Author shares stories of gangsters at Minnesota hideouts
BEMIDJI - Rarely has a flat tire spawned so many words.
Chad Lewis, author of over a dozen books covering the hidden, the haunted and the unknown, found himself sucked into the Minnesota hideouts of Prohibition-era gangsters thanks to a roadside calamity. While working on another book, Lewis’ flat placed him just outside the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisc.
“I walk in to grab a pop and they said ‘you must be here for the (John) Dillinger exhibit,’” he said Saturday, following a presentation of his book, “The Minnesota Road Guide Gangster Hot Spots” at the Bemidji Public Library. “I just thought, if I didn’t know about this place, I wonder how many other places are out there.”
For most people the wondering would stop there, but for Lewis, the digging began. From bullet holes left in-tact in northern Minnesota motel windows, to St. Paul basements where gangsters who found themselves on the wrong side of a gun supposedly remain buried, Jimmy Hoffa-style, Lewis’ travel guide for gangster-aficionados covers nearly the entire state. And he roamed each mile himself.
With humorous insight made available by looking through the long lens of history, the Eau Claire, Wisc. native explained some of the roadside attractions, but also why the Dillingers, Capones and Baby Face Nelsons of the time were initially revered by the general public.
“They were folk heroes,” he said. “This was a time when the big banks were foreclosing on people’s property - I know, it’s hard to relate to that now - and so people thought ‘who cares if they’re stealing from the banks, the banks are stealing from me!’”
It was a far different time, according to Lewis. The F.B.I. was in its infancy (“Most agents were fresh, college graduates who had never even fired a gun,” he said), Prohibition was “more of a suggestion than a law in most states” and Americans saw the Tommy Gun-toting Dillinger and his ilk as “bucking the system, living on the open road.”
But the road, as Lewis has found writing road guides in Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota, Illinois, Florida, Texas and New York, can become weary.
“I think Babyface was fed up with it all. These guys weren’t all living this glamorous, romanticized life. Sometimes they were sleeping in ditches,” Lewis said. “I can see their mentality. The road quickly loses its allure.”
But, for those who don’t spend the better part of their summers on it, the road can be a great place for discovery, according to author. Even if the strange is what you seek.
“Go on your own adventure in Minnesota,” he said. “I think that you’ll find it’s one Hell of a weird place.”