Wisconsin January 06, 2018
Back In The Day, This Quiet Wisconsin Town Was A Mafia Mecca
Wisconsin, with its ease of access to Chicago, had pockets of Mafia activity all across the state, even well into the 1980s. Green Lake, Lake Geneva, and other spots allowed gangsters to get away from the scrutiny of the city to regroup and strategize. Way up north in Manitowish Waters is a lodge built in 1929 that just five years later would become a haven to John Dillinger and his associates and then the site of a botched FBI raid.
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Back in 1929, Emil Wanatka built Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters. It was a cozy little Northwoods escape that provided food and lodging for those looking to get away from the city. The restaurant did decent local business and Little Bohemia was quickly a part of the landscape up there.
As Wanatka was setting up his business, he would occasionally consult with a lawyer, Louis Piquett. This is not unusual. What turns this story extraordinary is that Piquett had another rather famous — or infamous, really — client: John Dillinger. The story of how Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and a few other associates and their significant others ended up in Manitowish Waters differs. It’s more than likely that Piquett made the connection between the two and any discrepancies in the story come from Wanatka himself, who would have wanted to cover himself with the FBI so as not to be charged with harboring a criminal.
However it happened, Dillinger and his associates arrived at Little Bohemia Lodge on April 20, 1934. There were at least 10 of them. Whether during the planning process or after they arrived, at some point Wanatka decided the money he could collect from the gangsters rewards was the real prize and he planned to double-cross Dillinger.
Using his wife and some relatives as well as some pretty brilliant subterfuge, Wanatka got in touch with the Milwaukee police and then in turn the FBI (not then known by that name) to sell out Dillinger. The FBI wasn’t particularly prepared to stage a raid in this tiny Wisconsin town. They used Rhinelander Airport as their base, but found themselves without more than a single car for transportation.
As they worked to figure out their logistics, Dillinger, who was wont to change his mind on a whim, decided it was time to leave Little Bohemia. Wanatka got word to the FBI, who in turn needed to up their raid despite being inadequately prepared to do so.
What ensued was a large scale gunfight that left a local man and an FBI agent dead, no captured gangsters, and Little Bohemia riddled with bullets and broken glass.
Dillinger, Nelson, and their whole gang escaped. It was an embarrassment for Herbert Hoover and his department and the raid is now rather infamous in its own right.
Visitors today can see how Little Bohemia Lodge once stood as an idyllic escape in Wisconsin's Northwoods. It's sad to imagine the Lodge had just five years of peaceful existence before Dillinger and the mafia changed it forever.
Now, 84 years later, Little Bohemia stands virtually unchanged from that day in April 1934. The owners have done a spectacular job preserving the history and creating a totally unique relic of a time gone by. The walls still contain multitudes of bullet holes. The owners have collected an impressive and unique variety of artifacts from the time to create a really interesting museum of sorts.
Little Bohemia still operates as a restaurant and visitors are able to explore and investigate and see how this small town lodge became such a bit part of the mafia and gangster scene of the 1930s.
Little Bohemia and the botched raid here were also dramatized in the movie "Public Enemies" and the restaurant has numerous photos from that process to share, as well.
Known for great food and drink for nearly 90 years, Little Bohemia stands as a relic of a time gone by. It continues to serve the people of Manitowish Waters while also preserving a very specific time in American history. For many, it's difficult to understand what life was like under mafia rule in the 1930s and it can often feel over-sensationalized. Little Bohemia Lodge stands as a true homage to how far the FBI would go to stop gangsters. It's a totally unique relic of a time gone by that few of us can even begin to imagine.
Little Bohemia Lodge is located at 142 US-51, Manitowish Waters, WI 54545.
Have you ever checked out this awesome piece of American history? Let us know in the comments.
Looking for more Wisconsin spots with some hidden pieces of history? Check out
15 Amazing Wisconsin Secrets You Never Knew Existed.