The Carrozzo horse stable is carefully barred and monitored by the parks system and is clearly visible from their maintenance barn. Considering the age and condition of the roof and hayloft flooring, the stable is NOT safe to explore. To be more honest, if someone damages that barn, it will personally reflect on me and this website. As a personal favor, please admire it only from a distance.
I skidded the park’s Gator to a stop on the road shoulder’s edge, sprinkling a cloud of dust and gravel on the rusted chain link around the stable. The fencing stands about four feet high, but strands of barbed wire top it. It’s a standing ad for tetanus. I think, but am not sure, that it may be the original fencing from the 1940s. As intimidating as it might look, it was less a security measure than a practical one. Horses would be hard pressed to jump the fencing after a scratch on that barbed wire. Still, in the spread of farms around Hobart, now and in 1938, barbed wire wasn’t common. Too costly, yes, but also too uninviting for the pastoral country life—exactly like something Mike Carrozzo would install.
A rusted padlock and chain clench the rusted gate closed, but the rust is misleading. Everything still did its job I’m keeping the gate firmly closed. The chain still held smartly and the lock popped up open on the first turn of the key. In the middle of the gate dangled a sun-bleached sign: GUARD DOG ON DUTY.
Again, not something you’d see on a typical Indiana farm.
Park crew had attempted to cut back the dense weeds surrounding the stable’s perimeter, but after burning through a half-dozen heavy-duty trimmer blades, they gave up. Instead they donned protective gear and a backpack full of Roundup and sloshed around its edge, spraying the weeds liberally. A week later, the weeds had turned a burnt orange-brown. In another week, a quick tug would yank the dead weeds out of the ground to the roots.
Behind the barn was a fallow field where, once upon a time, a hard-packed dirt oval had served as a practice track for the stable’s horses. Unlike the stable, the track has completely vanished.
Once, the front and back of the racing stable doors had opened smoothly on tracks, rolling wide to let horses in and out, but the tracks and bearings had long since locked up. The doors, now secured with hefty, modern locks, only moved a few inches on the track before catching. There was no way to step through the doors without thirty minutes of pulling and pushing. Eventually, I opened a foot-wide gap, enough for me to squeeze through, middle-aged belly and all.
I’ve been in many antiquated barns in various conditions. Some, like the awe-inspiring barn at Buckley Homestead, are so well-constructed and maintained they seem immortal. Others, like a now-vanished barn in southern Indiana, had decayed so badly that my foot plunged through the rotted flooring up to my thigh, resulting in a lot of cursing and Neosporin.
The state of the Carrozzo racing stable surprised me. That doesn’t mean it is in great or even good condition. It is not. Decades had passed since anyone mended holes or replaced windows and those decades had done their work. That said, the familiar stink of mold and mustiness that I associate with old barns didn’t assault me as I expected. My best guess is that the reasonably intact roof had prevented the worst of the rain from seeping in, and a breeze had circulated air through the broken windows, slowing down the decay. For an eighty-year-old stable with twenty years of exposure, it was surprisingly dry.
The summer sun blared through the broken windows and gaps, and affected some of the pictures I took, making a clear focus almost impossible (If I go back, I promise to upload some better photos). On one side of the stable doors was a small, carpeted room. Here, a stable manager had once bedded down during the night to care for the thoroughbred racing horses. Across from this living area stood a manager’s office. An ancient refrigerator stood open, its door dangling at an odd angle, filled with coffee cans of nails, screws, and assorted fasteners. It was the kind of fridge that terrified modern parents; once closed, it could only be opened from the outside. Whew.
A few steps further down was a narrow set of stairs leading up to the hayloft. Bird shit coated the steps like spilled paint. I held off on that. The stairs looked solid enough, but once you plunge a foot through one ceiling, you get gun shy about going UP. Stretching the entire length of the stable were open stalls, each framed by steel bars and hasps.
Park workers had used the long space for storage and mounted a long aluminum extension ladder. Short stacks of hay stood at each end, probably placed there within the last year or two. In a park as big as Deep River (over a thousand acres), storage in the field is pretty handy. That also explained the ladder and hay and a loose pile of dimensional lumber on the floor.
The poured concrete floor was wide open and clear of debris, which was unexpected. Equally unexpected with the flat ceiling. Only a few small sections showed any sign of water damage or sagging. For the most part it was dry and flat. It was an actual finished ceiling, not just the flooring and joists of the hayloft. Again, that was probably an expensive Carrozzo touch.
My knowledge of horse stables is thin, but I am reasonably good at spotting quality in old construction. From cellar to ceiling and bow to butt, this stable was and is quality. That is the only reason it is still standing, and the reason why, forty years from now, it will probably remain standing, even without maintenance. Stalls were all uniform and constructed by professional carpenters. How could I tell? Each stall was identically made, the construction lumber was of uniform size and it all fit together.
That doesn’t sound like much of an assessment, but in 1938, at a rural Indiana farm, that was a BIG DEAL. That level of carpentry was suited more for a courthouse than a country estate, but here it was. For the head of most of Chicago’s union workers, craftsmanship of that sort would not only have been accessible, but probably free. Plus, all the stall fixtures, from the sliding bolts on the stall gates to the hinges to the stall feeders were constructed of steel and remained as strong today as they did eighty years ago. That was also expensive, out of the ordinary and very much Carrozzo.
Taking this all in, I was still disappointed. I had come there looking to confirm (or refute) a specific rumor: once workers had completed construction of the racing stable in 1938, Mike had brought his young wife, Julia Carrozzo, who he worshipped, to the stable and had etched her initials in huge sweeping letters into one of the wood stalls. I desperately wanted to find that carving, but trotting up and down the length of the stable, I couldn’t find anything etched into the wood. At one point I saw the remains of words written with faded white chalk, but even in the sunlight, I could only make out DON’T DRIVE something-something and DO NOT RIDE something-something. Hardly the massive carved letters I had hoped for. Finding them would not only be concrete proof of the stable’s original purpose (a gift), but it also humanized Mike Carrozzo.
Carrozzo was a member of the Chicago Outfit, yes. He also took advantage of the trust of the Chicago unions for his personal profit and power. That’s also true. But there’s a reason the American public has cultivated such interest in Prohibition Era organized crime. Partially it’s the legal ambiguity of drinking. It’s legal now, illegal then, and the methods used to pass Prohibition and the Volstead Act were nearly as underhanded as those of criminal bootleggers (a story for another time).
In my opinion, another part is the historic plight of the millions of Ellis Island immigrants, which today formed American cultural heritage. Italian immigrants (or Polish, Russian, Czech) that came to America looking for prosperity and finding it only through iron self-determination. Many early cells of organized crime began simply because isolated communities couldn’t find justice through the American court system, so they made their own system of justice. if you’ve ever seen The Godfather Part II and young Vito Corleone’s clash with New York’s Black Hand underworld, you’ll have some idea.
If you enjoy this story, consider Inventing Indiana, a collection of the site’s most popular stories, now at Amazon in paperback or Kindle editions.
Carrozzo was like this. He arrived in America in 1906 with nothing more than his clothes and a refusal to fail. He rose through the ranks of organized crime, edged into legitimate business, and then hoped to create an ideal world at his Hobart estate. For a boy from Italy, owning such a country estate made you a man of respect and consequence. That comparison couldn’t have been far from his mind when he surveyed his legendary dairy barn, his blindly-white outbuildings, his mansion, or his racing stable.
On the other hand, Carrozzo also once stated what America needed more than anything was a Mussolini or Hitler to get things done. Yikes. But remember that he died before Americans truly realized how bad either dictator really was.
His death came at the height of his power and just as he was basking in the glow of his Hobart home. Federal authorities had been badgering him with antitrust lawsuits after Carrozzo had kept ready-mix concrete out of Chicago, a technological advance that would dramatically decrease the labor need for paving services. This was something Chicago wanted and the unions did not. But for a man like Carrozzo, who had faced far more frightening things than an angry Chicago attorney, legal threats would hardly rattle him. It wasn’t a rival gang, or J. Edgar Hoover, or Chicago contractors that did in Mike Carrozzo. Instead, his own body betrayed him.
During the last week of July, 1940, Carrozzo complained of steadily increasing body aches and fever, which worsened into shuddering chills and delirium. An operation years earlier had cleared him of a kidney ailment, but left large calcium deposits (stones) in his ureter (the duct between the kidney and bladder). Although the details are murky today, it is likely the blockage turned into sepsis.
Mobster or not, the man endured a week of agony that is unimaginable.
Micheal Carrozzo died Sunday, August 4th, at the age of 45, just a few hours after an emergency operation. His wife Julia clutched his hand at his beside when he passed away. He arrived in America in 1906 without a penny and started as street sweeper. When he died, he owned one of the largest dairy farms in the Midwest, and was buried in a $10,000 casket, worth nearly $200,000 today. That’s like being buried in a Lamborghini.
Whether using fair means or foul, in good taste or bad, that’s an achievement.
That story rattled around in my mind as I searched the stable. Finding Julia Carrozzo’s carved initials, to me, would show the side of him that was caring, generous, and vulnerable. An hour passed and I couldn’t find it. It had to have been just a rumor. A romantic rumor and a great way to end a story, but a rumor nonetheless.
There was one last place to look. The hayloft.
I stared up those narrow stairs covered in bird shit. Cobwebs draped across the ceiling like sun shades. I put my foot down on one step and pressed. It creaked and the wood sank sickly. Uncomfortably. But it was the only place I hadn’t looked and I was already inside the stable, wasn’t I?
Before I got up the nerve to walk up the stairs, I peaked into the stall next to the stairs. Unlike the others, this stall’s condition was marginal at best. One side had been made of cinderblock, which had crumbled under decades of moisture. A water pipe ran against the wall. This was probably the damage’s source.
In the middle of the mess was a sign advertising the property for sale. Private Lake, Modern Home. Call Mark Thomas.
The first five years of Superior Farms was much more interesting than its last seventy-five, I do know. I had tracked the sale of the racing stable before exploring it. After Carrozzo’s death, federal authorities had no problem whittling down Julia’s inheritance and by 1943, she was forced to sell her beloved racing stable, along with the rest of the farm. Former Gary health commissioner Dr. Walter Behn purchased Superior Farms (which was then about 1200 acres) for $150,000. This included ALL buildings and property. It was a horrifically cheap price for the estate. By the time funds were settled, Julia was left with enough to live with some security but far from luxury. No doubt Carrozzo would have been furious.
Eventually, the pastoral estate became the Supervisor’s Club, a posh country club that became the River Pointe Country Club (also a posh country club). The property at the corner of Ainsworth Road and County Line Road, however, never made this transition. It was eventually sold and purchased by Dr. Daniel Thomas, the former Lake County coroner (a brilliant man worth a story or two of his own). After Dr. Thomas’ passing, his son Mark Thomas inherited it. When selling it, Mark had no qualms about advertising its historic context (Folks, Capone NEVER stayed there).
I do not know the details of the land parcel’s sale to the Lake County Parks & Recreation Department, but I do know Mark Thomas was unable to get his desired price. He sold the house in one parcel and Lake County purchased the rest at a substantial discount. There it sits today, rickety stairs and all
I’d like to tell you my journalistic integrity got me up those staircase steps. Or my dedication to a proper narrative as a professional writer. But neither of those are true.
What started me up those steps is the same thing that gets every kid on their first rollercoaster or to jump off their first diving board. What are you, a little baby? Get your ass up there, my mind told me. Just that good ol’ drill instructor that sits in the back of our minds, kicking us in the ass when needed. I tightened my baseball cap (always wear hats in old barns!), ducked down to avoid the worst of the cobwebs, and started up the the narrow wooden staircase. It’s the only place Julia Carrozzo’s initials could—
I got exactly three steps up before my foot broke through one of the stair treads. I was saved from plunging only because I had my hands pressed against the walls. Now that I was closer, what I thought had been the same straight-grained quality wood used everywhere else was just flimsy half-inch plywood. Not a Carrozzo touch. Water from a nearby window must have seeped into these steps, although how the paint hadn’t bubbled, I didn’t know. I extracted my shoe slowly and stepped back down.
I wouldn’t have to go up those stairs now, of course…but I also didn’t have the ending I wanted to the “Carrozzo barn story” as my mind had started calling it. I took one last pass up and down the stables and then shrugged it off. Although I knew the barn had been built by Mike Carrozzo and had been run by his wife, the rumor of the carved initials was just that. An empty rumor. I had been inside for well over an hour, and had a few decent pictures. Time to call it a day.
I swear, folks, on my two kids that this next part is 100% true.
As I was leaving through that narrow gap in the sliding barn doors, I looked down and saw it. I missed it when I had entered because I had stepped right over them.
The rumor hadn’t been entirely true, but pretty close.
On the concrete floor and drawn in wide, elegant curves eighty years old, was a J and C, as clear as day and as large as a serving platter. JC. Julia Carrozzo.
Whether Julia herself had drawn them or Mike Carrozzo had, I don’t know, but they had been etched by a finger in freshly-poured concrete almost a century ago. Before cell phones, color television, space flight or World War II, a man who was very much in love with his wife had poured thousands into constructing the perfect gift, and these simple initials remained as a permanent memorial to that gift.
I had my ending. I tightened the door, locked it, then locked the rusted gate, giving the chain a quick tug. I left the old racing stable as it was before I came in.