“Beer Barons” sons share stories of Omaha’s bootlegging past
June 4th, 2012
Omaha, NE – The stories of Omaha’s bootlegging past have been re-discovered, and will be re-told, by two sons of notorious Omaha liquor sellers this Sunday.
“There’s the complete story on the murder: “Ambushed and Slain.”
Sifting through photographs and newspaper articles tucked into a manila folder, Jack Atkins points to a Bee-News article dated October 4, 1934. The subheading reads: “Killer Hides in Bush, Shoots Victim Twice.”
“It shows the body laying there on the steps at 4416 Hickory,” Atkins says. In the photograph, police are “hunting clues” outside the Omaha home of Clarence Hanfelt, who’d recently been discovered murdered, shot twice in the face by a 12-guage shotgun.
Scrolling through the pages, Atkins points out another photograph. “And there’s a picture of my dad as a pallbearer at the funeral.”
Jack Atkins has a few famous, and infamous, family connections.
The Omaha native can trace his family friends to a historic mayor (Johnny Rosenblatt) and a well-known golfer (his uncle, Johnny Goodman). He can also trace back some more notorious connections, to bootleggers, gangsters and mob bosses.
“I pretty much had a general idea, but my dad never got into details about the seedy side of life,” he says.
As Atkins discovered, by piecing his father’s stories together and conducting his own research over the past year, his father, Johnny Atkins, ran a bootlegging operation in Omaha during Prohibition in the 1920s and 30s. In fact, Johnny Atkins became Chicago mob boss Al Capone’s number one guy in Omaha.
But the story begins farther back, with Johnny Atkins’ first entrepreneurial stint: selling fruit at a downtown stand.
“I’ve got a picture of the fruit market here,” Atkins says. Pointing out a photograph of a simple, wooden wagon parked on the side of an Omaha street, piled high with fruit, Atkins says Johnny Atkins sold fruit when he was about 11 or 12 years old. It was then that he first became interested in the bootlegging business, by watching his father.
“My grandfather was a long-time engineer on the Union Pacific railroad,” Atkins explains. “And how my dad personally got interested in handling beer and liquor is (through) my grandfather bringing trains in from back east. The contraband, so to speak, was hidden under the coal in the coal car.”
Atkins says his grandfather would make “unscheduled” stops west of Omaha, where bootleggers would unload the liquor and beer, load up their wagons and carry it to their warehouses. “And for that service my grandfather got one free case of beer,” Atkins says.
That was all Johnny Atkins needed to realize he could make better money selling booze than fruit. And it was a lot of money.
“Receipts in the place were said to run as high as $35,000 to $40,000 a month.” Jack Kawa is another son of a notorious beer baron in Omaha. He will be joining Atkins Sunday for a discussion hosted by the Douglas County Historical Society on Omaha’s bootlegging past.
A long-time family friend of Jack Atkins, Kawa has been conducting his own research on his family’s past, one of which he knew very little. “We didn’t even know it was in the paper,” Kawa says with a laugh. “I was just looking for articles, anything about my father that we could trace back to his business… in Poland so we could find some relatives. And we ran into this whole side story here.”
Kawa’s father, Frank Kawa, owned Johnny’s Café in South Omaha, a landmark restaurant that is still open today and run by Jack Kawa. Frank Kawa was a Polish immigrant and died when Jack Kawa was in his teens. So he never heard much about his bootlegging past. But before Johnny Atkins ran the scene, Frank Kawa was the “beer baron of Omaha.”
Holding his own collection of World-Herald articles from 1928, Kawa points to the headlines of his father’s multiple arrests and the raids on his sandwich shop and liquor front. “They’re saying in here that Kawa has been paying from $6,000 to $10,000 a month for protection. In 1928. So, you know, just think about the dollars that came back to that,” Kawa says.
Johnny’s Café was perfectly situated for the bootlegging business, just moments from a busy railroad and bustling stockyards.
“The trains, everything, the yards were right behind us,” Kawa says. “I think it was just another…opportunity to make some money. At the time, he was doing more liquor and beer and all that than food.”
While Frank Kawa’s stories remained a mystery to his son, Jack Atkins says he heard most of the family’s bootlegging stories directly from his father. But there was one detail he left out, and that takes us back to the beginning of this story.
“Right after my father passed away in 1973,” Atkins explains, “his long-time friend, Mr. Merle Fimple, called me into his office and said ‘Sit down, I want to tell you about your dad, stuff that you don’t know about.’”
As Atkins took his seat, Fimple continued. “There was a murder in 1934, and the next week your dad was the new owner and president of this company,” Atkins recalls. “Now he says my dad not necessarily was involved in the murder, but he was the new owner and president of the company one week later.”
Atkins says Hanfelt’s murder remained unsolved for years, until his sister spilled the story earlier this year, or at least what the family believes the story to be. “Didn’t mom tell you?” Atkins says of their conversation. “The Chicago boys sent a man with $500 to kill him, because they didn’t want to do business with him.”
Apparently, “the Chicago boys” liked the way Johnny Atkins conducted business in Omaha.
Atkins and Kawa will share their family stories at the Douglas County Historical Society’s “Second Sunday Talk” on June 10th. The discussion will take place at the Mule Barn on Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus at 2pm.