A small-town waitress in North Dakota recalled the night she served steak to Al Capone
Stella Hildre was only a teenager when the gun-toting gangsters “in fine clothes” asked her to lock the doors of her family's cafe and serve them dinner. It became a night she'd never forget.
Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part special report “The Capones in North Dakota.” Part one examined how Al Capone’s oldest brother Vincenzo became a law enforcement officer at Standing Rock.
Stella Hildre was being a good daughter that night. Her parents ran the cafe in Petersburg, North Dakota. To give her busy mom the night off, she volunteered to cook and wait tables that night. Her good friend Agnes Asleson, a couple years older than Stella, agreed to help.
“I remember it was a beautiful day and evening,” Hildre told Mysteries Magazine in 2002.
She certainly wasn’t afraid to be in the cafe alone that night. It was her home away from home. Her parents had purchased the cafe in 1925, and she helped when she could. Pretty mundane stuff, really. Serve the customers a hot roast beef sandwich, a cup of coffee, and a piece of pie, and they’d be on their way.
But the young women had no idea what they were in for that night — what would become one of the most memorable nights of their life — a story Hildre would tell well into her 90s of the time she served supper to Al "Scarface” Capone.
The story begins when an unusual car (or maybe two) — black and fancy, with tinted windows — drove ever so slowly down Petersburg’s quiet downtown streets.
The car(s) pulled up outside the Hildre Cafe.
Then, "they came in wearing fine clothes to have dinner,” Hildre told William Jackson for his book, “More Dakota Mysteries and Oddities”.
The occupants of the car then instructed Hildre and Asleson to tell anyone else who came to the cafe that it was closed, and they asked the teens to lock the door.
Hildre said they weren’t scared, because oftentimes people having private parties at the cafe wanted to have the doors locked.
But then the men drew the shades.
“That seemed really odd to me,” Hildre said.
To make it even odder, some of the men stood guard outside with Tommy guns, while others climbed the stairs between the cafe and the hardware store next door to perch themselves on the diner’s roof, also with guns in hand. At the time, Petersburg had a population of just around 300, so the young waitresses were probably puzzled, wondering what was so concerning to the men.
A piano-playing party in Petersburg
But what could they do? They needed to make food for these men who obviously weren’t locals. But were they big-city mobsters? Was it Al Capone? They weren’t quite sure, but they had their suspicions. No matter who they were, they all ordered steak and the young waitresses started cooking.
“They were all very nice looking and polite,” Hildre told the magazine.
They took up two tables, and one man even went up to play a few popular tunes on the piano.
“We never heard it played that nice before,” Hildre told Jackson.
Best of all, Hildre recalled that Capone and his men liked their food.
“They enjoyed our cooking. They couldn’t get over how we two girls could cook the steaks,” Hildre said in Jackson’s book. “They were all very nice. This one, especially. I’m sure it was him (Capone). He was very nice to us. They just seemed like a group of people who came in for a good time.”
The mobsters didn’t stay long. When they left, the man believed to be Capone left each of them a $5 tip. In today’s money, that would equal about $87. The girls were thrilled.
Weren’t you scared?
With small-town gossip being what it is, word got around the next day that it was Capone’s crew driving through Petersburg that night. Hildre said people asked them, “Weren’t you scared?”
She said they weren’t sure whether they should have been “scared” or “thrilled.”
Karen O'Neil, who is married to Stella's son Marty, said she remembers her mouth being "agape" when her mother-in-law mentioned her brush with gangster greatness. Karen also asked Stella if she wasn't just "a little bit afraid" that night.
"I remember she said, 'Well, I guess we didn't have time to think about it. We were too busy cooking their steaks,' " Karen said.
And even if they were scared, at least that had a heck of a story to tell.
What became of Stella and Agnes?
Whatever happened to Stella Hildre and Agnes Asleson?
Stella eventually married a widower named John Leland O’Neil. Together, they raised his two children from his late wife and six of their own. Agnes married George Goodrie and had two children. Both women remained in the region until their deaths.
Agnes died in 1991 and Stella in 2007, giving them decades to tell an amazing story of serving steak to Scarface.
"She talked about it a lot. At one time, she did a handwritten story of her life and included it," said Jo O'Neil, who is married to Stella's son Bob. "Many years ago, before she passed away, she took us to Petersburg and showed us where the cafe was."
It didn't surprise Bob O'Neil at all to hear that his then-teenaged mother wasn't rattled by the presence of gangsters in her family cafe.
"My mom was the oldest of six kids. She was so mature because she kind of had to take charge," said Bob.
It also doesn't surprise Stella's sons and daughters-in-law that Stella would say that the gangsters were "nice" and "polite."
"She would always think that. She was like that," said Jo.
"My mom taught us that if you didn't have anything nice to say, don't say anything," Bob said.
Was it really Al Capone?
At this point, there is no definitive proof that it was Al Capone and his crew driving through Petersburg that night. But given the secrecy of the mob boss and his efforts to lay low when he traveled, evidence (and certainly photos) would be hard to come by. But through the years, he had been spotted by many people traveling along a route that included what is now North Dakota's Highway 2 that goes through Petersburg. His bootlegging interests in smuggling whiskey in from Canada would give him reason to be near the border.
To have any hope of verifying that Capone and his men were in Petersburg, it might help to know exactly when it happened.
It's not clear exactly what year Hildre and Asleson’s dinner with Capone happened. Stella's son, Marty O'Neil, believes his mother was about 16. Published stories simply mention Stella and Agnes as "teens" and "high schoolers," so given the girl's birthdates, it most likely happened between 1926 and 1929.
It is interesting to note that according to Capone's biography, he went into hiding for three months in 1926 after he and some of his gunmen inadvertently killed a prosecutor in Chicago.
Was North Dakota considered remote enough to be his hideout spot for those three months? Or was he here for another reason?
As mentioned in Part One of “The Capones in North Dakota,” Al Capone’s older brother, Vincenzo, was working as a federal agent in North Dakota during this time. Is there an off-chance he was stopping by to say “hi” to his big brother or even talk business?
That’s probably not likely, as the brothers, from opposing sides of the booze battle, had informally agreed to stay out of each other’s territories. Also, while Vincenzo was working in North Dakota, he was stationed at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, more than four hours south of Petersburg.
And finally, Capone was known to head north from Chicago to vacation nearby in Minnesota and Wisconsin , so a trip to eastern North Dakota is within the realm of possibility.
In fact, rumors have swirled in the Grand Forks area for years, about close relationships between Capone and some bar owners in East Grand Forks. It was also rumored that he visited or even had homes on lakes including Lake Melissa, Bass Lake, Little Bemidji and Fish Hook Lake, just to name a few.
We’ll tackle Al Capone at the lake in part three of “The Capones in North Dakota.”