When I was a youth, we country bumpkins who lived on the edge of “the great north woods” in central Wisconsin had a special relationship with city slickers from Chicago. They liked to visit us to escape the sultry summer heat of the big city. We liked their money.
Aside from coveted jobs at the local paper mill, employment opportunities were few in Tomahawk, Wisconsin. The Tomahawk Boat Company, which morphed into a Harley-Davidson plant many years later, was just starting up. Other manufacturing operations also were small.
Summer tourism took up the slack. Some forty resorts were within a few miles of Tomahawk. Many were Mom and Pop operations. Most had a main building and cabins for guests. A lot of the guests hailed from Chicagoland; many came back year after year to the same establishment for a week or two of fishing or just relaxing and being pampered on the shore of a lake or river.
We catered to the cash. A large billboard on main street proudly proclaimed Jim’s Logging Camp, a steakhouse north of town, to be “The Antoines of the North,” referring to a famous New Orleans eatery. A line of cars with Illinois plates, many of them Cadillacs and Lincolns, filled the parking lot outside Jim’s most summer evenings. With few exceptions, Tomahawk natives drove Fords and Chevys. We worked at places like Jim’s; we ate at Rouman’s Restaurant, Arnie's Grill, or Gene’s Snack Shack if we ate out at all.
Of course, the higher class resorts provided bonus jobs each spring as they spruced up their places anticipating the coming of the Chicagoans. We made several, more subtle, adjustments. I worked part-time at the National Tea store, a food market on main street. Not so strangely, the manager appeared with revised price sheets the same week Chicago public schools closed for summer vacation. Every price went up about 10 per cent. Just after Labor Day signaled the end of summer vacation time, new sheets appeared again. Every price went down about 10 per cent.
We endured a few indignities to get the greenbacks. One was sometimes blatant disregard for local regulations, exemplified by “Chicago U-Turns” on main street. These mid-block course corrections were illegal and unsafe maneuvers usually ignored by our tiny police force, but definitely not appreciated by us locals. Although we were on good terms personally with most tourists, we couldn't help but overhear remarks from others about the inadequacy of our small-town life compared to their superior existences in the big city area.
As a form of payback, we took satisfaction in keeping quiet, other than snickering a bit, about the line of tourists fishing from the Fourth Street Bridge. Just a few yards upstream the city’s untreated sewage splashed into the Wisconsin River. We speculated about how the uninformed anglers liked the taste of their catches. We just laughed there. We did not fish there.
We absolutely did not make any joking remarks about anything associated with one type of tourist. Those were the guys who drove to northern Wisconsin to escape a different kind of Chicago heat. Stories abounded about visits by mobsters, including the infamous John Dillinger portrayed so expertly by Johnny Depp in the 2009 film “Public Enemies.” Were the tales myths or facts?
Nelson headed north.--I several times heard Oscar Newborg’s account of the day he spotted George “Baby Face” Nelson driving through town on main street (part of the Highway 51 route at the time). Newborg said he jumped in his car and followed Nelson to learn where he was going. He soon thought better of getting too close to the notorious robber and murderer, and stopped at the Midget Supper Club a few miles north of the city. Nelson continued north. Newborg returned to Tomahawk and phoned police.
Oscar Newborg was a respected businessman and civic leader. He owned a clothing store, was an assistant chief of the volunteer fire department, was a past-Master of the Masonic Lodge, served on the school board for several years, and was an active member of the Grace Lutheran Church. I knew him very well; he was one of the few adults who allowed friends of his sons to address him by his first name. I never knew him to invent stories, lie about anything, or even exaggerate any situation he was involved with. Before parking meters were installed late in the 1940s, Newborg always parked his Chevy in front of his store. It is quite possible that he could have seen Nelson, who had a well-publicized distinctive appearance, driving by and had time to hop into his car and follow the outlaw.
Was Nelson heading to Little Bohemia Lodge at Manitowish Waters? That’s 55 miles straight up Highway 51 from Tomahawk. There in April of 1934, FBI agents surprised him and other members of the Dillinger gang. The G-men shot up just about everything at Little Bohemia, except for the gangsters. All the crooks escaped. The “Public Enemies” filmmakers used some literary license to alter history in their version. The movie shows Nelson being killed as he tried to get away. He actually was shot dead months later by lawmen in Illinois.
Was Nelson heading to a resort much nearer my hometown when Newborg spotted him? Or, was he going to Little Bohemia on a different occasion? He could have been.
Money makers relaxed at the lake.--I heard a story about a gang of counterfeiters vacationing near Tomahawk from two reputable people. The yarn said the group rented a cottage on Clear Lake and stayed for several weeks in the 1940s. One version claimed they were arrested there by federal agents and the printing plates were in their possession at the time; the other said they left peacefully and were arrested later in Illinois.
Mrs. J. S. Griffith, who owned Essex Lodge on Clear Lake for many years, was one source of the story. Her reliability as a witness was enhanced by the fact that she never took a drink. She was a member of our Christian Science Society, and a steadfast foe of alcohol use. Ads for her resort proudly proclaimed that no liquor was allowed on the premises. Mrs. Griffith told the counterfeiter story in detail on several visits to our home.
One summer before my teen years, Mrs. Willis Osborne, wife of one of the co-publishers of the Tomahawk Leader, invited my mother, my sister, and me to spend a week at the Osborne cottage on Clear Lake. “Aunt Lutie,” like Oscar Newborg and Mrs. Griffith, was a very reliable person. I remember my mother asking her if there was any truth to the counterfeiter story.
“Darn right they were at the lake,” Mrs. Osborne said. “They stayed just a couple of cabins over from here. I saw them walking around several times. Bill told me to steer clear of them.”
Dillinger gassed up.--John Dillinger’s bold bank heists and amazing escapes from the law were prominent in the news across America in the early 1930s. His face appeared in many newspaper photos as well as on wanted posters.
A night gas station attendant, Cliff Miller, claimed he filled ‘er up for Dillinger in Tomahawk. He just didn’t know it at the moment he pumped the gas. The next day, Miller picked up a newspaper with a front-page headline announcing Dillinger was on the loose in northern Wisconsin. Miller maintained that the photo with the story was without a doubt a picture of his late-night customer. Miller was working at the first Hufschmid station on Tomahawk Avenue, part of the old Highway 51 route through the city. The story became part of Hufschmid family lore.
Dick Hufschmid, who told me the tale, says Miller was a family friend as well as an employee at times. Hufschmid believes the story is true. It is quite possible that Miller saw Dillinger in Tomahawk. If Dillinger was on the way to Manitowish Waters, his most direct route was through Tomahawk. So we can be quite sure he passed through the city at least once, when he drove to Little Bohemia for vacation time with Nelson, several other gang members, and their girl friends—the time the FBI spoiled the party.
In those days, service station attendants got a fair amount of face time with customers as they cleaned windshields, asked if they could check the oil, and made change for cash payments. Tomahawk was not a busy place at night. Chances were good that Miller would remember the appearance of a stranger who drove in during the wee hours.
However, learning Dillinger’s identity from the newspaper photo casts some doubt on the possibility that the gangster was heading for Little Bohemia the night Miller claimed he serviced his car. The FBI agents acted on a tip and kept their operation quiet as they traveled to Little Bohemia to corner the gangsters. The fact that Dillinger was in northern Wisconsin was not leaked to the press in any historical account I know of.
Could Dillinger have been heading somewhere else north of Tomahawk when Miller saw him? Or, could he have gone to Little Bohemia on more than one occasion? Possibly.
Smoke rose in the hills.--My father told me to be careful hiking around in the Harrison Hills east of Tomahawk. “If you see smoke rising from the woods, stay away from it,” he said. “Those Dutchmen make moonshine out there, and stills make smoke. Moonshiners protect their stills, and some of those guys are pretty good shots. Just stay away from smoke plumes.”
Dad’s statement could have been more myth than truth in the late 1940s, but 10 or 15 years earlier it would have been absolute truth. A Harrison history based largely on recorded interviews with residents and several newspaper articles provide detailed accounts of liquor distilling and beer brewing operations in the Harrison Hills during Prohibition years. It was big-time work. The headline in the pertinent history chapter reads: “Harrison supplies Capone with alcohol.”
Names of owners of several small stills are recorded. Many of the names are familiar; I went to high school with their children or grandchildren. At least two operations qualified as full-fledged distilleries. When State agents raided one in 1936, they found production equipment capable of processing 1,000 gallons of booze a day, including an 80-foot-tall vat column, two steam pumps, and a 125-horsepower boiler.
The Harrison history provides details of how Al Capone developed large-scale bootlegging in the area. He selected 160 acres of fallow farmland that had several buildings and three entrance roads. A fake oil-drilling rig was set up to mask the operation. Large quantities of supplies were sent from Chicago by devious methods and many barrels of liquor were shipped to a big barn near Chicago.
Trusted Capone men performed most operations at the distillery. Only two local men were employed permanently. One, Ary Amelse, was shot in the leg during a raid by a local law enforcement task force that closed down the operation in 1927.
The raiders dumped 1,200 gallons of 190-proof alcohol and 15,000 gallons of mash into a nearby creek. An old timer recalled that local farmers were angry. They claimed their cows get drunk at the creek, causing their milk production to go down!
Mobsters were captured.--The Harrison history says “it is a possibility” that “Big Joe” Saltis, leader of a large Chicago beer-running operation, had a connection to the Capone operation in the hills. Whatever the truth of that, Saltis definitely spent some time in the Tomahawk area.
Saltis, Frank “Lefty” Koncil, “Three-Fingered Pete” Kacsinsky, and Nick Kramer, all hardened criminals, “vacationed “ in a cottage on Half Moon Lake for nearly a month. Posing as wealthy tourists, they rented the place from Patrick Stone. Ten men hand-picked from Chicago detective and patrol squads arrested all four in a surprise foray into the north.
Koncil was nabbed in downtown Tomahawk sitting in a Cadillac sedan as Kramer tried to make a phone call to Chicago from the hotel. Saltis and Kacsinsky were arrested at the Stone cottage. Incidentally, Half Moon Lake is adjacent to Clear Lake, and the two for a time were linked by a canal. This relatively small area, only about four miles from Tomahawk, appears to have had some special attraction as a vacation spot for mobsters during and after Prohibition.
Saltis and Koncil were charged with murdering a rival mobster. When task force members got them back to Chicago via the “fisherman’s special” train on the Milwaukee Road line, the prosecutor said he was determined to see them hanged. That didn’t happen, but seven months after his arrest in Tomahawk Koncil was gunned down in a gang attack on the west side of Chicago.
The four criminals did their part to uphold the tradition of providing Chicago financial support for northern Wisconsinites. One newspaper account said the farmers around Half Moon Lake liked the group because they threw lots of cash around when buying supplies. Farm women reported the gangsters spent as much as a dollar for a quart of milk, a price several times higher than the locals would pay. When Saltis was arrested, he had $2,710 in his pockets, a tidy sum at the time.
Rumors flew about Phil's.--One gangster rumor floated around Tomahawk during all the years I lived there. It was said that Phil Kilinski was dispatched by Chicago mobsters to build Phil’s Lake Nokomis Resort north of Tomahawk so the bad guys would have a comfortable place to hide out when necessary.
My parents emphasized to me that this was just a rumor, and I should not be repeating it to others or raising questions about it. My parents were good people. One reason for their admonition was that Phil Kilinski, Jr. was in high school during my sister’s years there and Arlene Kilinski was a classmate of mine. Mom and Dad didn’t want us contributing to any embarrassment for the Kilinski family.
The Kilinskis came to Tomahawk for school, church, and occasional shopping. They didn’t hang around much in the city. They seemed to hurry back to the resort, six miles north, soon after whatever event brought them to town. There was nothing sinister about that. Many resort owners operated that way. I was quite well acquainted with Arlene, and considered her a friend. I don’t remember anyone bringing up any possible mob connections in talks with her, and she certainly did not mention any.
However, Phil’s Resort was set a fair distance back from Highway 51 in a rather secluded area. Large picture windows in the substantial main building provided great views of Lake Nokomis. Guest cabins appeared to be larger than most at area resorts. A considerable investment would have been necessary to acquire the site and build the place. A unique feature was a gas station designed to resemble a windmill at the entrance road on the highway. It seemed an unusual place to build a gas station. A phone call from it would have been a perfect early warning that unwanted visitors were approaching the resort.
I rarely heard of locals frequenting the bar or the dining room at Phil’s. However, during my high school years Phil Jr. bought an airplane equipped with pontoons and offered aerial tours to the public from a takeoff spot on the lake in front of the main building. This was hardly something that would be advertised by operators of a mob hideout where privacy was at a premium.
Kilinskis no longer own the resort, but it continues to operate—now as Bootleggers Supper Club. A current ad for the club on the Internet says this:
“Bootleggers Supper Club is located on Lake Nokomis in Tomahawk, WI. The original building was built in 1928 and was used during Prohibition for mobsters. It is rumored that several famous gangsters including Capone and Dillinger used Bootleggers (then known as Phil’s Resort) as their hideout.”
Phil Kilinski was born in 1899, making him 29 or 30 when the resort was built. That would be about the right age for a trustworthy and presumably energetic young man to be sent north to develop a fairly large enterprise. However, building a safe haven in 1928 does not fit with the start of Capone’s well-documented bootlegging activities in the nearby Harrison area. They began earlier and ended in 1927. And the Harrison history presents no claim that Capone every visited the area, only that he bankrolled and masterminded the major bootlegging operation there.
And, why would Dillinger have been buying gas in Tomahawk when just a few more miles up the road he could have used a station at Phil’s place that he knew to be in friendly hands? And why would both he and Nelson feel the need to go to Manitowish Waters for vacation time, if an equal or better, and more secure, facility was available 55 miles closer to home? After all, they were betrayed by the Little Bohemia owner’s wife. Had they or their friends sent Phil to build a hideout, they surely would have been able to trust him completely. So why not party there?
Another report casts doubt on the mob connection at Phil’s, and also on separate sightings of Dillinger and Nelson in Tomahawk. The Harrison history says Elsie Theilman “vividly recollects” Dillinger, Nelson, and two other men stopping at Theilman’s saloon near Tomahawk. She said they were hard up for money and begged for a loan, but she refused. She gave in when they offered their elegant watches as collateral, and assured her they would return soon to repay her. Theilman said they then headed for Little Bohemia, although she does not say the men specifically told her where they were going.
Mrs. Theilman had evidence to authenticate her story. The men never returned, and she still had their watches when she granted the interview in 1995. If the mobsters were traveling together to Little Bohemia as her story suggests, why did Newborg and Miller see Nelson and Dillinger separately on their way through Tomahawk at quite different times of the day? Could they have been going to Little Bohemia or elsewhere on trips separate from the one that precipitated the famous FBI shootout at Little Bohemia?
Arlene Kilinski graciously arranged for the fifth reunion of our high school class to be held at Phil’s Lake Nokomis Resort. Her parents were present and helped make the event a pleasurable evening. I didn’t see a shred of evidence of criminal activity.
Did high-profile Chicago mobsters visit and sometimes stay in my home area? Absolutely. Just when and exactly where in many cases may remain forever mysterious.
Thanks to Richard Hufschmid for providing material for this post, and to his sister, Elaine Koth. Elaine volunteers at the Tomahawk Historical Society. She kindly sent me a copy of a chapter from“The Harrison History: Over 100 Years of Logging, Farming, and Bootlegging” and copies of newspaper articles from the 1930s.