Did this cabin on Little Bemidji Lake once belong to Al Capone?
Rumors have circulated for 100 years that Capone was a Minnesota lake lover and friend to the owner of East Grand Forks "Whiteys" bar. But is it fact or fiction?
Editor’s Note: This is part three of “The Capones of North Dakota.” Part one told the story of Al Capone’s older brother Vincenzo who worked in law enforcement in North Dakota and in Part two, a teenage waitress in a small North Dakota town shares her story of the night she served steak to Capone.
Was it simply wishful thinking for the fine people of North Dakota and western Minnesota that the most famous gangster in the world would want to spend time in their prairie towns and quiet lakeshores?
It couldn’t really be true, right? Why would Al Capone, Public Enemy Number One, leave his mob empire in Chicago to escape to the sedate upper Midwest?
Is “Capone at the lake” Minnesota’s version of the Loch Ness Monster? Truth or legend?
But if we are to believe the countless yarns from the 1920s that still get spun today, “Al Capone slept here.”
Was he here for work, running his moonshine operation out of Minot, or getting close to the Canadian border to oversee his whiskey smuggling operation? Or was he here just to relax to hunt and fish or take off his expensive wingtips and dip his toes in several of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes?
Recently, Forum Communications examined how Capone turned the North Shore of Minnesota as well as parts of Wisconsin into his land of leisure , but it turns out Capone more than likely made his way to western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota as well. Here are just a few of the places he is believed to have been, either for work or pleasure.
Mekinock, Grand Forks County, North Dakota
When he was stationed at the Grand Forks Air Force base in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Gary Asproth (who now splits his time between Park Rapids, Minnesota, and Florida) heard many stories of Capone sightings in the tiny town of Mekinock about 20 miles northwest of Grand Forks.
“I met the people from around there and, of course, anything to do with this history always interested me, growing up with the dad I had,” Asproth said.
Asproth’s father, Carl, was a police officer in Duluth not far from one of Al Capone’s camps in northern Wisconsin. While Asproth said his father didn’t talk much about the connections he had to Capone, Gary’s godmother spilled the beans a few years back.
“She said, ‘I have to tell you this story because nobody else in the family is going to tell you. When I was a cigarette girl your dad used to take me and a couple of other girls and he would drive us to Capone's camp. He would bring Tommy guns and dancing girls. We went about four times,’” Asproth recalled.
So Asproth’s ears perked up when he heard what he calls credible accounts from old timers in Mekinock about gatherings of gangsters outside of town in the 1920s, similar to the parties his godmother talked about.
“It was very eerie because I guess the vehicles came in at night and they would have these parties - gambling parties,” Asproth said. “It was during Prohibition so that's probably why they kept it so under wraps. They always had alcohol and prostitution and all this other stuff going on.”
Asproth said he believes the gangsters stayed somewhere between Emerado and Mekinock. The two towns are about a half-hour away from Petersburg where waitresses at a family cafe shared credible accounts of once serving Capone's crew dinner.
The towns are also near Highway 2, which was believed to have been a popular route for bootlegging traffic during Prohibition.
“If you know Mekinock, it’s this tiny town, so I was blown away when I found out what transpired here,” Asproth said.
“Little Chicago,” Minot, North Dakota
During Prohibition, Minot became known as "Little Chicago” because of its reputation for lawlessness - everything from opium dens and prostitution to rum-running and secret tunnels.
The tunnels were constructed underneath some downtown buildings and some say used by Al Capone for his liquor smuggling operation. While Capone was most likely never burrowing through the tunnels himself, some have claimed he came to town occasionally to check in on the operation.
East Grand Forks, Minnesota
Did Capone make an appearance in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, once called “The Wickedest City in the World?” Some people in the city just across the river from North Dakota said “yes.”
In 2017, Greg Stennes, a longtime partner and former manager of Whitey's Wonderbar & Cafe in East Grand Fork told the Grand Forks Herald back in the day, "East Grand Forks was kind of naughty.”
Stennes began busing tables there in 1968 for Edwin “Whitey” Larson who had opened what was then called the Coney Island Lunchroom when he was just 19 years old in 1925, five years after the passage of Prohibition.
"Whitey made most of his money with slot machines and whiskey. There were 40 bars in downtown East Grand Forks, go figure," Stennes said.
Rumors flew around East Grand Forks that Larson was good friends with Capone, but Stennes said Larson never told him about Al Capone being there, and it isn’t the kind of a thing he would have kept quiet about.
Stennes says he also heard the tales of Capone and of the block-long secret tunnels leading from the saloons to the river, but he doubts all the stories are true.
West central Minnesota lakes
Rumors of Al Capone either visiting lakes in west central Minnesota not far from the East Grand Forks area are as common as sunburn in August. Rumors have Capone being spotted at several lakes including; Little Bemidji, Fishhook Lake, Big Bass Lake, Lake Melissa, and many more.
But is “Capone at the lake” Minnesota’s version of the Loch Ness Monster? Truth or legend?
Doug Schumann owns Rainbow Resort on Little Bemidji Lake, located in northwestern Minnesota—20 miles from Itasca State Park. His grandparents opened the resort in 1958.
He is quick to point out that the Capone rumors circulating at the resort for years are unsubstantiated, but frequently told. They suggest Capone mixed business at the Canadian border with pleasure at the lake.
“The stories are that he would go up there to check on his smuggling operation, you know to find out how things were going. Then he used to run through this area,” he said.
In fact, a granddaughter of Capone’s driver once said that Capone’s favorite drive was from Park Rapids to Bemidji.
Asproth said the hunting and fishing alone could have brought Capone to the area. Even the most famous gangster in the world occasionally might want to hang up the “Gone Fishin” sign.
“Capone loved fishing. When he got out of prison that's primarily what he did. He kind of retired out of the mob scene and did a lot of fishing," Asproth said.
Schumann said the topography of the land was also appealing to the gangsters.
“When the lumber industry started coming up here in the early 1900s to log all the pine trees. They created all these little trails and roads for these guys to use as back roads instead of using highways,” he said. “Then every once in a while, he’d want to hang out in that little cabin when the heat was on.”
That “little cabin” is actually two small cabins across the lake from Rainbow Resort. Schumann said the main cabin was once used as a bar/restaurant for loggers in the area. By the 1920s and ‘30s it was rustic and barebones, and the place some people say Capone hid.
“The main cabin is an original log cabin with a big screened-in porch in front of it. But the little cabin sits off in the woods. In the summer with the trees you can barely see it in there,” Schumann said.
A granddaughter of Capone’s driver once said that Capone’s favorite drive was from Park Rapids to Bemidji
Asproth knew people on Fishhook Lake that said Al Capone had been a friend of their family and had even fished there until the feds found out where he was.
“Capone had his driver parked on the other side of the lake and went across the lake in a rowboat and out got out of there,” he said.
And stories like this have been told for years around the bonfires of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes - over sips of cold beer, and bites of sticky s’mores. But are they just campfire stories, heard on these still waters as often as the call of the loon?
How much is fact and how much is fiction? It’s hard to tell.
Virgil Stenberg, a retired University of North Dakota professor who later lived in Bemidji, told Mysteries Magazine in 2002 that Al Capone was in Bemidji on various occasions, while retired FBI special agent Ed Riege said he had never heard of specific sightings at least in the Bemidji area, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
“It wouldn’t surprise me at all. Those fellows got around and they had a lot of hideouts,” Riege said.
“Let’s put it this way, he (Capone) had places all over the place,” he said. “I think the bottom line is there are just too many stories out there for at least some of them not to be true.”
Greg Stennes, of Whitey’s fame, might have summed it up best.
"Some stories are just yarns, but they're not necessarily untruths either. Sometimes the unknown, the could-have-been is much more fun anyhow."