Our SouthWest story Aug. 21 on the history of (illegal, yet apparently widespread) gambling in Grant County was personally interesting.
That’s because I knew one of the people in the story, which you can reread at www.swnews4u.com/section/161/article/15470/. After Rev. Joseph Niglis was pastor of Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Dickeyville, he founded the church where I was baptized, given First Communion and confirmed, St. Dennis Catholic Church on Madison’s far East side. (It is essentially the only Catholic church on Madison’s far East side if you don’t count Monona, so it therefore is one of the biggest Catholic churches in Madison.)
Niglis was St. Dennis’ pastor when St. Dennis held most of its Masses in the school gymnasium, because Niglis felt the school was so important. (Perhaps he got that from Holy Ghost. As for myself, for the first few years of my life I thought every Catholic church had two hoops and a scoreboard in it.) The school gym was also the site of Friday fish fries for years before St. Dennis got its “new” (as in opened in 1983) church building. Our entire family worked at those fish fries, in exchange for eating said fish.
Read the story by Dennis Wilson of the Grant County Historical Society, and you can’t help but notice the undercurrent of anti-Catholicism, and the resulting backlash, in opposition to the kind of gambling, such as it was, at Catholic church picnics. Grant County Sheriff Robert Seemeyer evidently felt he had better things to do than bust Catholic church picnics, even if the activities going on at least went right up to the bounds of legality. (Grant County has always had a lot of Catholics, and Seemeyer probably saw them as potential voters for or against him.)
The fact that gambling was illegal from Wisconsin’s statehood until 1973 (when charitable bingo was legalized), yet widespread, should demonstrate that unenforceable laws should not be laws at all. (Betting on Sunday’s Packer game is illegal.) It also shows the danger of trying to ban activities you don’t approve of that don’t quite rise to the level of the Ten Commandments. (Gambling is not stealing assuming the gambler should be smart enough to realize the chances of losing.) Gambling seems to me to be a form of entertainment that will cost you money. That’s also true of Badger or Packer games, even independent of bets on the outcome, point spread, over–under, or quarter scores.
A story about the far-past of gambling is interesting as well because of the near-past, present and potential future of gambling in Southwest Wisconsin, which is to say the Tri-States. I remember when Dubuque Greyhound Park opened. My then-girlfriend (now wife) and I went on the Casino Belle when Iowa legalized on-the-water gambling, with a loss limit. And we went on the Silver Eagle when Illinois legalized on-the-water gambling, with no loss limit. And then the Casino Belle left, and then the Silver Eagle left, and then the Diamond Jo arrived, the boat that never leaves its dock, and then the dog track got its own casino.
One of my stranger column-writing experiences came in 1993, when state voters decided the fate of six gambling-related referenda because the state Legislature lacked the political courage to make decisions about expanding, restricting, or ending gambling. In the space of about this many words I had to recommend to readers how to vote — yes to not expanding gambling (that’s how it was worded, where a No favored expanding gambling), no to casino boats, yes to restricting gambling casinos, no to video gambling, yes to pari-mutuel on-track betting, and yes to continuing the state lottery — under the rationale that we liked the amount of legalized gambling we had, but no more. The state voted as I had recommended.
State government has decided on gambling pretty much ignoring the amount of legalized gambling in neighboring states, which affects us in the great Southwest. The closest dog track is in Dubuque, not Baraboo or Kenosha, so those who want to bet on racing greyhounds can just jump on U.S. 151 for less than a half-hour. Those who want to bet on horses can go to Illinois or Minnesota. The most common form of gambling in Wisconsin, Indian tribal casinos, are no closer than Madison and Baraboo.
That may change, though, depending on the fate of the proposal of the Lac du Flambeau casino in Shullsburg. We have Indian gaming in the state now because of a controversial (and that’s an understatement) ruling by U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb in 1981 that because bingo was now legal, the state lost the ability to regulate gaming on Indian reservations. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, passed by Congress in 1988, allows gaming that is either permitted or not criminally prohibited by the state (that is, gaming that is illegal under criminal law) on tribal reservations (and thereafter expanded to tribal-owned off-reservation land). A decade after her first word on the subject, Crabb required the state to allow casino-type games on reservations.
Which brings us to the Shullsburg proposal. Southwest Wisconsin is about the only part of the state that doesn’t have an Indian casino, though that probably has much to do with the proximity of casino gambling in Iowa and Illinois. That makes me wonder how popular a Shullsburg casino would be. One would think that with legalized gambling as widespread as it is now, the number of gamblers is as high as it ever will be, and so a Shullsburg casino would take away from existing gambling — Dubuque’s casinos and the other Indian casinos — instead of finding new gamblers. That’s their problem, I suppose, but it suggests that estimates of economic impact in Southwest Wisconsin of a Shullsburg casino might be overstated. That’s not a vote against the casino proposal; just don’t bet on it being an economic development machine.