A little ‘crime’ with the celebration

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 14, 2001

SARGEANT – Expect a "crime wave" when Sargeant celebrates its 125th anniversary of existence June 30.

Thursday, June 14, 2001

SARGEANT – Expect a "crime wave" when Sargeant celebrates its 125th anniversary of existence June 30.

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The Cream Can bandits will strike again.

Local residents are planning a re-enactment of the May 17, 1939, robbery of the bank and a general store in Sargeant.

The action begins 1:30 p.m. June 30 on the main street in Sargeant.

Albert Lea Tribune feature writer and columnist Ed Shannon wrote about the 1939 robberies this spring.

"For about 14 months, a group of robbers known as the Cream Can Bandits really eluded law enforcement officials in the Upper Midwest," Shannon began.

From March 1938 to May 1939, the robbers struck post offices, banks, stores and service stations, wherever there was a safe full of money.

The gang earned its nickname by stealing cream cans from creameries or farms. The can would be filled with water and taken with the robbers into the places they robbed. They used the water in the cans to cool their drills or acetylene torches, when they drilled through safe locks. Sometimes, they drilled a hole in the safe and poured water from the cream cans into the safe so the paper money wouldn’t burn when they drilled through the safe locks.

Always, they would leave the empty cream cans behind as a "calling card" and make off with the loot.

The robbers preferred small towns, where there was no police on duty and where the population retired to bed early and the empty streets and back alleys were theirs.

When the bandits decided to strike Sargeant, they met their match.

The Sargeant centennial history book picks up Shannon’s account of the Cream Can Bandits visit 62 years ago.

According to local historians, a citizen living near the State Bank of Sargeant saw "shadows in the bank" and summoned Mower County Deputy Sheriff Lon Enochson from Austin.

Enochson brought three Austin police officers with him and the lawmen interrupted the bank robbers’ work.

The robbers and the peace officers exchanged gunshots and two of them were captured at gunpoint in the village, while a third was arrested later trying to escape during a manhunt in Steele County.

Two of the bandits, William Rigby and Walter Morneau, were wounded and held by locals with shotguns until they could be transported to jail.

Another bandit, Edward Mrozik, escaped the clutches of the law, but was captured in July 1939 at a lake cabin north of St. Paul.

The bands confessed to trying to crack the Sargeant bank’s safe on three attempts and were trying a fourth time when lawmen stopped them.

More than 100 rounds of gunfire echoed in the streets of Sargeant that night. The Austin police officers, Maynard Pratt, Albert Fuller and Elton Smith, had a machine gun in their arsenal for which the bandits had no equal artillery.

The four were sentenced to 18 years each in prison by a federal judge in October 1939.

Also on the June 30 schedule of 125th anniversary fun at Sargeant are games and prizes for young and old, 2 p.m.; music by local talent, snacks sold by Evanger Lutheran Church Luther Leaguers, a bake sale by Zion Lutheran Church, commemorative souvenirs (Christmas ornaments and caps) sold and antiques and historical memorabilia on display.

All the activities take place at the Sargeant Community Center.

The celebration ends with a Windsor pork chop supper – $7 for adults and a hot dog meal for children $2 – followed by a 7:30 p.m. community celebration of music and sharing sponsored by the four area churches.

Not since the community’s annual Turkey Day celebrations were held are crowds like those anticipated for the June 30 125th celebration expected in Sargeant.

For years, the community also has enjoyed an ecumenical informal evening of worship, music and fellowship to bring residents together.

Now, 125 years of history will do that and more on a summer’s Saturday in June.

Call Lee Bonorden at 434-2232 or e-mail him at lee.bonorden@austindailyherald.com.