to 100 years. “Capone could have caught a 10-year-old sturgeon,” he said, “thrown it back because it was too small, and today you could catch the same sturgeon Al Capone caught.”
There’s some evidence that no matter how heinous their actions elsewhere, the criminal element minded their manners in Wisconsin, perhaps tamed by the sense of solitude they found there. In all his years at Barker Lake, Mr. Palmer said, Saltis apparently had only one run-in with the local law — when he was fined for fishing too close to a dam.
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