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ROADTRIP INTO HISTORY – LITTLE BOHEMIA LODGE

~November 28th, 2009

A slightly overcast day in the northern woods of Wisconsin near a serene, picturesque lodge, along a quiet lake. Through the woods walks a forty-three year old man. Of average height and build, brown eyes with a glint of hazel sweeps the woods in a hunter’s gaze. Wearing a topcoat and fedora more styled to the 1930’s than 2009, his path takes him to the site of history. Bits of historical data stream through his mind, like a stream of .45 ACP bullets emerging from the heated barrel of a 1921 model Thompson submachine gun, or the harsh rasping bark of that heavy hitter, the Browning Automatic Rifle (or better known by its acronym B.A.R.) 75 years seem to fade……

The actors in our drama are all gone now. The last member of the motorized bandits or more commonly known in the newspapers and reels of the times, the “Public Enemies”, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, died in 1979. Many of the characters in the historical era of the 1930s died young and were felled by the guns of the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), or by officers trained by the premier State Police Force of the age, the vaunted and venerable Texas Rangers.

My journey, as the 43 three year old narrator began several months ago. I had seen the recent movie “Public Enemies” in my current city of residence, Juneau, Alaska. I also discovered the American Zoot Shooters Association. Being a shooter myself, and after reading the book and seeing the movie, I wanted to see details of day-to-day life of a gang so ready to use their firearms to loot and pillage the Midwest. Indeed, while I know the performance and ballistics of the weapons on both sides of the law, I realized that there was an opportunity to see the results of an actual shootout between the Dillinger gang and the FBI. These results were available at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin. By an odd twist of fate, I had decided to take my annual leave in Indiana for a reenactor festival and visit family in another small Wisconsin town, not 3 hours from the famous lodge.

After intense manhunts and a phenomenal string of daring daylight robberies, the John Dillinger gang decided to head to more secluded, quiet surroundings. From various underworld sources of information, the gang settled in at the Little Bohemia Lodge. The infamous location of the April 20, 1934 shootout was then owned by Emil Wanatka, in the Wisconsin town of Manitowish Waters. Upon arrival at the remote hideout the gang promised the owners that they would cause no trouble or disruptions, but nonetheless monitored the owners whenever they left or spoke on the phone. Emil’s wife Nan and her brother managed to evade Lester Gillis aka George “Baby Face” Nelson, who was tailing them, and mailed a warning letter to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago, which later notified the FBI. Two days later a posse of local law enforcement officers and FBI agents led by Special Agents Hugh Clegg and Melvin Purvis approached the lodge during the early morning of April 23rd. Unfortunately, two barking dogs created a disturbance at the posse’s approach. However the outlaw gang was so used to the Wanatka’s dogs that they did not even respond to the alarm. Only after shots were fired by the FBI, which mistakenly gunned down a local resident, John Hoffman, as well as John Morris and Eugene Boisneau, two Civilian Conservation Corps workers, as they drove away, that the Dillinger gang was alerted to the law enforcement officers. Gunfire erupted between the two groups, but as usual, Dillinger’s good fortune held, and the gang escaped. One FBI agent, W. Carter Baum was shot dead by “Baby Face” Nelson during the gun battle.

Sadly, as a child, my father and family could never have afforded such a trip, not to mention the souvenirs and meals I had planned, but time changes all things. I loaded up for the 3 hour drive from my hometown to Manitowish Waters. My digital camera, spare batteries, a diet Coke, bottles of water, and appropriate Art Landry big band and swing CDs, my 1930s style topcoat and fedora, were included in my gear.

Taking a more circuitous route than even Dillinger and his gang, I saw the appeal of this part of Wisconsin. It was definitely isolated, with towns, even today, such as Crivitz, Pembine, Wausaukee, Eagle River, Rhinelander, and Tomahawk, rarely populated by over more than 1,000 people, and often considerably less. Driving alone, even with music, gives a person time to contemplate. Was the Dillinger gang happy for the solitude? Was this a chance to plan further robberies, or begin planning to disappear from the history books? Maybe the trip would serve as a final farewell in an era where more and more of the audacious criminals of the day were being hunted and when “dead or alive” generally meant dead?

Pulling into Manitowish Waters, I began to look for the lodge. Disdaining the modern tools of most tourists (GPS), I elected to search for the lodge with a local map. I need not have worried, for the lodge was hard to miss in this small town. A large brown and white sign was prominently displayed on the lawn facing the State Road. A left turn brought me through the gates, with signage erected between what appears to be 4 petrified tree trunks. The curving driveway leads up to the parking area in front of the main entry door. Thanks to the movie “Public Enemies” the fame has spread, and the Lodge has erected a banner sign conspicuously displayed on the front of the building. The star, Johnny Depp’s Dillingeresque grin can’t be missed. Straight away the history of the site strikes me. I have entered the same parking area where the FBI fired upon unidentified civilians. Indeed, my first photographs were of the treeline in which the agents took cover, and the tarmac where the unfortunate locals were killed and wounded. I parked and glanced up and saw evidence even today, 75 years later, of the incident. Repairs to the first chimney are still apparent. Bullet holes and patching can be clearly seen. Since I had apportioned my entire day to the lodge trip, I carefully photographed the exterior of the lodge. Battle damage has been preserved in the forms of windows that had taken rifle and submachine gun fire. The impacted panes were layered in between two layers of glass, exterior and interior. In addition, the exterior balcony of the rooms occupied by the Dillinger gang bore multiple bullet holes, testimony to the firepower of the local sheriff’s office posse and FBI agents directed against the suspects. The chimney of the original guest dining room bears bullet pockmarks and patched repair points as well. Being a target shooter and having served in the military a couple of things are clear about the damage. One is that multiple shooters appear to have been deployed. The balcony is 3 sided and bullet holes exist on all three sides. In addition, the holes do not appear to be entrance on one side and exit on any other. The sizes are consistent with entry marks only. Another interesting note is the firing pattern. The rounds appear to have been fired either in a suppressing pattern, or were not directed target specific. They were not grouped in tight burst patterns, as you would normally see with a Thompson submachine gun fired by an experience user. Of course, taking into account the earliness of the hour, it could be that the posse members were simply firing at the visible windows and the rounds fell short, striking the balcony.

Inside the lodge, the damage is more readily apparent. In the original dining room are the bullet holed windows seen from the outside, as well as the interior portion of the chimney. Upstairs on the second floor are the rooms in which Dillinger and the other desperadoes stayed. In incredible foresight, Mr. Emil Wanatka managed to preserve the rooms exactly as they were 75 years previously. Indeed, for a brief time, the savvy Emil had Mr. John Herbert Dillinger Sr. act as curator and narrator about his infamous son. The rooms are currently protected behind locked glass doors and glass paneling, which allow the observer to see a micro-time capsule into both the 1930s, as well as a glimpse of daily life of the gangsters. In Dillinger’s room there is a breakfast placesetting laid out ready for the morning meal. On top of an old-style radio/record player is a gray fedora belonging to one of the gang members. Was it Dillinger’s, Homer van Meter’s, or perhaps the homicidal and trigger-happy Baby Face Nelson’s? Beginning in the bathroom, the damage becomes almost overwhelming. The bathroom is riddled, with bullet holes in the curtains, including scorchmarks where the round burned the edges of the holes. The ceramic sink basin is broken from the impact of the law enforcement officer’s rounds, and bullet damage rings the walls, including the round that broke the medicine chest’s mirror. In the mail bedrooms, the walls, and ceiling all bear mute testimony to the firepower directed at the bandits. Several large portions of plaster were blasted off of the walls, definitely the result of the high-power rifles carried by the posse. Smaller holes, undoubtedly the result of Thompsons mar the wood ceiling and walls.

In another room is an informal Dillinger museum. The walls are covered with newspaper articles, opinion pieces, and detailed accounts written during the hectic days of the Depression, both extolling and damning Dillinger. In a glass case are personal effects of Dillinger, including a monogrammed Arrow™ dress shirt, as well as an assortment of colourful silk ties, still vibrant after 75 years. In addition, there are Dillinger’s sunglasses, and grooming products, such as a partially used tube of Burma-Shave ™. A chilling reminder of the deadliness of the gang also exists. A can, once holding innocent mixed vegetables, stands in the case, riddled with bullet holes from a friendly shooting contest between Baby Face Nelson, Homer Van Meter, and John Dillinger. There are also 2 live rounds; the ubiquitous .45 ACP bullet, which fed both Thompson Submachine guns, and both Colt .45 semiautomatic pistols and S&W revolvers, as well as what appears to be a .351 round. These were resting on a military issue Thompson Drum Magazine shoulder pouch. Also in this room is a suit and topcoat of Dillinger’s also left behind when the bandits took flight into the woods to escape the barrage of gunfire. I am amazed to see both Dillinger and I share the same taste in topcoats and clothing materials! Even more poignant, and perhaps ironic, is a theater chair occupying the space next to Dillinger’s suit. According to the staff, this chair was the one Dillinger occupied in the Biograph Theater in Chicago the night he was shot and killed by the FBI detail led by Melvin Purvis.

Downstairs, there are more personal items in a display case. A grooming kit, packages of Exlax (maybe the dinners were a little heavier back then?) as well as shaving soap, and a bag used to carry caper money in, reside there. The leather valise supposedly held the $200,000.00 in cash representing the gang’s accumulated take of loot from the Midwest robberies. Allegedly, that money may even now be buried on these grounds. All of this lends to the personal feel of the displays and everything else I have seen.

No matter whom you are, the intrigue and the stories from those days cannot help but capture the imagination. All of the elements were there; cars, guns, women and money, as well as a life lived on the edge by desperate men, trained and skilled in the use of firearms, bearing the best technology of the day, and ready to use them. After being here, and despite the amazing escape, I do not believe these men really believed they would survive to “retire” from criminal life. Indeed, from all indications, most of them foreswore a return to prison and preferred to go out with a gun in the hand, and an opportunity to take their pursuers with them.

After a sumptuous dinner, I began my three hour drive back to a more populated, if not slightly busy surroundings. The trip had definitely allowed me to satisfy some of my curiosity, but after the trip, additional questions have been raised. Perhaps my next visit to the Lower 48 and additional gangster era hotspots and museums would bring forward additional answers.

by Ron “Schemer” Schramm, AZSA member no. 18

Photographs

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6 Responses to “ROADTRIP INTO HISTORY – LITTLE BOHEMIA LODGE”

  1. zootshoot says:

    The Public Enemies DVD was released this week! Also, zynga’s Mafia Wars is having “Public Enemies Week”. You can play a special segment of the game that focuses on the movie. You can win special Dillinger Gang loot, read trivia and see clips from the movie including the Little Bohemia Lodge shoot-out!

  2. The Sicilian says:

    Enjoyed the story. Well written–looking forward to meeting you someday. The Sicilian, AZSA #29.

  3. Ron says:

    Thank you for the comments. I am working on adding AZSA to my website.

  4. zootshoot says:

    An Italian car magazine, called Cruisin’Life, published an article about the Little Bohemia get-away car. The Dillinger gang’s bullet riddled Ford Model A was recently purchased from a Barrett-Jackson auction. Cruisin’ Life used information and photos from this blog by Ron “Schemer” Schramm. The following links are the article page and their website. If you can read Italian, enjoy!

    http://www.zootshooters.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Italian-car-magazine-article.pdf

    http://www.cruisinlife.com/

  5. 1932 Ford For Sale…

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