© 2024 WXPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
In addition to the local news, WXPR Public Radio also likes to find stories that are outside the general news cycle... Listen below to stories about history, people, culture, art, and the environment in the Northwoods that go a little deeper than a traditional news story allows us to do. Here are all of the series we include in this podcast: Curious North, We Live Up Here, A Northwoods Moment in History, Field Notes, and Wildlife Matters.These features are also available as a podcast by searching "WXPR Local Features" wherever you get your podcasts.

The Toy Pistol Bandit of 1942

Exterior of building at State Tuberculosis Rehabilitation Camp in Tomahawk Lake.

This week's A Northwoods Moment in History tale from Tomahawk in the early 1940's has all the marks of a great story: a small-time group of bandits, a toy gun, and of course, an efficient Oneida County Sheriff.

We'll let Gary Entz take it from here.

Historians encounter lots of interesting stories, but once in a while a tale from the past resurfaces that just makes a person sit back and wonder how such a thing could have been allowed to happen.  The experience of Earl Wing in the Northwoods is just such a story.

Earl Wing was a ne’er-do-well from the town of Shiocton.  He was born in 1902, but in the late 1920s, Wing, his brothers Lyle and Leo, Claude Metz, and Roscoe Baker were part of a small-time group of bandits that stole cars, robbed banks and saloons, and, in the case of a St. Paul jewelry store holdup that went bad, murder.   Apprehended in Waupaca after a 1929 robbery of the Auburndale Bank, the men were tried, convicted, and sent to the state prison at Waupun.  That should have been the end of it, but thirteen years later Earl Wing resurfaced in the Northwoods.

Wing was serving out a sentence of 15 to 20 years.  However, he behaved as a model prisoner, was rated a trusty, and in September 1941 was transferred to work at the State Rehabilitation Camp at Lake Tomahawk.  It was in the camp that Wing met Thomas Sweeney.  Sweeney was from Racine and was doing time for manslaughter, but like Wing was a trusty and had been working at the camp since early 1941.  The two men thought they saw an opportunity at the minimum security facility and together hatched a plan to make a little money.

Wing obtained a toy gun from the son of one of the camp employees.  He also managed to acquire a set of civilian clothes to wear.  Then, at 8:45 pm on July 29, 1942, while the rest of the camp residents watched a movie, Wing and Sweeney appropriated a camp truck.  Sweeney drove them to Hazelhurst, and Wing in civilian clothes entered Leonard Ohrnell’s Tavern.  After drinking a beer, Wing pulled out the toy pistol and robbed the tavern of $95 in cash.  The duo drove back to the camp in the getaway truck.  They arrived at 10:15 pm with the belief that they had gotten away scot-free.  It wasn’t long before Oneida County Sheriff Adolph Cushman showed up at the camp to arrest the Wing and Sweeney.  Even though he denied involvement, it wasn’t difficult for the bar patrons to identify Wing as the robber, particularly since he made his getaway in a truck with camp markings on it.

Wing and Sweeny returned to the penitentiary.  After his release in the late 1940s Wing went on to become a recidivist bank robber, but he never again returned to the Northwoods.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.

In addition to being a historian and educator, Gary R. Entz serves on WXPR's Board of Directors and writes WXPR's A Northwoods Moment in History which is heard Wednesdays on WXPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Up North Updates
* indicates required
Related Content