The Deer Camps and Fish Shacks of American Gangsters

The Deer Camps and Fish Shacks of American Gangsters

Folks across the upper Great Lakes states said all roads led to Hurley, Hayward, or Hell a century ago as gangsters and bootleggers capitalized on Prohibition and the Great Depression.

As a federal investigator named Frank Buckley said in a 1929 report, Wisconsin’s worst community was Hurley. “Gambling, prostitution, bootlegging and dope are about the chief occupations of the place,” Buckley wrote. “Saloons there function with barmaids who serve the dual capacity of soda dispenser and prostitute.”

But mobsters of the 1920s and ’30s didn’t confine their crimes, travel, and hideouts to northwestern Wisconsin. Many Northwoods towns and roadsides supported taverns and brothels masquerading as soda shops for selling sex, boot-legged whiskey, and cellar-brewed beer. And judging by tales still told a century later, Al Capone, John Dillinger, Barker/Karpis and other infamous gangs hid or partied in every town from northeastern Minnesota to Michigan’s thumb. Just ask the locals. They’ll tell you.

All the while, other Chicago toughs bribed and clubbed their way across the Northwoods, creating pipelines and profit centers for drinking, gambling, and prostitution. Many folks today still investigate rumors of bodies, bottles, and cash-packed suitcases gangsters supposedly buried while fleeing cops and federal agents who refused their bribes.

Hoffa in the Northwoods

Although such legends faded with Prohibition’s demise in late 1933 and the Depression’s end in World War II, notorious figures still roamed the Northwoods for decades. Teamsters Union boss and Detroit tough-guy Jimmy Hoffa often visited his cabin and 160-acre property on Tepee Lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula during the 1960s and early 1970s. Then he suddenly disappeared near Detroit in July 1975, presumably in a Mafia hit.

Locals near Tepee Lake recall Hoffa’s entourage of black limousines rolling along Forest Road 16, roughly an eight-hour drive from Detroit. Hoffa’s family, the David J. Hoffa Trust, still owns that property, roughly 25 miles northwest of Iron River. After Hoffa vanished at age 62, the FBI reportedly searched the lake, surrounding properties, and parts of the adjoining Ottawa National Forest for him or his body. Investigators also searched 50 miles south near the Jack-O-Lantern Lodge east of Eagle River, Wisconsin, a site Hoffa often visited.

Richard “Bucky” Holm of nearby Gaastra, Michigan, never met Hoffa, but was friends with his Tepee Lake caretaker. Holm said the closest he ever got to Hoffa was seeing him in a Super 8 home movie the caretaker filmed. He said his friend was constantly “taking movies.” While capturing a panoramic scene one day, his friend accidentally filmed Hoffa walking in the background toward his cabin.

“No doubt it was Jimmy Hoffa,” Holm said. “Hoffa fished and hunted up there. He had a deer camp, and it was a big deal back in the day. But Hoffa kept a low profile and never walked around the Iron River community (population 2,831 in 2020). His men just notified Leonard (the caretaker) when to get things ready at the lake. Leonard said Hoffa’s guys were armed to the teeth and always kept him under protection.”

The 1992 movie “Hoffa,” starring Jack Nicholson in the title role, included a poorly done hunting scene in which a deer walks near Hoffa and his men. One man pulls a revolver, shoots three times, and the scene cuts to a deer’s head—a shoulder mount obscured by leaves—on the ground.

In real life, though, Hoffa knew which firearms belonged in a holster, duck blind, or deer stand. A May 1964 article in Life magazine revealed that Hoffa in 1962 discussed how best to kill attorney general Robert F. Kennedy, brother of President John Kennedy. RFK’s Justice Department was investigating Hoffa and the Teamsters for myriad federal crimes at the time.

Hoffa told an informant: “I’ve got to do something about that sonofabitch Bobby Kennedy. … I’ve got a rundown on him. His house (isn’t) guarded. He drives alone in a convertible and swims by himself. I’ve got a .270 rifle with a high-power scope on it that shoots a long way without dropping any. It would be easy to get him with that.”

The Justice Department convicted Hoffa of conspiracy, attempted bribery, wire fraud, and jury tampering in 1964. He entered prison in 1967 and was released in 1971.

mobsters of the Northwoods

Ransoms, Escapes, and Chases

Although Hoffa hunted and fished during his Northwoods visits, most of his mobster predecessors went there for other reasons. After kidnapping William A. Hamm Jr., president of the Hamm’s Brewing Co., as he left his office in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1933, the Barker/Karpis gang drove him to a Wisconsin hideout. After forcing Hamm to sign four ransom notes, the gang drove him south to another hideout in Illinois. They waited there until receiving the $100,000 ransom, and then released him.

Dillinger and George “Baby Face” Nelson made history in April 1934 near Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, while on the lam at the Little Bohemia Lodge. Joining them were four associates, Nelson’s wife, and three girlfriends. The lodge’s owners tipped off the FBI, which dispatched Special Agent Melvin Purvis from Chicago to assemble a team to kill or capture Dillinger and his gang.

Unfortunately, the FBI’s hurried, poorly planned night attack killed one federal agent and an innocent Civilian Conservation Corps worker. The FBI also severely wounded another CCC worker and three other innocents. All six men in Dillinger’s gang escaped into the night, but the FBI fatally shot Dillinger three months later in Chicago, and then killed Nelson in November in nearby Barrington. Nearly 100 years later, visitors to the Little Bohemia restaurant on U.S. Highway 51 can still see bullet holes in the walls, view memorabilia from the botched take-down, and gawk at fake bullet holes made in 2008 when Hollywood filmed the movie “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp.

In contrast, Al “Scarface” Capone and his brother Ralph made few headlines in the Northwoods. After serving three years in prison for tax evasion, Ralph Capone bought a home in Mercer, Wisconsin, in 1935, moved there, and managed a hotel/tavern called “The Rex Hotel” until dying in 1974. Locals knew him as a friendly, neighborly guy who liked to golf, play pinochle, and hunt ruffed grouse.

Al Capone, meanwhile, bought 400 acres near Couderay, Wisconsin, and hired 200 men to build a retreat named “The Hideout,” which featured fieldstone walls 18 inches thick and a stone watchtower with openings for rifles and .45-caliber Thompson submachine guns (aka “Tommy Guns”). As far as anyone knows, Al Capone had no outdoors interests, except maybe the leg-hold bear traps his men set around the compound to catch federal agents snooping around for whiskey smuggled in from Canada and nearby stills.

Backwoods Stills & Basement Breweries

Capone and other mobsters profited by “giving people what they wanted” during Prohibition, a nearly 14-year era that began with the 18th Amendment in January 1919 and ended with the 21st Amendment in December 1933. Besides smuggling alcohol from Canada, mobsters also built and ran illegal stills and breweries across the Northwoods to fill their supply chain. From there, cars, trucks, boats, and small airplanes traversed rivers, lakes, highways, and backroads to serve America’s eager drinkers and drug users.

“They ran it like a business. Everything about it was illegal, but many people back then supported it,” said Mike Carlson of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who co-owns a one-time mobster hangout with his wife Carolyn and in-laws Dan and Mary Graaskamp. The family’s three-story house on Long Lake in northern Chippewa County was once part of a larger compound 45 miles south of Capone’s “Hideout.”

No one knows if Capone ever slept at the Long Lake house or roamed its peninsula, but Carlson said Capone’s lieutenants made moonshine there. They also stationed armed guards at the compound’s stone-arched entry gates and kept motorboats handy for backdoor escapes across the water to Highway 40.

“There’s only one road into this place, so they made sure they always had a safe escape route across the lake or the ice,” Carlson said.

The mobsters were just as protective of their beer and liquor assets. They brewed and distilled their products in the house’s basement and stored it in barrels until moving it out the back. After loading the barrels into a steel-wheeled cart, they pushed their loads down a grooved track in the cellar’s cement floor to a tunnel leading to idling boats.

Carlson said people still walk in, paddle by, or motor around the peninsula to discuss rumors and stories they’ve heard or read. Still others dive and search the surrounding lakebed for mobster artifacts, but Carlson doubts anything valuable remains. He thinks they’d fare better if they simply went fishing.

Mobster, Angler, Poacher

One Capone ally and sometimes rival in Chicago supposedly chose fishing over organized crime in 1929. When business grew too risky in the Windy City for “Polack Joe” Saltis, a Chicago beer baron and gang leader, he “retired” to Barker Lake near Winter, Wisconsin, roughly 15 miles from Capone’s Hideout. Once there, Saltis built a home, lodge, and nine-hole golf resort.

Saltis claimed he retired from running beer and pouring liquor in speakeasies but intimidated anyone who asked. His fishing, however, became a long-running source of dread and confrontations for the local game warden, Ernest Swift. Swift went on to direct the Wisconsin Conservation Department from 1947 to 1954, but during the 1920s he was a fearless game warden, as Saltis learned.

Swift shared some of his encounters with Saltis in a story titled “An Officer’s Duty,” which warden Jim Chezik reprinted in his book “Game Warden Centurion.” Swift described the 6-foot-3-inch Saltis as a “huge, muscular slab of a man at 260 pounds,” with “hands that hung like hams on arms as thick as telephone poles.”

Swift wrote that Saltis and fellow thug “Machine Gun” Frankie McErlane often fished illegally on the Chippewa River beneath the Winter Dam, not far from Saltis’ compound on Barker Lake. The Winter Dam creates the Chippewa Flowage, a Sawyer County lake renowned for muskies and walleyes. During the late 1920s, Saltis, McErlane and their mobster pals ignored the Conservation Department’s “fish refuge” signs below the dam, and often hauled out bags of walleyes and muskies they caught in the dam’s tailwaters.

Swift—a small-framed man who stood 5-foot-8-inches tall—caught McErlane and two companions, Frank Novak and Joe Milaga, fishing below the dam in 1928. The three thugs instantly pulled pistols from leather holsters sewn into their jackets. Novak and Milaga threatened to shoot Swift, who was alone, but McErlane told them not to hurt “the little guy.”

After Swift cited the trio and confiscated a large muskie and several “sizable” walleyes, he ordered them to appear in court the next day in Hayward at 10 a.m. They ignored the summons and never showed up. Swift encountered Novak a month later and arrested him, drove him to court, and watched him pay the $50 fine.

Swift’s history with Novak and Milaga was brief. A year later, their bullet-riddled bodies were pulled from the Chicago Canal, both weighted with heavily wrapped wire. McErlane didn’t fare much better. He died of pneumonia in October 1932, a year after killing his common-law wife by shooting her four times during an argument.

gangster tunnel

Threatened...and Answered

Saltis, meanwhile, continued ignoring the fish-refuge signs, and boasted that Ernie Swift would never stop him from fishing there. But Saltis was easy to monitor. He drove a black, bullet-proof Lincoln touring car that looked like a military staff car, given its mounted machine gun and a red banner up front. (Wisconsin banned machine guns in May 1929, but Northwoods district attorneys often feared gangsters and avoided prosecuting violators.)

In November 1929, Swift and fellow warden Fred Minor spotted Saltis’ car parked uphill from the Winter Dam and snuck in to watch from a distance. After seeing Saltis catch six large muskies and drag them on a stringer toward his car, Swift and Minor moved onto the trail above, guns drawn. They disarmed Saltis and arrested him, confiscated the muskies, drove him to court, and endured his insults before he paid the $50 fine.

As Saltis stomped out of the courthouse he told Swift: “I’ll be fishing the dam after you’re dead and gone. The next time you try to take me, you better come shooting.”

News of the threat reached the state’s chief warden, Harley MacKenzie, who ordered Swift to Wisconsin’s capital in Madison for a meeting with Governor Walter Kohler. Even though many Northwoods locals distrusted the government and sympathized with mobsters, Kohler backed a plan by Swift and MacKenzie to call Saltis’ bluff, even if it meant killing “Polack Joe.”

Swift, however, worried that Northwoods courts and newspapers would side with the public’s “wild element” if a shootout ensued. Yes, many locals grumbled about the mobsters’ poaching activities, but the thugs often used bribes and threats to silence witnesses, squelch complaints, win verdicts, and muzzle small-town newspapers. Therefore, law-enforcement officers often felt isolated and powerless in their own communities.

Gov. Kohler, however, said if the Northwoods erupted in unrest, he would declare martial law and send the National Guard to restore order. Given that assurance, Swift and MacKenzie handpicked five experienced wardens to confront Saltis if he resumed fishing in the refuge the next summer. Sure enough, in August 1930 Swift learned Saltis was again fishing below the Winter Dam. In fact, Saltis stationed guards with .45-caliber Tommy Guns on the road to ensure no one disturbed him and his pals.

When Swift felt confident Saltis and his friends would be fishing there one morning, he assembled his team and some boats 12 miles upriver. After loading their gear, Swift’s team floated downriver and camped about a mile above the dam. At dawn they snuck downriver on foot through brush made soggy by overnight rain. Topping a bank overlooking the dam, they used binoculars to watch Saltis and two companions catching and stashing fish in the refuge.

As the gangsters bagged their fish and started uphill to their cars, the seven wardens snuck to their assigned rendezvous points in the woods below the guards and parked cars. The wardens were carrying .30-30 rifles and leveled them on the three poachers when they walked into the trap, huffing and puffing from the ascent.

After disarming and arresting the trio, Swift sent four wardens down the road to arrest the guards at their cars. The wardens easily snuck into position in the thick, wet underbrush, and finished the job without incident. The wardens drove the poachers and guards to jail in the mobsters’ vehicles and escorted them into court the next day. The judged fined Saltis $50, and his companions—Ed Morrison and Joe Sedovich—$25 each. The district attorney, however, refused to prosecute the guards on firearms violations, even though each was caught with a submachine gun.

The Aug. 15, 1930 issue of the Milwaukee Journal in southeastern Wisconsin carried a large headline that read, “Joe Saltis Trapped by Armed Wardens.” In contrast, the Northwoods’ newspapers ignored the arrests, instead speculating whether recent heavy rains had ended the region’s drought.

Saltis and his friends finally grew less bold. Saltis, however, stood by a friend in September 1933 when a warden saw the man poach a ruffed grouse. Swift drove to Barker Lake the next day with a warrant for Saltis and the shooter. Saltis welcomed Swift in, slapped a $100 bill onto the table, and told him to take it. When Swift refused, Saltis slid another $100 bill onto the table, and then another. Before long, Swift was staring at a $1,000 cash bribe, only $600 less than his annual salary. Still, he refused.

Drunk and enraged, Saltis grabbed a chair and shattered it against a wall. He yelled at Swift to follow him outside, where he scattered a bunch of chickens feeding in the yard. Saltis drew his .45 Army semiauto handgun, shot the heads off three chickens with three shots, and then asked Swift, “Get the idea?”

Conclusion

Saltis later beat the charges from that case by bribing a jury foreman, but his “retirement” in the Northwoods was ending. Wisconsin’s attorney general was cracking down on the Northwoods’ uninvited underworld guests, and Prohibition ended in December 1933. With his finances drying up, Saltis sold his resort to pay creditors, and returned to Chicago. Before long he was divorced and destitute.

Saltis died five weeks short of his 53rd birthday in August 1947 on Chicago’s skid row. It might not have been Hell, but it was a two days’ drive on roads leading to Hurley and Hayward.

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