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Gangster movie filmed in Hastings

In the early 1930s, Minnesota was a haven for gangsters - infamous criminals such as John Dillinger, Alvin Karpis and Edna Murray. As a leader of gangster tours at the Wabasha Street Caves in St. Paul, Cynthia Schreiner Smith has seen first-hand just how fascinated people are with the lives of the gangsters. So she and her husband, Bick Smith, decided to take their knowledge and put it in a new format.

They co-produced Gangsterland, a 41-minute documentary film about gangsters in St. Paul and Minnesota. But instead of having a historian talking about the events that happened or fictionalizing it, they got actors to portray the gangsters and had the characters themselves speak to the camera about their lives.

"It's kind of an interesting way of doing it," Schreiner Smith said.

Among other things, the film addresses why Minnesota was so attractive to the gangsters.

"The welcome mat was pretty much thrown out by the St. Paul police," Schreiner Smith explained.

The police chief at the time, she went on, knew he didn't have the money or manpower to fight the crime, so he made a quiet agreement with the gangsters. As long as they behaved in his city, the police wouldn't chase them down and wouldn't tell anyone else - including the FBI - they were there.

"It worked great," Schreiner Smith said. "Crime plummeted."

She recalled a statistic that in the height of the gangster era, 21 percent of bank robberies happened in Minnesota, but not one of those was in St. Paul. It's what made Dillinger's dash across the Spiral Bridge so dangerous, she explained. He knew he was safe once he reached St. Paul, but Hastings was outside his bubble of protection, and the bridge was his only way across the river.

The film doesn't glorify gangsters, Schreiner Smith said, but they have kept the language clean so it can be presented in schools and historical presentations.

About two-thirds of the film was shot in and around Hastings over two days last August. Last summer, Schreiner Smith was introduced to Steve Bauer, the owner of the Little Log House Pioneer Village south of Hastings. She had wanted to include a re-enactment of Dillinger's race across the Spiral Bridge, but had assumed that it wouldn't be possible, since the bridge no longer existed. Meeting Bauer changed all that. When they were allowed to use Bauer's replica, they knew they would have a film, Schreiner Smith said.

Besides shooting at the Pioneer Village, Gangsterland also features Schreiner Smith's cousin's farm in Hampton, and several gravel roads in between that lent themselves perfectly to recalling the 1930s.

"There's a lot of great corn fields down your way," Schreiner Smith said.

The film itself is 41 minutes and available on DVD. Besides the documentary, the DVD also includes a 20-minute documentary interviewing retired St. Paul police officers recalling the gangster era.

"And they have some great stories to tell," Schreiner Smith said.

There's also an interview with the granddaughter of one of the criminals, a photo gallery and an outtake reel.

The DVD can be purchased for $19.99 plus shipping and handling online at It can also be purchased at a few locations, including the Minnesota History Center, Cheapo Records, Wabasha Street Caves, and a few other locations in the Twin Cities.

For more information, go to