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John Lamb, Published November 06 2013

Minnesota gangster roadmap leads to Moorhead

MOORHEAD – It was a flat tire in the Northwoods of Wisconsin that led Chad Lewis to follow 90-year-old trails across Minnesota.

Lewis was researching a book on ghosts when he got a flat near Manitowish Waters, Wis., more than a decade ago. After fixing it, he went into the nearby Little Bohemia lodge looking for a soda.

What he found was the source for his next few books.

Little Bohemia, he discovered, was the site of a legendary 1934 shootout between John Dillinger’s gang and the FBI.

Enthralled by Little Bohemia’s exhibit of Dillinger artifacts and memorabilia, the Minneapolis author spent the next decade researching and writing about gangsters in the Upper Midwest.

“That really started me digging into how many of these places where gangsters once roamed are still around,” he says.

Lewis reads from and discusses his book, “The Minnesota Road Guide to Gangster Hotspots,” tonight at the Moorhead Public Library.

The book looks at gangster activity between 1926 and 1935, what he calls “the heyday,” when Dillinger, George “Babyface” Nelson, Al Capone, Ma Barker and her boys were shooting up the Midwest.

“It was a wild time. It must have been just completely crazy and anything kind of went,” he says from his home in Minneapolis. “This was really the time when people would question the government with prohibition and actively break the law by going to these speakeasies.”

While most people know Chicago was the Midwest capital for gang activity, further north offered a place for the criminals to breathe a little easier.

“When the heat got too much down there, both literally and figuratively, they would come up to the Northwoods and relax and enjoy it,” Lewis explains. “They knew that Northwoods attitude, ‘As long as you’re not hurting anyone, anything goes,’ and in the ’20s and ’30s it was even more so.”

He explains how Capone’s cronies would call lodges or hotels in advance to say “the boys” were coming, and authorities would ask how they could help in exchange for payment.

“I think in Minnesota prohibition was more of a suggestion than a law. They didn’t care about bootleggers,” Lewis says.

While there is also a Wisconsin version of the book, Lewis says there wasn’t enough substantiated gang activity in North Dakota to warrant a book. He says the Minnesota copy does include some reports of Fargo bars being raided as well as some in Moorhead.

There’s enough in the Land of 10,000 Lakes to inspire a couple of road trips. There’s the account of how police nearly arrested Dillinger, holed up in St. Paul, before he snuck out in another gunfight. And there’s “Babyface” Nelson’s 1933 robbery of the First National Bank of Brainerd, where he didn’t fire a shot inside but sprayed the street in bullets.

Lewis found Nelson, who was also involved in the New Bohemia gunfight, to be an interestingly complex character, a devoted family man but an unpredictable mobster who turned homicidal toward lawmen.

He dispels beliefs that Ma Barker was the brains behind the Barker gang, which included her sons who robbed banks and kidnapped wealthy men like brewer William Hamm and Edward Bremer, both of St. Paul, in the ’20s and early ’30s. She and one of her sons were killed in an FBI gunfight in 1935.

“Those who knew her when the legends came out said, ‘That old woman couldn’t plan breakfast, much less a bank robbery,’ ” Lewis says.

He says he’s not trying to glorify criminals, rather give some exposure to regional history.

“No matter what you make of these men and women, we should celebrate the time period. Because they really changed Minnesota history,” he says. “I want people to hear about these places and read about them, then go visit for themselves. These places are still here, but for how much longer? I think it’s amazing you can go to Stillwater and have a steak at the same place John Dillinger ate. You can spend a night in some of the same places the gangsters stayed. It’s living history.”

If you go

What: Reading and discussion with Chad Lewis, author of “The Minnesota Road Guide to Gangster Hotspots”

When: 7 tonight

Where: Moorhead Public Library, 118 5th St. S.

Info: Free. (218) 233-7594

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533