This article passes no moral judgment on Mike Carrozzo’s past, but it doesn’t sugarcoat it either. He had proven, established connections to Al Capone, and had used union funds like a personal wallet. That was his work life. In his personal life, he was affable and generous. Because of the territory covered, I’ve split this into two parts: one covering Carrozzo’s life and reputation to around 1940; the next article will detail his untimely death and an exploration of his racing stable. It’s a lot to cover.
Even eighty years after its construction, the horse barn on the corner of Ainsworth and County Line roads in Hobart, Indiana, still impresses. The white paint is still a brilliant white, and the masonry of the stables looks as sturdy as stone. Considering the mountain of questionable funds used to build the barn, its costly quality shouldn’t surprise.
Impressive doesn’t mean impeccable. Almost all of the small barn windows are broken. The massive sliding doors at the front and rear of the barn have jammed fast in their tracks. The gap between them is only a few inches, but it’s enough to let in the rodents and the rain. Weed thickets weave over the barn’s perimeter and vines have snaked in through the broken windowpanes. Nature is now pawing at the barn’s interior. Saddest of all, and the kiss of death for any building, are the gaping holes dotting the shingled roof. There’s only a few, but a few is enough. Rain, moisture, decay, damage and destruction. It’s just a matter of time now.
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The barn and the surrounding land were sold to the Lake County Parks & Recreation several years ago at a steep discount. Passersby can read a commemorative plaque along Ainsworth Road just west of the barn detailing this sale. Like most historical buildings in any parks’ system, the barn already teetered between salvage and scrap long before it fell into the park’s hands. Its condition has only worsened, and the parks can’t be blamed for its current condition. Restoring the racing stable to any usable state would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, a cost that no amount of tours or donation drives can cover. Like any cash-strapped arm of the government, the parks system has to pick its battles.
But the barn isn’t out of it yet. Although it is closed up and surrounded by rusted fencing topped with barbed wire, I was able to explore the barn for an hour this summer. That day, I discovered concrete proof that a rumor of the barn’s origin was actually true: one of Alphonse Capone’s closest underbosses, Michael “Dago Mike” Carrozzo, had built the barn as a gift for his beloved wife (I apologize for the racist epithet, but that was his given nickname).
Carrozzo controlled, officially and unofficially, twenty-five Chicago unions. He started out in the Street Workers’ (or Street Sweepers’) Union in the 1920s, gradually accumulating power over the next two decades. By 1940, he had become one of The most powerful and most corrupt union bosses in Chicago history. Given Chicago’s history of corruption, that is saying something.
Carrozzo’s rise to power began when he served “Big Jim” Colosimo as a nameless bodyguard. In the morbid lineage of Chicago’s early organized crime, Colosimo was murdered by Joe Torrio, who was nearly beaten to death, then handed control of the Chicago Outfit to upstart Al Capone. Under Capone, the Outfit took a violent but profitable turn. Capone himself appointed his close friend Michael Carrozzo as a union boss.
Even after Capone’s imprisonment, Carrozzo continued to run the union with disregard for the law. It’s important to remember that those dealing with Michael Carrozzo knew full well who they were dealing with. He was a serious man and not averse to violence.
Like Capone, Carrozzo believed in a simple tactic: extortion. During one infamous incident at a 1940 Chicago city council meeting, after the council had instituted a freeze on all pay increases, Carrozzo strode in unannounced and demanded a half million dollar raise for the street workers. When the officials refused, Carrozzo simply said, “You’ll pay or there’ll be no street work next year.” Without another word he turned and left. And they did pay, because they knew Carrozzo’s abrupt and widespread strikes often brought Chicago business to a halt. The union boss’s demands were for the betterment of his workers in part, but also for himself—personal demands for lucrative contracts, bribes, and free labor. Occasionally, those opposing Carrozzo died untimely deaths…or just disappeared.
Most of his personal funds flowed into his Hobart dairy farm, dubbed Superior Farms. Like many high-ranking members of the Chicago Outfit, Carrozzo hoped to escape his past as an immigrant and criminal and break into high society. He bought a $75,000 home (approx. $1.4 million today) in Long Beach, Indiana, in his first attempt to climb the social ladder, but his reputation as a crime boss and association with Capone continued to haunt him. Neighbors shunned Carrozzo and his family.
He decided his family’s fortune would improve in a pastoral setting, where he could set himself up as a farm baron. Like Capone, Carrozzo considered dairy farms a safe and booming business. With the widespread introduction of mandatory pasteurization in the 1940s, Americans were drinking more milk than ever. The dairy cows surrounding Chicago struggled to keep up.
Carrozzo bought roughly 900 acres of connected farms in Hobart, reputedly paying cash for many of them. The newly-dubbed Superior Farms doglegged around Ainsworth Road and was both fertile and isolated. A long stretch of lazy hills surrounded Carrozzo’s property on the east and south. To the north and west, a heavily-wooded gulch plunged into a marsh. Not only was his purchase a business venture, it was also a strategic setup to dissuade any violent rivals. He and his men (which he referred to as his “secretaries”) would see any move from miles away.
Contractors performed much of the work on Superior Farms at or below cost, thanks to Carrozzo’s union leverage. Trees were cut down, removed, and plowed over, leaving behind only rolling acres of grass. He constructed massive barns for his dairy cows, including one of the largest in Lake County, bought the latest milking equipment, and built a palatial home at the northern end of his property. Workers painted all buildings in thick, white paint. Superior Farms was something to behold.
As splendid as it was, there was something a little “off” about Superior Farms. In 1938, the Hobart community was a modern farming community. These large farms with modern equipment still possessed the neighborly attitude of homesteaders. Carrozzo’s farm broke from that. Eight-foot high fencing topped with dense curls of barbed wire surrounded the main house. All inroads were blocked by heavy iron gates. Many stories concerning the armed guards that patrolled the farm grounds are considered tall tales by local historians, but considering Carrozzo’s reputation and business tactics, those precautions would not be farfetched. They are far more likely.
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Lake County’s attitude toward Mike Carrozzo also weighed heavily on his legacy. While Chicagoland newspapers readily denounced him as a Capone cohort, union strong-arm, and corrupt beyond redemption, Lake County newspapers were less judgmental. In a Hammond Times article from October 2, 1938, a reporter wrote, “Mike’s career in Chicago is said to have been a colorful one.”
Colorful is hardly an accurate descriptor for a man connected to numerous murders, millions in bribes and kickbacks, membership in the Chicago Outfit, AND ownership of a 900-acre fortified country estate, yet claimed only $12,000 a year on his tax return. Even when announcing his death on August 4th, 1940, the Hammond Times equivocated his alleged organized crime career as “quiet and fabulous” and then remarked how good a tipper he was—”as much as $5 for a manicure.”
In 1940, $5 had nearly the same buying power as $100 today.
Carrozzo’s greatest pride wasn’t the land or the dairy business, but what he saw as his ticket to social mobility: his racing stable. The stable had been a gift for his young wife, Julie Carrozzo. Her affinity for horses inspired him to construct a massive racing stable and racing track and the well-funded stable began producing and selling prize-winning thoroughbreds. Julie’s “horse sense” exceeded the hobby level.
She excelled at breeding and training thoroughbreds and controlled all aspects of the stable. For a time, all her thoroughbreds ran under the Carrozzo name, until numerous antitrust lawsuits caught up with her husband. After that, the horses raced under the Superior Farm name. Mike watched his wife’s success with absolute glee, and he was a familiar sight at the Arlington race track. His dream of becoming a respected country squire had come true.