Barrens Bandits, Part 1: Brazen 1921 bank robbery set off massive manhunt

St. Paul gangsters on an interstate crime spree were chased up, down, and across the river.




7 minute read

Saturday, July 23, 1921 was another in a stretch of sweltering days in Chisago County, Minnesota. Temperatures reached above 90 degrees, although it must have been cooler at 8:15 in the morning, when a green Nash touring car rolled through the Scandinavian immigrant village of Almelund. Inside the car were five men with criminal records and dangerous tendencies.

As the car passed by the Farmers State Bank of Almelund, a small brick cube full of funds deposited by the area’s prosperous farmers, one of the men said something like, “Let’s take that one.”

An hour later, two of the men walked up the sidewalk to the bank, followed by two others, all wearing dark suits and straw hats. Townpeople assumed they were bank examiners on official business, and watched them “curiously but without apprehension.”

The first two men went into the bank, and quickly brandished their revolvers. A short time later, the other two men came in, and the green Nash came to a stop outside. The robbers made bank teller A.H. Lindquist hand over about $14,000 in cash and bonds — nearly a quarter million dollars in today’s value. One of them looked like a “dope fiend,” a witness said, and several noted he was “very pale.” Other crooks held their guns on the bank’s customers.

When they had collected all the loot, the bandits ordered the clerk into the vault, but they couldn’t figure out how to lock it shut. While they were doing this, the owner of a garage down the street, by the name of Holmquist, started walking toward the bank, and then turned around because he had forgotten his deposit on his desk.

“Thinking that Holmquist went to obtain aid, the driver of the bandit car left the machine and shouted to his fellows to hurry the job along,” a newspaper reported. “They left the bank immediately, jumped into the machine and sped off, crossing, it is thought, the bridge over the St. Croix River at Wolf Creek.”

The robbery was the climax of a multi-day crime spree. The night before, the gang had looted the safe at the general store in Clam Falls, Wis., stealing $163, a couple thousand in today’s value. They started out in Superior, Wis. on the 19th, planning to rob a bank, but bailing when they thought they were being watched.

The Almelund robbery made headlines all over the state for years. It was only the beginning of a wild and violent chase, manhunt, and prosecution. Over the next 24 hours, the bandits’ zig-zagged across the St. Croix River from what is now Wild River State Park to downstream of Taylors Falls, fleeing a minor militia made up of both police and civilians.

The criminals were eventually all captured, but it came at the price of two innocent men who were shot during the chase, and two innocent men who spent nearly a decade each in the Stillwater prison.

Hiding out

A few minutes after speeding out of Almelund, the car was seen crossing the St. Croix River at Nevers Dam. Dam worker Charles Olson promptly notified authorities, who decided not to give chase, but instead lay in wait.

The car and the men were not seen again until midnight.

Nevers Dam is 11 miles above St. Croix Falls. It had been built by lumber baron Frederick Weyerhauser 30 years before, and would last another 30 before its removal. By 1921, it was no longer used to store water for floating logs down to the mills, because the St. Croix River’s logging era had ended several years earlier. Now it was owned by the power company which also owned the 12-year-old hydroelectric dam downstream at St. Croix Falls. Nevers was used to regulate river flows to maximize electricity generation.

By crossing into Wisconsin, the bandits entered the wild and sparsely populated Sand Barrens (or as newspapers of the time called it, “bairns”). This desolate region may have been familiar to the gangsters, as it had a reputation during Prohibition as a good place to run a moonshine still. With few residents, lots of freshwater springs, and little law, alcohol could be easily produced here and shipped to the Twin Cities or the Twin Ports. Even after Prohibition ended, illegal stills were used to avoid paying taxes.

“V. R. Hanson, who wintered just north of here on Lagoo Creek, trapping in the 30s, said he could hear the thump, thump thump of the engine that ran the water pump for the still,” local historian Russ Hanson has reported. “He and his brothers explored it (carefully when they saw the car with bootleggers drive away). He said the big old engine had its exhaust going into a metal barrel full of punctures, buried in the sand to muffle the sound.”

Perhaps one of the career criminals now on the run knew the area because of the booze business, or maybe they were simply beholden to a road map. It was later learned that four of the bandits took the loot and spent the day in the “bairns,” while the driver took the car back to a farm near Frederic, Wis., about 20 miles away, owned by a friend who the criminals had visited the day before. (The friend later testified he had no idea what the gang had been doing.)

The crew must have been jubilant, seeming to have gotten away with a major heist. The hardened gangsters probably laughed about the simple farmers they had robbed that morning. They had been up much of the night, so they probably tried to get some sleep. They may or may not have been aware the penalty for armed bank robbery was life imprisonment.

As night fell, the driver returned, and the gang made a fateful decision. They wanted to return home to St. Paul, and some of the crew said they should head back north to the Twin Ports, and others argued for going south to the Highway 8 bridge across the river at St. Croix Falls. They decided to head north, but quickly began arguing again, and held a vote. By a vote of three to two, they decided to turn around.

If they had continued north, they would have avoided a lot of trouble. The shorter route was exactly what police expected them to do.

Bridge battle

A Nash touring car, ca. 1920s. (University of Wisconsin)

While the bandits were hiding in the barrens, word of the robbery spread. Chisago County sheriff John Johnson deputized local men to bolster his ranks, and set up a roadblock on the Minnesota side of the bridge. Taylors Falls village wardens joined the force.

Johnson suspected the robbers were from St. Paul, and would follow the most direct route back home. He also received a report of a car matching the description crossing the Highway 8 bridge from Minnesota to Wisconsin in the early hours of morning, and getting gas in Cushing on its way north. The police didn’t know the bandits had come down through Clam Falls and Frederic, and there’s little chance they had been in Minnesota. It was still enough to convince authorities to focus on the crossing.

Shortly after midnight, a car appeared coming down the hill on the Wisconsin side.

There may have been electric streetlights on the bridge, powered by the dam a few hundred yards upstream. There must have been big police cruisers and armed men. Some carried shotguns. Two deputies on the Wisconsin side of the bridge commanded the driver to stop.

“‘Give ‘er hell,’ one of the bandits was heard to say, and the machine, under a hail of bullets, raced across the bridge, the bandits crouching down in the car,” according to reports.

The bandits also shot back. Bert Gibbs, a local young man who had been deputized for the occasion, took a bullet to his shoulder. The bandits car was “riddled with bulletholes” but the gangsters were not wounded.

Somehow, the vehicle got past the roadblock, and the driver tried to speed away up the hill. But less than a block away, he drove into deep sand and the car floundered and rolled over. The mobsters were somehow still unscathed. They grabbed their loot and ran for the woods, down toward the river, disappearing into the darkness.

The five bank robbers were now in the deep woods of Interstate Park, which had been established a quarter century earlier. The cops tried to chase them, but lost the fugitives in the dense forest.

“The woods into which the bandits took refuge are known as ‘The Jungle,’ and hunters and fishermen who know the lay of the land say that only persons familiar with the ground would have had any chance of escaping,” one newspaper later reported.

The police figured they had the criminals cornered, but needed reinforcements to capture them. While a contingent kept up the chase, the sheriff called Minneapolis.

St. Paul is surely closer to Taylors Falls than Minneapolis, but when Sheriff Johnson called for more officers to surround the bandits, he called the Mill City. Calling St. Paul might have ended up only aiding the bandits, because police and criminals in the capital city lived by a corrupt bargain during the first part of the twentieth century. An agreement that lasted from 1900 to 1934 made the city a sanctuary for criminals across the Midwest, as long as they followed the city’s rules: they must check in with police upon arriving in the city, pay bribes to police and city officials, and commit no series crimes inside city limits.

All the bank robbers were St. Paul residents. They raided the surrounding countryside, and retreated to safety in the city.

The night duty officer in Hennepin County got the call from Taylors Falls about 1:30 a.m., and rousted sheriff Earle Brown, who conferred with Johnson over the phone. Within two hours, Brown and a squad of deputies were on their way to the Dalles of the St. Croix River. The bandits remained on the run.


3 responses to “Barrens Bandits, Part 1: Brazen 1921 bank robbery set off massive manhunt”

  1. Russ Hanson Avatar
    Russ Hanson

    Great story! Looking forward to part 2.
    Some of the rise of bank robberies in the 1920s came with the Volstead act repealing liquor sales that went into effect in 1920. That brought the rise of organized crime and the money made from illegal sales to bribe police. That attracted more than just the moonshining people, but criminal types of all kinds including bank robbers taking advantage of safe havens.
    By the 1920s, the barrens area along the St Croix River was almost all deserted as the farmers had moved away to better farms or jobs. The bootlegging era lasted well into the 1930s, even after the repeal of prohibition in 1932, as moonshine was still much cheaper than the highly taxed liquor. There are many stories of famous criminals visiting their moonshine sources along the St Croix River through the 20s and 30s. One never knows how much credence they deserve.

  2. ruko Avatar

    My Dad talked much about the shoot-out on the bridge in which he was involved. There were hundreds of shots fired from less than 20 feet away and it was unbelievable the crooks were not killed or even wounded. Most of the bullets never penetrated to the inside of the car. That Nash must have been a tank.


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Barrens Bandits, Part 1: Brazen 1921 bank robbery set off massive manhunt