The Gangster in Our Class


My Mother's View of Upper Michigan

Thursday, February 7, 2013

It was understood the lanky kid who joined our 8th grade class late in 1950 was the errand boy for Ralph Capone. I am not sure the source was reliable. Nonetheless, he acted different than the other boys who regularly misbehaved. Laid back in his small desk, legs stretched out under the girl’s in front of him, he kept a smirk on his face. I remember his name, but if I reveal it here I might get killed.

Let’s call him “Legs.” He had to be older than 13. I’m guessing (now that I know about such things) that he was ordered to go to school as punishment for being on the fringes of an arrest. He didn’t stay with us long. Someone said he returned to the tiny town of Mercer, Wisconsin, where he had family. This family likely was the Mob, aka The Outfit, aka Chicago Syndicate. Ralph’s brother, Al Capone, was considered Public Enemy #1 and Ralph, who was in charge of the Mob’s bottling plants, was notorious for his investments, vice and gambling establishments.

Before “Legs” came to our school in Ironwood, Upper Michigan, Ralph had not only “subbed” for his brother in Chicago, but he had followed Al to prison for tax evasion. Somehow he bought The Rex Hotel in Mercer, which doesn’t even appear on the map in the 2012 Rand McNally Road Atlas. Ralph built a home there when he had served his time. The current tourism “history” page for the town mentions that Capone men had been sighted at an area lodge with guides, suggesting they had interest in hunting and fishing; it notes that Ralph became one of the town’s best-liked and most respected residents.

Mercer is 385 miles from Chicago; it is 285 from Milwaukee and also Minneapolis, the largest city to the west. Most of the land in-between was (and still is) water and woods. The area had in the 17th century become a fur trading center, thanks to several Indian tribes. Some of the powerful Chippewa (Ojibwa) were there in the 1900s. The economic interests by then were timber-cutting and iron mining. These gangsters who showed up in the 1930s, including John Dillinger, who stayed at a resort nearby (Little Bohemia Lodge), had to share this territory with hundreds of lonely men.

The twin town of Ironwood was Hurley, Wisconsin. Whenever my dad drove us anywhere south or west we had to go along Hurley’s main drag, Silver Street, and it was fun to try to count the number of bars. In my time there were 77, down considerably since Prohibition, according to local lore, but they had something the old ones did not, fancy neon signs.

I had just one face-to-face encounter with “Legs” when he asked me one day at dismissal how old I was (I looked mature for my age). I answered something sassy that my memory scrambled either then or since. I’ve thought it was “I’m old enough to know better but too young to” – something. I researched this but came up only with lyrics from a 1994 country music song, Wade Hayes’ “Old enough to know better but too young to care.” It’s possible the song derives from older fiddle music. If I’d heard it, I would not have understood its suggestiveness. I might have thought it meant, “to care about you.”

We left Ironwood in 1952. Ralph Capone died in Hurley in 1974. There’s lots of online discourse around the meaning of that line in that song. I noticed on that it’s in one of the Harry Potter novels, but didn’t dig further there. I found a Chinese proverb I like: “The woman who tells her age is either too young to have anything to lose or too old to have anything to gain.”

I wonder if “Legs,” is still alive. Given his inclinations, I doubt it.

The watercolor illustration at the top was done by my mother, one of her memories of living in the U.P.


2 comments to The Gangster in Our Class

  • Mary Lee Winnie

    in the fall of 2011 we drove to Hurley/Ironwood with friends and looked around. Our friend was raised in Ironwood. Wouldn’t it be interesting if you attended school together? The area is suffering economically and it was like stepping back in time. The towns seemed frozen with reminders of the mining era. We stopped at the giant statue of an Indian no doubt erected as a tourist draw many years ago. There is a “ride” available on certain days–an aerial view of the mines now closed.

  • A relative use to run the airport up their back in the 1950′s – grew up in the area. Sundberg. Said Ralph use to come up with a gal – friendly person, but it was understood never to call them Capone’s. Said his other brother was a really good cop out west. Never had problems with the people. Mob guys are people too. All are in need of God’s salvation through His Son.

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