Little Chicago - Slam or Salute?
Digging up the fact on the Sioux City - Chicago connections

By Russ Gifford
(Originally published in The Weekender) 

Like any unwanted nickname, Little Chicago sticks to Sioux City like the boot they put on your car after your third parking ticket. You can’t get rid of it unless you confront the reasons it is there. This week, the Weekender explores the roots of the nickname that would not die. Along the way we’ll explode some myths. We might create a few new ones while we’re at it.

Crime and Corruption

Despite the sweeping changes in faces, places and businesses in Siouxland, anything that smacks of cronyism or corruption in local government will net this simple chant from longtime Sioux Citians: “There’s a reason they call this Little Chicago!” Is this the real connection?

Fact: In the early 1950’s an investigation proved corruption in the City Commissioners that led the City. Eventually, the entire structure of Sioux City’s government changed to forestall future problems.

But that was long ago. Is this enough to slap a sticker on Sioux City as a diminutive Chicago? No, I think not. Despite Sioux City best efforts to run with the big dogs, we are not certain this is adequate evidence. Besides, Sioux City was already considered a little Chicago well before the big expose of the 1950’s. Let’s keep digging!

Gangsters and Gun Molls

This is everyone’s favorite. Local lore has it that Chicago’s preeminent gangster Al Capone stayed in the Sioux Warrior Motor Inn. USD grad student Tom Munson, who has spent years researching Sioux City history at the Public Museum says, “[Capone] might have came here to escape the heat,” meaning when potential legal troubles became too persistent in Chicago, Capone could have bolted to a quieter, friendlier climate.

Any proof? No. But Munson adds that the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railway “leads right here, and brought passengers from Chicago all the time.”

Hmmm. Not a resounding endorsement. Let’s look further.

Grace Linden, Sioux City Public Museum’s Curator of History points out Chicago gangsters are said to have stayed at the infamous Chicago House hotel on lower 4th. “The museum does have the books from the Chicago House,” but she adds, “it isn’t likely that they’d register under their actual names.”

So, no proof there, either.

Fact: Many Sioux Citians remember the final Chicago House hotel at 4th and Jones as a rough place, and it is said that an up-and-coming gangster Davy Berman got his start in the basement poker games. These were reputed to have been started by bored gangsters cooling their heels in Sioux City.

So it is reasonable to assume that at least “we were the outlet for the lower class of mobsters,” as Munson says with a laugh.

What about the claims that Capone came to visit his brother Richard “Two Gun” Hart, who lived in Homer, Nebraska? Hart’s son Harry, (Capone’s nephew) dismisses that idea. “Didn’t happen,” says Harry Hart. Two Gun Hart was a federal employee who became famous for raiding illegal moonshine and bootlegging operations. There was plenty of work for him in the Siouxland region, and his exploits are legend. But his son notes it was not known in those days that Hart and Capone were brothers.

So, while it seems likely that some gangsters came here, and it can be claimed that Capone was here, too, “there is no evidence that he did,” says Munson.

Ouch. Not good for the “Little Chicago” connection. What’s next?

Prohibition and Probable Cause

Now, this is more like it! When the nation enacted the prohibition of alcohol sales, Chicago had a huge number of thirsty citizens and a proximity to Canadian liquor. Capone used the excess dollars his product commanded to corrupt Chicago politicians and police enforcement.  The result was violent crime with rivals or obstacles gunned down on the streets of Chicago suburbs.

But Sioux City had a head start on Chicago in this instance! Iowa flirted with liquor prohibition since it became a state. But Sioux City, located far from the state capital, didn’t observe these rules. Beer and liquor continued to flow in the bars and saloons of Sioux City. Three decades before Capone could make it a standard practice in Chicago, a local that tried to stop Sioux City’s trade in alcohol - crusading anti-alcohol minister Rev. Haddock - was gunned down in the street in 1886.

Fact: Haddock’s death and the spectacle of an obviously rigged jury that followed certainly fixed in minds of many that Sioux City was a lawless town.

With the disgraceful trail making headlines across the country Sioux City cleaned up – for a time. Fact: In the 1940’s, when Iowa was still a ’dry’ state, “the Columbia House was known as a place you could always get a bottle of whiskey,” Harry Hart tells us. Sad irony, since the Columbia House, located at 323 Water Street, was adjacent to location where Rev. Haddock was killed – and likely where the gang that accosted Haddock strengthened their resolve with drinks.

Now we are getting somewhere. This certainly could have earned the name “little Chicago.” But wait, the trail does not end here!

Stockyards and the “Smell of Money”

Perhaps the real clues to this mystery are in the air. From the very beginning Sioux City shared much with Chicago. As frontier towns with a taste for alcohol and a rural connection to farmers and markets, Sioux City was a smaller version of what made Chicago a powerhouse in the Midwest. Linden notes that Chicago dominated the markets for farmers and communities near Chicago, and Sioux City aimed to do the same. But here’s the twist! “Chicago money helped build Sioux City’s early packing houses. Cudahy, Swift, Armour were all built with Chicago money.” Why ship all the cattle to Chicago when it would be more efficient to build the plants in Sioux City?   

Fact: Sioux City was a ‘Little Chicago.” The model of Chicago – hub market for agriculture and manufacturing – was transplanted into Sioux City.

Along with the successes came the problems Chicago experienced, including labor disputes and something still frequently commented on in Sioux City – the ‘smell of money.’

Like Chicago, the stockyards and the packing industry have left their ‘brand’ on Sioux City. As the boom times for both cities also coincided, the architecture also bore a similarity.  “The Richardson Romanesque style was huge in the 1880’s and 1890’s,” says Munson. Chicago architect William Steele and others active in Sioux City at the time certainly makes a visual connection between old Chicago and old Sioux City apparent.

All very interesting – but wait! We have a final clue within our grasp!

The real connection

Where did the Sioux City as a little Chicago start? The origins might be obscured in the mists of time. But before it was a backhanded compliment, perhaps there was a conspiracy already afoot! Here is the lead line in an 1886 publication called Sioux City Illustrated. With flowery language typical of the time, Sioux City’s promoters declare that our fair city is “the Chicago of the Northwest.”

Perhaps confronting the history will not remove this boot after all. Sometimes you have to pay for your past transgressions!

Where the Deli got the name - the real story!

Internet searches show four pages of other communities before a link between Sioux City and Little Chicago makes an appearance, but when it does, it is a solid connection! The link is the Little Chicago Deli, a Sioux City original started 18 years ago this January. So we caught up with brothers Scott and Mark Wilkens to see where they got the name.

“We wanted to identify with the city, but we didn’t want to call it Sioux City Deli,” laughs Scott. The brothers complemented the connection by choosing historic pictures of Sioux City as their decor.

“Everyone calls Sioux City a Little Chicago,” said Mark. “The stories of the mobsters coming through added a mystique that we liked.”

Fact: Their new location at 4th and Nebraska adds a grill. Enjoy!

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