Al Capone’s mysterious legacy lives on in Northern Michigan.

In celebration of our 40th anniversary in 2020, we’re digging into our archives and sharing classic stories told over the years in Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. We hope you enjoy this look back as much as we do!

This piece was featured in July 1986 in the department “A Note From Our Past.”

Note: A new book released in 2020 by author Robert Knapp explores the history of gangsters and the mafia in Northern Michigan. Scroll down for more information. 

The opening of Al Capone’s secret vault in Chicago failed to uncover the notorious gangster’s loot, but it succeeded in stirring up memories of the man and his era. These recollections are not the exclusive property of the Windy City, however. Rumors of Capone’s doings in northwest lower Michigan flourish as well.

Bonnie Huff Johnson, a lifetime Traverse City resident, recalls that her father, Frank H. Sobbry, once serviced Al Capone’s cars on the south side of Chicago during the late ‘20s. “As a child, I overheard many stories that I’m sure were not meant for my ears,” Johnson recalls. “One of them was about bootleg booze being transported by ambulance during the World’s Fair right under everyone’s noses!”

Sobbry, a colorful figure himself, moved to the Petoskey area in 1936 and later ended up in Elk Rapids, serving on the city commission for 18 years as well as doing a brief stint as mayor. “Dad mentioned that Al Capone had his hideaway spots in the Boyne City, Petoskey and Walloon Lake areas,” continues Johnson. “He had many different locations in Northern Michigan and Wisconsin since it was not safe to stay in one place too long.”

Fact or fiction?

Lawrence Wakefield, a local writer and historian, uncovered information about a Leland hideaway consisting of a pair of large two-story cottages standing on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Among other buildings at this site are a two-car garage with an upstairs apartment, a well house and several smaller structures. A 30-foot observation tower overlooks the entire 10-acre compound. In Capone’s day, old-timers say, a machine gun was mounted on the topmost platform of the tower to discourage trespassers.

Wakefield also discovered that this particular estate, called “Heartsease,” was built in 1914 by William and Helen Orr English, one of Indiana’s first families. Allegedly, their 12-year-old daughter, Rosalind, scratched “Heartsease by the Lake” into fresh concrete at the rear of one of the cottages in 1915, thus naming the place.

After William English died in 1926, his widow married Frank J. Prince, a newspaperman with a shady history of theft, embezzlement and connections with the Chicago underworld. It was with Prince’s permission that Capone used the estate in the late 1920s.

The “Heartsease” property has since been purchased and the new owners had one of the cottages remodeled. The property is, Wakefield stresses, still off-limits to trespassers.

In addition, the Forest Lodge Estate on Long Lake, a group of five lodges, is rumored to have been owned by a “Chicago syndicate” in the past. Two of the original buildings were lost in a fire and the others are now privately owned.

So much for the secret hideouts—what about the man himself? Again, rumors are plentiful but facts are elusive.

In researching Capone’s connections to this region, Wakefield found some local area residents who remembered “Scarface” Al well. Fred Bromwell, who used to tend bar at the former Dew Drop Inn in Lake Leelanau (later known as the Lake Leelanau Powerhouse Tavern and Bella Fortuna North), recalled a hot summer night when Al and the boys came into the bar and set up drinks for the house.

Karl Detzer, a writer and former Reader’s Digest editor, has lived in Leland for most of his life. He recalls seeing Capone go by in his armor-plated Cadillac limousine, complete with a chauffeur up front.

In those days, all long-distance calls in the area went through a telephone exchange in Maple City, located in the back of a small restaurant owned by Charlie Blume. Many times, Detzer remembers, he and Charlie would listen in on gangster conversations between Capone and his men and their Chicago counterparts.

Monty Montgomery, a Traverse City resident since 1929, recalls his days as a newsboy, peddling 3-cent papers in front of Oleson’s on Front Street. “Al Capone would come into town every so often to stay at his Long Lake cottage when it got too hot down below,” Montgomery says. “When the newsies found out he was in town, we’d line up to meet his big old limousine. Once he gave me $5 for a paper. ‘Mr. Capone,’ I said, ‘I got no change.’ He just said, ‘That’s O.K. I don’t want no change.’”

Capone was known for his generosity, especially to the underprivileged, but with a 1927 fortune estimated at $100 million, his generosity surely caused him little financial strain. He funded food lines and soup kitchens during the Great Depression and “never hurt the little guy,” as Montgomery remembers. Reportedly, a mob of people gathered to protest his 1931 arrest and incarceration on charges of tax evasion.

Al Capone died a recluse in 1947, but his legacy lives on. The empty Chicago vault, too, has raised more unanswered questions. If Capone did indeed escape to Northern Michigan when the heat was on, isn’t it conceivable he may have hidden some of his loot around here? Maybe there are more secret vaults in abandoned old cottages in our own backyards …

Larry Wiland was an intern with Traverse Magazine in the ‘80s.

Want to learn more? Author Robert Knapp recently released Gangsters Up North—Mobsters, Mafia, and Racketeers in Michigan’s Vacationlands (Cliophile Press 2020). Using interviews, newspaper accounts, land records and internet resources, Knapp carefully sorts the truth from the mythical. The book is available through local outlets and online.