Ed Ronkowski Sr., the FBI, and the development of property on Lake Owen
Little Chicago: the Development of Billy the Bear’s Property
From abandoned shack to “Little Chicago”
Though Lake Owen was home to a number of popular resorts and posh summer homes, for nearly 30 years no visitor, landowner or developer seemed to take an interest in the unkempt lot that stretched along the western shore of the mid-lake narrows. And so Billy the Bear’s Lake Owen property stood unclaimed from his passing in 1919 until 1947, when two fishermen from Chicago saw the abandoned cabin in the weeds and decided to take a closer look.
The two were Carl Klein and Edward Ronkowski Sr., both former Northwoods boys who were now neighbors and business associates in Chicago. Klein, a lawyer, went down to the Bayfield Recorder of Deeds and found out that abandoned lot included over 1000 feet of lake frontage. And better still, he found that the county would sell the land to anyone who could cover the last 30-odd years of unpaid real estate taxes.
Klein and Ronkowski took the tempting offer to their poker club, bringing three more in on the deal. The five poker buddies – Ronkowski, Klein, Gator, Kinzie and Stinedel – bought the Billy the Bear property in 1948. They nicknamed their little subdivision “Little Chicago” and drew numbers out of a hat to determine which lot each would get.
While some on the Lake may have been relieved that the lot had finally sold, that feeling must have been short-lived. Because when the first cabins started going up in the early and mid-50s, they were not such an improvement on Billy’s rundown shack.
The first to build was Carl Klein. While Klein was both a workaholic and a genius – his record-breaking score on the army Aviation Qualify test made the local newspapers – he was no carpenter. His self-designed cabin and boathouse were out-of-square rectangular structures with flat roofs. A thick coat of sad Hershey-bar brown paint completed the look.
The Gators’ modest cabin was the next up, followed shortly by the infamous Kinzie residence, situated on the lot opposite the southern end of Carter Island. Art Kinzie was a diesel mechanic and thought he might set up a one-man bulldozing business in Bayfield County. He put his machine to work right away, knocking down Billy the Bear’s cabin and clearing all the trees and brush from the property, including the lakeshore. Kinzie then deposited a small, run-down trailer home twenty feet from the shore.
The stripping of the shoreline vegetation and installation of the trailer were a great disappointment to many Lake Owen residents, including the Modine family, whose home on the east side of the lake commanded an unobstructed view of the Kinzie trailer.
Edward Ronkowski Sr. drew the southern-most piece of the Billy the Bear property, right on the channel where the Lake narrows north of Johnsons Bay. Money was short, so they cleared the lot themselves in the early 1950’s, put up a foundation in 1955 and hired carpenter Jack Kramer of Cable to build a modest cabin in 1958. Edward Ronkowski Sr. finished some of the interior himself to save money. His “Jim Beam ceiling” – the tiles were placed during a party where said beverage was highly featured – was so famously askew that 50 years on someone came over and asked to see it (sorry, it’s no longer around).
As for the northernmost lot, the original buyer could not keep up his payments to the poker group and forfeited his contract. The group resold his lot, earning more than they originally paid for the entire Billy the Bear property.
Bad behavior in Little Chicago
Those first cabins may have displayed a sensibility that was not entirely fitting with the Lake Owen atmosphere. As for the behavior of the owners, well, in some cases it was not much better. Sometime around 1960 Edward Ronkowski Sr. and his brother were staying at the cabin for the first time over the Fourth of July weekend. After a hard day’s work, they hit the bottle and retired early. They were soon torn from their peaceful slumber by the Johnsons’ annual fireworks display.
The brothers, now unable to sleep, returned to the bottle. With somewhat impaired judgment, they devised a plan to awaken the Johnson family in like manner. In the middle of the night, they took their speedboat down to the east shore of Johnsons Bay and floated a five-gallon can of gasoline in the water. They then brought out a familiar tool from their time spent stump clearing on their father’s Winter, Wis. farmland – dynamite.
With a rope from the boat, they tied a couple sticks of dynamite to the can, put in a detonator and lit the fuse. They then sped away to get clear of the coming explosion. But in the darkness – and general state of inebriation – it took them awhile to notice that the other end of the rope was still hooked around a cleat and that they were in fact towing their homemade fireworks behind them. They raced to untangle the rope, throwing off the line at the last second. As they sped home a thunderous explosion shook the bay, to their great satisfaction.
There were also some notable instances of decidedly un-neighbor-like behavior. One such case was in the summer of 1964, when Edward Ronkowski Jr. at age 13, along with several friends, came across a very large, very sick northern pike floundering on the surface of the Lake. They scooped up this four-foot monstrosity with a fishing net and showed it to Edward Ronkowski Sr., who rarely fished. Sensing an opportunity, Edward Ronkowski Sr. swore the boys to secrecy about the true origins of the pike. They were especially not to breathe a word to next-door neighbor Carl Klein, an obsessive angler who pursued trophy fish day and night during his Lake Owen vacations.
Ronkowski Sr. then took the beast into Lee’s Tavern in Drummond to have some fun. He strolled into the bar with the pike and asked Lee to store it in the freezer. Lee showed the fish to each patron as they walked in, and Ronkowski earned plenty of free drinks as he regaled each newcomer with the heroic tale of fighting and landing the monster on his own. He spent the entire day in the bar and drove home very drunk.
Not content to let it end there, Edward Ronkowski Sr. had the fish mounted in dramatic pose and hung it over the fireplace in such a manner that Carl Klein could easily see it every day as he boated through the narrows on his habitual fishing trips. And for a finishing touch, Ronkowski hung one of Klein’s favorite lures – which was found in the water – from the pike’s spiny teeth. Carl Klein never figured out the true story of how the monster fish was acquired. Instead he redoubled his own fishing efforts, searching Lake Owen for an even bigger northern pike to catch.
As for Mr. Gator, his personal antics cost him the family cabin. Gator, who owned a small sporting goods store, often took his sons up to the cabin to fish. The sons told Mom of the fun they had at the Lake, but being too young to know better, they also let it slip that Dad would often shower and spruce up before going alone into Drummond for half the night. On Mr. Gator’s next 11-hour solo drive to the cabin, his wife waited eight hours before following him up. In true soap-opera fashion, she caught him in the act with a local woman. Mrs. Gator gave the ultimatum to her husband – sell the cabin or get divorced. Gator sold to Doc Larson of Ashland.
The FBI visits Lake Owen
Some of the subdivision’s property owners were more than just pranksters. In fact, one – Edward Ronkowski Sr. – was into far more than just fish stories and dynamite. The senior Ronkowski had served on a small aircraft carrier in the South Pacific during World War II. In addition to his official duties, Ronkowski was also the ship’s go-to guy for procuring amenities with no questions asked, once going so far as stealing a jeep for the captain’s personal use.
After leaving the service, Edward Ronkowski Sr. went sequentially through a number of business ventures – sporting goods shop, truck repair business and truck stop owner. These businesses proved handy when fencing a bit of stolen property on the side, but were not always that engaging. Strangely enough, most of these businesses were destroyed by fire around the same time their owner was looking to move on to something else.
This unique facility with fire caught the attention of one of the newcomers to the Lake Owen subdivision. Drummond sawmill manager Frank Aldridge had bought out the Kinzie property (replacing the trailer home with a beautifully built cabin) after the Kinzies ran into financial troubles. But in the 60s, the sawmill business was not a profitable one. Frank asked Edward Ronkowski Sr. to use his contacts in Chicago to arrange to “sell the business to the insurance company.” The neighborly charge for this “service” was a mere $5,000. Right on cue, a nighttime blaze burned the Drummond sawmill to the ground. Though the plan went off without a hitch, Frank Aldridge was underinsured, and got far less insurance money than he expected. Frank then had to sell his Lake Owen property to Jack Pfaff.
The life of crime caught up to Edward Ronkowski Sr., and in 1972 he jumped bond on his pending criminal matters in Indiana. The FBI surrounded the Ronkowskis’ Lake Owen cabin looking for the fugitive. They got the hideout right but the timing wrong – Ronkowski had slipped away the day before.
The climb to respectability
One by one, each of the five lots on Billy the Bear’s old property fell in line with the more typical Lake Owen standard.
Jack and Vivian Vaudreil, the ones who bought the lot from the defaulting poker buddy, added plenty of respectability to the property. They, along with their eight kids and ever-increasing number of grandkids, continue to occupy the cabin.
Doc Larson, who bought the Gator cabin, brought his reputation as Northern Wisconsin’s best surgeon to the subdivision. He also brought along his two daughters, four sons and six nieces and nephews. They used the cabin continuously like a resort, burning through well over 300 gallons of gasoline each summer water skiing, boating and running around on the Lake.
The Larson clan was famous on the Lake, but when the friend Doc had trusted with his retirement savings died unexpectedly, Doc lost almost his entire nest egg, along with the will to run the business end of his medical practice. He lapsed on the Lake Owen mortgage and the bank decided to put the property up for auction. But a week before the scheduled sale the Larson cabin was purchased by Margaret Modine, who hoped to protect that portion of the shoreline from the sort of unsightly development that had occurred on the Kinzie property. She remodeled the cabin, which is now occupied by members of her family.
Jack Pfaff’s son and daughter still own and occupy the cabin Jack Aldridge built on the Kinzie property. The Aldridges and Pfaffs have greatly improved the appearance of the property since acquiring it from Kinzie.
Carl Klein enjoyed a successful career as a lawyer, elected official and eventually Nixon appointeeto the Department of the Interior. While in Washington, Klein became one of the founders of Earth Day and relentlessly sought to take politics out of the water pollution prosecutions. But this position brought him into conflict with certain White House aides who forced Klein out in 1970. These aides, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, were later sentenced to prison for their role in Watergate.
In 1994, at age 77, Carl Klein died of brain cancer. His family sold the property to realtor Bill McKinney, whose carpenter brother tore down the infamous boathouse and rebuilt the cabin to a far more comfortable standard. They eventually sold to Bill Hannaford, who continues to own and occupy the residence.
As for Edward Ronkowski Sr., while the FBI catches over 95% of the fugitives they go after, Ronkowski continued to slip through their fingers. He lived most of the rest of his life under an alias just 52 miles from Lake Owen. He died a free man in 1994, living under his real name in California. His family rejected his bad example and life style, with his wife, daughter and son going on to work in the State Department, U.S. Customs department and Cook County State’s Attorney’s office in Chicago, respectively. Edward Ronkowski Jr. and his sister continue to own and occupy the summer home.
Though most of the cabins have new owners and all look quite different from when they were originally built, signs remain of the lot’s rough and tumble beginnings. Drummond Township eventually named the road into the Billy the Bear properties Larson Road, after the gregarious (and numerous) family. There is also the perfectly bulldozed view still enjoyed by the Pfaffs. And if you look very carefully next time you boat through the narrows, you just may catch a glimpse of the monstrous Northern Pike that occupies the place of honor over the Ronkowski family fireplace.
Ronkowski family memories
Newspaper clippings on Carl Klein (exact references to come from Ronkowski collection)
*any historic Billy the Bear photos not used elsewhere
*I believe my dad submitted a photo of Klein's ugly boathouse in his initial photo email
*Newspaper clippings about Carl Klein could be used as illustrations (Bev has photocopies of obit and article on fighting Nixon aides I think - latter has a photo of Klein).
*Ronkowski family photos, including the “King of the Polish Channel” shot of Ed Ronkowski Sr., plus the shots I sent of the Ronkowskis and Vaudreils hanging out at Lake Owen circa 1990.