The Grand Canyon, Al Capone, And My Mom


By Norman Gilliland | May 1, 2019

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  • Aerial view of Lake Chetac near Birchwood. (Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society)

Aerial view of Lake Chetac near Birchwood. (Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society)

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Here’s a tale about a northern Wisconsin family’s supposed encounter with gangsters. Norman Gilliland found the connections in a family legend.

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Not long ago, by chance, I discovered the link between three things from my childhood—the Grand Canyon, Al Capone, and my mom.

The last shall be first. My mother grew up in the 1920s on a small farm near Birchwood, Wisconsin. And during my youth in Florida, she occasionally told a story about the time some well-dressed men stopped by the house and asked for something to drink. That sort of informality was not unusual in the north woods at the time, and my grandmother obliged the visitors with homemade root beer. The men thanked her and continued on their way north.

According to my mother, one of the men was Al Capone.

I always took the story with a grain of salt. After all, the north woods is a big place, and even in the 1920s, there were a lot of people driving around up there. Who’s to say that the man in the car was actually America’s most notorious gangster? As the years pass, legends, family legends can take on a reality of their own.

I first heard the Capone story when I was in grade school and back then an ancient woman named Mrs Hay came into our classroom once a week to teach us about music. The music she played for us on a portable turntable included that mainstay of Americana, Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite.

For us kids, the neat thing about the Grand Canyon Suite was that we could visualize what the music was describing, for example. a mule plodding down the canyon and letting out a big hee-haw at the end of the trip.

Grofe was a masterful composer. He wrote the orchestration for George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and his style comes through in it loud and clear. But it turns out he also had a great imagination. I was in Lodi recently, watching a storm roll across Lake Wisconsin, and I thought I remembered something about Grofe getting his inspiration for the Cloudburst that ends the Grand Canyon Suite from a storm on a lake someplace in Wisconsin. I did a little investigating, and suddenly a family legend came to life.

It turns out that the debut of the Grand Canyon Suite was scheduled for November 22, 1931, at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago. With just two weeks to go, Grofe knew that he wanted to end the suite with a cloudburst, but he had no idea how to write it. To help him through his writer’s block, a musician friend invited him up for a stay at Lake Chippewa in Wisconsin’s north woods. “By the way,” he said, “when you come to a fork—the last fork you come to—be sure to take the right-hand turn because if you take the left-hand turn, you’ll go right to Al Capone’s camp.”

Capone’s so-called camp consisted of a stone house with 18-inch-thick walls, a guard tower, and 407 wooded acres that sold for $2.6 million when Chippewa Valley Bank foreclosed on it in 2009.

And that hideaway is only about 40 miles from Birchwood, on what were mostly gravel roads in the ‘twenties. So it’s quite possible that my mother’s story is true, that on some hot, dusty afternoon, Scarface and a few of his cronies did indeed pay my mother and her family a visit on their way to a place where they could relax and plan their next crimes. And who knows? Maybe at the same time, Ferdie Grofe was watching a storm sweep across Lake Chippewa and getting his inspiration for that cloudburst in the Grand Canyon.

Norman Gilliland

Norman Gilliland is a writer, producer, and host at Wisconsin Public Radio. He hosts classical music broadcasts, produces the interview program “University of the Air,” and reads for “Chapter A Day.”
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