Gambling, gaming and guzzling.
One might first think of Las Vegas when these activities are mentioned, but Vegas was just a train stop from L.A. to Salt Lake City when it was established in 1905.
Reno on the other hand, was founded in 1864 after the prospectors of the early 1800s began mining for gold and silver in northwest Nevada. After a long day’s work, men wanted an evening of whiskey and a chance to get rich even quicker.
Reno became such a hot spot for casino gambling that President Lincoln himself appointed the governor to control the crime and promote a ban on gambling. But Abe soon had bigger battles to fight and the vices firmly took hold.
As the nation spread out and settled in, so too did gambling and drinking. The city of Savage was not to be left out; it would eventually come to be known as “Little Reno.”
In 1902 M.W. Savage, the city’s namesake, purchased Dan Patch, a world record holder and renown standardbred pacer. Savage proceeded to build a massive farm on the banks of the Minnesota River called the Taj Mahal, with stables and his own indoor and outdoor track.
These parts quickly became the epicenter of a racing industry, and wagering came along with it. M.W. was nicknamed “The Parson,” since he would not let Dan race on Sundays. The horse was, after all, an envelope-carrying member of the Methodist Church.
Try as he might, Savage could not prevent the wagering that went on at the track. Once at a race in Toronto, the Board of Control had to threaten to pull the license of the track if it did not cease and desist with the wagering and drinking. The allure of both could not outweigh prevention or prohibition, which started in 1920 and was repealed in 1933.
Both M.W. and Dan died in 1916; the farm was sold in 1919 and promptly fell into disrepair. The stables burned down in 1922.
In 1928, a Minneapolis syndicate headed by O.A. Gray leased the farm and built a grandstand to seat 3,500. For $4,000, the quarter-mile track was equipped with an electronic rabbit and converted to dog racing. Up to 300 greyhounds were housed on site. Locals were hired to exercise the dogs and earned $5 a day.
People from all over the Twin Cities came to bet on the races. The last heat each day on the racing card was called “The Monkey Race,” as monkeys were hitched to the backs of the dogs like jockeys as they raced around the track.
With anti-gambling laws gaining in popularity, the track was shut down. It opened again in 1930, was closed again and re-opened in 1935, it was finally destroyed in 1938. This location is off of Highway 13 and now part of Cargill property, and the racetrack oval can still be seen from the air.
During this same era, members of the Egan family opened up their Picnic Grounds. They created two ski runs on the east side, called Eskimo Hill because it was shaped like an igloo. The runs emptied into a lodge with a massive fireplace. The west side was bordered by the Credit River.
With winter fun and summer picnics, including fishing, horseback riding and swimming in the creek, this was a popular spot year-round. Thanks go to the proprietors for providing adult beverages and you guessed it, illegal slots in the back room. Local yore has it that when the booze was running low, the coins from the slots would be raided to buy more. This area is now Hidden Valley Park, and the original fireplace still stands.
Jennings, Watling, and Caille all manufactured slot machines in those days. Kaufenberg’s Tavern had a Whirlwind in its back room, manufactured by Pierce Tool, which made 37 different machines. When asked about it, the sly reply was “We only sell ice cream here.”
The dope was Kaufenberg served his beer a little warmer, as it created more foam, which meant less actual beer and more profits. Built in 1912, the building still stands at the corner of 123rd Street and Ottawa Avenue.
The most notorious establishment in Savage was the Budweiser Club, catty corner from Kaufenberg’s (Savage’s few city streets once held seven bars yet only one church).
The Budweiser was a popular destination, walls were lined with slot machines and roulette tables and you could also bet on the greyhounds running across the road. The liquor was flowing as well as free lunches. Pretty girls offered change, chips and cigarettes. Cab Calloway was on the radio, followed by Bing, Louie or Glen. Everyone was hustling for a shot at easy money.
So popular was the Budweiser Club in Little Reno that perhaps some of the notorious gangsters, like John Dillinger, Ma Barker’s Gang or Machine Gun Kelly left their protected speakeasies in St. Paul to attend the club. They would leave hangouts like The Hollyhocks Club on Mississippi Boulevard, the Castle Royal at the Wabasha Street Caves, even The Green Lantern in Downtown. Maybe with a moll or a flapper in tow, they made their way south of the river in their Studebaker’s or Chrysler Airflows for their cut of some easy money.
More lore has it that when law enforcement from Shakopee would leave to come check out the club, a call would be made to Savage tipping them off of the impending raid. Slot machines would be hidden in baby buggies and coaster wagons and roulette tables were stored in car trunks and under beds.
One report has the devices heading back to St. Paul, which lends credence to a gangster element. When the authorities arrived, they found all was in order. Before the deputies even got back to headquarters the nefarious activities had begun again. There still may be a basement or two that hides a slot machine, or has a cache of poker chips.
On May 30, 1936, an armed robbery occurred at the Budweiser Club. Three men smashed glasses, ransacked the cash register and hijacked a couple of slot machines.
The Minneapolis police were notified by town marshal George Allen Sr., who also ran a garage. He said he was “too busy repairing a car” to do anything about it. He did however give them the license number of the getaway vehicle and they were subsequently arrested by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in Iowa. The building eventually became apartments and has since been torn down. The empty lot is on Ottawa between 123rd and 124th Streets.
Gambling now is still just as popular, as evidenced by the success of Canterbury Park’s horse racing and poker operation, Mystic Lake Casino, and Running Aces Casino and Racetrack, which races pacers pulling sulkies and harkens back to the glory days of Dan Patch.
Maybe, just maybe, if you listen close, on a hot summers’ night, as the fog from the river creeps across Mr. Savage’s farm land and into downtown Savage, you will hear Dan’s hoofbeats, the clanging of nickels paying out and feel the full throat burn of the whiskey.