Eighty years ago this week, Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, was put on the map and no one has forgotten it.
It was April 20, 1934, that John Dillinger and his gangster friends came to town and the infamous shoot-out became part of our history.
“Public Enemies” hit the big screen a few years ago and Johnny Depp re-kindled that interest. Little Bohemia, Manitowish Waters, and the countryside surrounding us all played a big part in this saga but there was one man – Carl C. Christensen – whose story has remained an integral part of our history.
Carl was born in Racine in 1902, the son of Danish immigrants. His father died when he was nine years old and his mother remarried a carpenter who passed on his trade to young Carl.
In 1930, at the age of 28 and in the depth of the Depression, Carl was without work and put an ad in the Wisconsin Agriculturist, asking to employ himself out for board and room in exchange for doing carpentry work.
A Chicago man, Joe Ilg, answered the ad, telling Carl that he had a resort up in Spider Lake (on Rest Lake) and would like to hire Carl to take care of the resort in the winter for his board and room. Carl reported that he had a strong back and would be willing to work.
Joe met Carl at the Chicago Northwestern Railroad Station in Racine and negotiated an agreement. Joe wanted Carl to take care of his animals and his resort in the winter in exchange for board and room.
Then, in the summer, Carl would go on the payroll doing carpentry work. Joe bought him clothes for the winter and he was settled into a cottage by the name of ‘Moccasin.’
During the winter, he cut tamarack that had been killed by disease. They were loaded onto a sleigh and brought back to the resort across the ice for firewood.
In the spring, he sawed them into 16-inch stove wood, saving some for a log cabin that Joe wanted him to build. In the spring, Carl went on wages – $30 a month plus board and room. He built and repaired cottages. He planted a garden for Joe and mowed swamp grass and stacked it to feed the cattle.
The next year someone in the marsh was heating up a cup of coffee and started a fire. Powell Marsh ... all 12,000 acres of it ... went up in flames. The Civilian Conservation Corps fought it all summer and Carl did, too. He claims that he was the most afraid in his entire life because he and another fellow were surrounded by the fire and thought they were going to die.
Putting their noses to the cool side of the tree to breathe, they dug a hole at the edge of the lake and crawled in. Fortunately the fire burned right over them. Carl was the only one with a license to blast so he was given the job of dynamiting holes which filled with water and, from that pool, they’d fight the fire with hoses.
The fellows received 10 cents per hour for fighting that fire and the fire lasted 21 days.
Carl meets Ann Granitz
In 1933, Carl met Ann Granitz from Hurley. She was working as a cook at a neighboring resort. Instead of spending their money on going to the World’s Fair that year, they bought 80 acres of land on Highway 51 that reached down to Rest Lake. They planned to build a home there and Carl could continue with his carpentry work.
Joe Ilg wanted him to stay with him but Carl was resolute and continued with his plans to build the cottage.
Across the road from them lived a man named Emil Wanatka. He, too, was from Racine and had bought a nightclub/barroom which he named after a restaurant he had worked at in Racine, Little Bohemia.
Emil would come up on weekends and needed Carl and Ann to work for him. This was the era of Prohibition but, according to Carl, Emil had all kinds of moonshine. Carl and Ann would work from 6 p.m. ... sometimes all night, earning $1 each. This went on all winter long and in spring, Emil wanted them to work for him full-time ‘because he had some early guests coming in.’
In the meantime, Carl was approached by a fellow across the road who owned a barroom called the “blind pig.” He was bootlegging in there and the fellow wanted Carl to go in with him, remodel the building and make it into a decent tavern and then they’d run it as partners, working it half and half. They agreed to that and got a beer license.
Sundays were big days at the tavern. Everyone would be out driving on Sunday and saw the sign advertising beer and stopped in. On that Sunday, April 22, Ann was kept busy making sandwiches while Carl tended bar. It had been so busy that neither had had an opportunity to eat.
Shootout at Little Bo
Toward evening, two men walked in and wanted to know if Carl was the constable. Interestingly enough, three weeks prior to this, some townspeople had asked Carl if he would run for constable.
He told them he wouldn’t, but he won by a write-in vote. Carl told him he was the constable and they replied that they needed his help.
“We think we’ve got John Dillinger locked up in Little Bohemia but in case he gets loose, we need you to come and show us what roads are going out from here and where we can set up roadblocks.”
Carl got his winter jacket on and an old pair of boots, told Ann they’d be back in a little while and, when they got back, they’d get a couple of sandwiches.
He never came back!
He and two federal agents – W. Carter Baum and Jay C. Newman – climbed into the front seat of a 1934 Ford Coupe and went out to set up roadblocks in case the gang escaped.
At the same time, a swarm of FBI agents surrounded the Little Bohemia Lodge. A dog barked, alerting the gangsters that something was amiss outdoors, and the gangsters started escaping out of the windows, jumping to the ground and disappearing into the woods.
Baby Face Nelson fled with a stolen car and three hostages. That was the car that Carl and the G-men eventually saw in front of Koerner’s Resort.
After cruising the roads, looking for anything suspicious, the stolen car was spotted at about 10 p.m.
The g-men asked Carl if he recognized the car and Carl replied that it belonged to a local resident. They suspected nothing as they stopped but suddenly, a machine gun was thrust through their window on the driver’s side. The first blast creased the forehead of Newman. Baum was blasted in the throat and died. Carl leaped out and was hit a total of eight times. Baby Face backed out in the FBI car that he now commandeered.
Newman and Carl lay for two hours before being found.
It was predicted that Carl wouldn’t live to see the next day, that he’d be paralyzed for life, that he’d never walk again.
They were proven wrong on all three counts. After spending eight weeks in the hospital in Ironwood, Mich., Carl graduated to a wheelchair and then to crutches
He returned home to Ann and the tavern.
When he came home from the hospital, he and Ann had tremendous business. With all the publicity and newspaper stories, curiosity seekers started stopping by. They wanted souvenirs, pictures, and autographs of the famous Carl C. Christensen. Carl had postcards made with his picture on it and people would buy four or five of them. They were taking in so much money at that time that he approached his partner, offering to buy his half-share out.
His partner refused so they decided to split. His partner paid him $2,500 for all the merchandise he had invested in the tavern and they went their separate ways.
Carl and Ann had been thrifty and had a nice savings prior to being paid for the business. Carl also had received $3,500 from the government for his participation in the raid. They moved back to their little cottage on Highway 51.
We all know how tough these Northwoods men were but Carl, Ann, and a girl working for them now began to build the new motel, barroom, and home.
Carl would work with his crutches, getting to a tree, kneeling down and chopping branches while Ann and the girl would haul the branches to a ravine where they would throw them over and burn them later.
They cleared out where they were going to build. He hired a man to cut the big trees down. He bought a Chevy flatbed truck, some steel cables, chains, blocks, double-blocks, single-blocks. everything he’d need for stump pulling. Two men helped him do that.
A man from Manitowish had a team and a “slusher” and they slushed out the basement, finding some of the finest gravel for concrete making. He got a concrete mixer and wheelbarrow and, together with two workers who made $2 a day, set a nice concrete basement. He built a cooler in the basement where he could put four or five barrels of beer. A track on which they could slide the barrels down without disturbing them was installed.
When finished, the cooler held lots of ice and the beer was always cold.
For the buildings, he picked up 120,000 square feet of lumber from the Powell Marsh fire for $120. They got the mammoth pile of sawdust for packing ice in the ice house.
The first thing he built was the ice house where he stored his windows and doors which were shipped from Montgomery Ward in Chicago on a boxcar. Two carpenters helped him build the main building and got it all enclosed before winter. He put a furnace in so he could work all winter long. By the first of April in 1936, he had everything necessary and opened up the barroom.
The business booms
Everyone thought he was crazy because he was in the middle of nowhere and nobody was going to stop. Yet, by the first of May 1936, Carl was able to send to Green Bay for fish and got a lot of walleyes or perch which he would sell to customers and then Ann would fry them. They wouldn’t charge a thing for the frying but customers would drink beer for it ... sometimes as much as four half barrels of beer a night. He was making $800 to $900 a night ... a lot of money back then. They had slot machines (illegal at the time but they still had them) and he was making a very good living. His publicity didn’t do him any harm at all because he put his coat on display. With quick wit, he’d take a gopher skeleton, mount it and label it, “This is the skeleton of a mosquito.”
Everyone would look at it and say, “That’s about the size of the one that bit me last night.” His cleverness kept the people coming in and Carl and Ann continued to have a thriving business in Manitowish Waters at the lodge named The Chateau.
Fast forward to the 1940s.
People continued to vacation at The Chateau on Rest Lake and the resort thrived as did Little Bohemia.
Carl lived a fulfilled life, moving to Racine in the late 1940s where he was a successful carpenter. He retired to the Gile Flowage in Wisconsin in the late 60s and was persuaded to donate his coat and memorabilia to the Frank B. Koller Memorial Library in Manitowish Waters where it can be seen today.
Librarian Janelle Kohl has a display case there dedicated to the events of 80 years ago.
He died in Florida at the age of 92. Interestingly enough, he carried one slug with him in his hip until late in life when it started giving him some trouble and he had it removed then.
No doubt, we in Wisconsin view Carl C. Christensen as an unsung hero. He and the entire community came together to put the notorious Dillinger gangsters behind bars.