24-hour, late night restaurants are a normal, accepted institution in the modern world. While some establishments have discontinued round the clock services, there are several that still offer them. They cater to the late-night crowd – students, second and third shifters, police, doctors, and several others like them who routinely perform their jobs long after much of the world is at rest.
For several years, these kinds of professions didn’t have any kind of places like this where they could eat after a certain hour. Restaurants closed after the majority of their clientele went home and to their beds, and soon followed suit themselves. If someone wanted a meal after that, they were out of luck.
In the late 1800’s, that began to change as lunch wagons began to appear in cities across the nation.
They catered to late-night professions like factory workers and newspapermen who had to be awake after-hours in order to do their jobs. Many of them were mobile, drawn by horses and able to move where ever their owners could make the most money.
Many of them were beautiful, gilded works of art, full of elaborate designs and decoration. They were designed to impress in an age when all art and architecture was meant to impress.
While initially wagons that you walked up to and ordered something to eat, eventually wagons developed that could seat a few people inside, with the server/cook behind a counter.
In 1925, Happy’s Lunch Wagon was the place to go at the intersection of North Main and High Streets in Racine, Wisconsin.
By the 1920’s, lunch wagons had long been falling out of favor in the face of mounting pressure from outside sources, such as competing restaurants. Since shortly after the turn of the century, these night wagons were gradually giving way to diners. While they were often stationary buildings, diners still served the same purpose as their predecessors.
As they declined, those businessmen who still owned and operated night wagons stopped maintaining them as much, and the once gilded beauties fell into disrepair. It isn’t known if Happy’s numbered amongst these, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if it did. This didn’t matter to the patrons, though, who referred to it as a ‘dog wagon’ with what was probably a mixture of fondness and mockery.
The owner, Frank Beyer, would run the counter at Happy’s during the day, but the night shift was left to Stanley Packamore, a Lithuanian-born man in his early 20’s who had come to Racine from Michigan.
Stanley was working his usual shift at the wagon during the early hours of November 12, 1925, when a patron named Ralph Meyer stopped in for some pie. Meyer lived fairly close by and decided to stop in and have a treat before heading back to his house.
Meyer sat at the counter and placed his order, while Stanley stepped over to get the pie. As he did, Meyer stood up from his stool for a moment, reaching into his pocket to grab some money.
Suddenly, there was a deafening roar and the world faded away for a few moments. The next thing Meyer knew was that he was across the street from where he had been before, bruised and bleeding, crawling out from underneath the wreckage of something.
As his senses returned to him and he began to look at the neighborhood around him, Meyer quickly realized that something terrible had just happened.
Erwin Aschebrook was in his taxi that night. He was driving near Happy’s, probably hoping to catch a late-night fare or two from someone who was too drunk or too tired to walk home. As he was about to drive past the wagon, the night sky lit up so brightly that it looked like day. A moment later, a deafening explosion sounded, shaking the entire area.
His car was sent skidding across the street as the shockwave roared through the area. Aschebrook fought the wheel for a brief moment, but maintained control of the cab. Windows had been blown out of several buildings.
Concerned, Aschebrook and another taxi driver in the area, George Bischoff, got out of their cars and ran toward Happy’s, where the explosion had seemed to come from. When they arrived, a scene of mass destruction awaited them.
Happy’ Lunch Wagon was a ruin; the little building had been shattered into kindling by the powerful explosion.
Windows were blown out of several buildings, and in some places the damage was worse than that. The side wall of the Tire and Battery Service station storeroom had been blown out, as had the front of a soda fountain. Frank Hinsman’s butcher shop also had its storefront blown out, along with several windows and glass counters inside.
Several people, fast asleep in their beds, were awoken by the explosion, only to find themselves covered in window glass and plaster from their walls and ceilings. One of them was Frank Beyer, the owner of Happy’s.
He had literally been tossed out of his bed by the explosion, and woke up to realize that every window in his apartment had been blown out. Beyer quickly got dressed and ran out to see what had happened. One of the first things that he saw was his employee, Stanley Packamore, lying on the sidewalk, mangled and broken.
When the explosion had happened, the young cook had been thrown across the street, where he had struck a gasoline pump with enough force to tear off one of his legs and break multiple bones in his body. Almost to add insult to injury, all of his clothes had been torn off by the fury of the blast, leaving him completely nude.
The two taxi drivers, Achebrook and Bischoff, had found him and dug him out of the debris. Beyer ran over to Stanley and tried to speak to him. Horribly injured and only semi-conscious, Stanley was only able to say that there had been another man in the wagon with him before passing out.
Knowing that time was of the essence, Packamore was taken to Bischoff’s cab and taken to a local hospital. Unfortunately, it was already too late. The young cook had slipped into a coma and never woke up, passing away quietly at the hospital.
Meanwhile, authorities began to show up at the scene and shop and began investigating the cause of the explosion. Almost miraculously, no one besides Stanley Packamore was seriously hurt. Meyer was treated for some cuts and bruises, but was otherwise unhurt.
The center of the explosion was determined to be Happy’s itself. A gas explosion was ruled out, which left only one other thing that could cause so much destruction – dynamite. Someone had made a bomb and deliberately blew up Happy’s Lunch Wagon.
The motive for doing so, however, was a lot harder to figure out.
Detectives theorized that the dynamite that was used had been stolen from a nearby quarry, which had reported a burglary shortly before the explosion. One idea was that perhaps the thieves had hidden the explosives under the lunch wagon with the intention of collecting it later, but it had accidentally gone off. No one put much stock in that theory.
More likely perhaps was that someone held a grudge against either Frank Beyer or Stanley Packamore and had planted the bomb to harm them.
Perhaps Stanley had an affair with a married woman, and her angry husband had killed the cook in retaliation. This was ruled out when people who knew Packamore said that he was a quiet man who had only recently gotten his first steady girlfriend.
Yet another theory was that Packamore had given information to police that led to the arrest of a member of a Chicago gangster. However, police more or less ruled it out because they were of the opinion that professional criminals would have hired a bomb expert for the job, and they would have never caused as large an explosion as the one that had just occurred.
Essentially, the police had no idea who had planted the bomb or why. It made no sense, and every theory that they came up with was quickly dismissed by alibis, witness testimony, or lack of evidence. Despite their best efforts, the case quickly grew cold while Stanley Packamore was buried and the people effected by the explosion cleaned up, recovered, and went on with their lives.
A few months later, at the end of January 1926, a Chicago man named M.J. Shiffris was sitting quietly in the dining car of his train, heading south through property owned and maintained by a local country club.
Suddenly, Shiffris felt a burning pain in his neck. He reached a hand to where it hurt, and must have been shocked when it came back covered in blood. As he had sat there, minding his business, someone had shot him in the neck.
He was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital, where doctors patched up his injury. Thankfully, it wasn’t fatal and Shiffis eventually recovered.
The train crew notified authorities, who immediately dispatched several deputies to the country club grounds and the surrounding area where the shots were thought to have come from. They searched everywhere they could, but found no one.
A short time later, another train that had gone through the same area contacted law enforcement, claiming that someone had shot at it as well. Fortunately, no one had been hurt.
The sheriff and his men renewed their search, and even sent extra men. There was someone shooting randomly at trains as they went past the country club, and they needed to stop him. And this time, they did.
While searching the area, authorities found a man walking along the road. They questioned him, and also searched him, finding a revolver in his coat pocket. The deputies arrested him and took him back to the police station. He didn’t resist the officers, but he made sure to tell them that if he had the chance, he would shoot them.
The man was just as cooperative when he was questioned by the sheriff. He identified himself as Richard Roghan, a 26-year old factory worker from Racine, Wisconsin.
He freely confessed to having shot at the passenger trains earlier that day. Roghan went into detail about the position he had shot from and how he had gotten there. He explained that he had decided to walk back into town after shooting for a while, hitching a ride with a group of other young men that happened by.
After Roghan had eaten lunch, he started walking back out to the country club to shoot at more trains. He was on his way there when he had been arrested.
As it turned out, Roghan was a very talkative man.
He told authorities that he had bought his revolver in St. Louis, and he carried it with him all the time. Roghan confessed to having used it to commit several armed robberies in the area. But most shocking of all was when he said that he had blown up a lunch car in Racine a few months prior.
Roghan said that the cook, Stanley Packamore, had said some bad things about him, although never to his face. Roghan just knew that he was telling other patrons about him.
He decided to scare Packamore, and what better way to do that than with dynamite. Although he had never used it, Roghan had seen farmers use it to blow out stumps in their field while working outside of the city.
Going to a local company that he knew had dynamite, he used a hacksaw to saw off the lock on a storeroom door, forced his way inside, and stole several pounds of dynamite.
Roghan then went back to the area where he had worked, where he tried to purchase blasting caps and detonation cord from a store there. The owner told him that he didn’t have any, but he knew of a farmer who might sell him some.
When he arrived at the farmhouse, Roghan found out that the farmer wasn’t home after talking to his wife. However, she was more than willing to sell him what he needed. With the necessary tools in hand to carry out his crime, Roghan headed back into the city.
Roghan insisted that he never meant to kill Stanley Packamore. He only wanted to scare him a little; teach him a lesson. Although the farmers he had seen had only used a single stick to completely obliterate stumps, Roghan decided to use over 30 pounds of dynamite to frighten him with.
He also insisted that he made sure that he wouldn’t harm anyone else, claiming that he had aborted one attempt when he saw customers were in the wagon. Roghan deliberately waited until the early hours of the morning to crawl under Happy’s and carefully set his bomb in the area underneath the cook’s area.
Roghan lit the fuse, and then ran away as fast as he could. About three blocks away, he heard the explosion. Ralph Meyer, the customer who had been in the wagon at the time of the blast, was later thought to have come in just after Roghan had ignited the fuse.
In a surprise for the sheriff’s department, law enforcement had just solved one of their most prominent cold cases.
One of Roghan’s brothers and a sister came and lent him support, but did not in any way defend his actions. His brother said that Richard had caught Spanish Flu while serving in the army in 1919, and hadn’t been normal since.
Roghan was persuaded by his legal counsel to plead guilty to the shootings and to the death of Stanley Packamore in exchange for a life sentence. He agreed, and the court date was set.
As he stood before the judge, Roghan listened to the charges leveled against him, including the willful murder of Packamore. When asked for his plea, Rogan defiantly shouted, ‘Not Guilty!’
Everyone in the room was astounded. He had already agreed to take the deal, but now all bets were off. The judge dismissed Roghan from the room. After a brief discussion, Roghan explained that he wouldn’t plead guilty because, even with a bomb that had shattered buildings and had been felt blocks away, he insisted that he only meant to scare Packamore, not kill him.
Eventually, his sister was able to persuade him to go back into the courtroom and take the plea. Roghan did, and was sentenced to life in Waupun State Penitentiary. Nearly a year and a half later, Richard Roghan was found to be criminally insane and was transferred to the Central State Hospital, there to live the rest of his life behind bars.
Lunch wagons were a beautiful part of American history. They helped feed thousands of night workers and late-night revelers from all classes and creeds. Gilded wonders, they were a symbol of the age in which they were invented, and set the stage for the food trucks that are so popular in the modern world.
Richard Roghan’s actions not only took the life of an innocent man, but also scarred the memories and peace of mind of dozens of people in Racine. In essence, he stole it from them with his bomb, just as he had stolen from people using his revolver. As a result, his choices, although driven by an underlying insanity, left a dark stain on the history of both Racine and the state of Wisconsin.
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Racine Steel celebrates 100 years. The Journal Times, 9/19/1992
Life Sentence For Man Who Shot at Train. Marshfield News-Herald, 1/22/1926
Racine Man Confesses to Bomb Murder. The Capital Times, 1/19/1926
Suspect Held In Packamore Case ; Arrest is Made by Sheriff Herzog. The Journal Times, 1/18/1926
Richard Roghan Declared Insane . The Journal Times, 8/1/1927
Racine Man is Taken to State For Life. The Sheboygan Press, 1/23/1926
Man Confesses Blasting Lunch Car. The Racine Journal-News, 1/19/1926
Roghan Pleads Guilty to Murder. The Racine Journal-News, 1/22/1926
Rogahn’s Sanity Will Be Probed. The Racine Journal-News, 7/13/1927
North Side Rocked By Fatal Blast. The Racine Journal-News, 11/12/1925
Lunch Wagons: The Business of Mobile Food, http://www.thehenryford.org
Ewbank, Anne. Before Food Trucks, Americans Ate ‘Night Lunch’ From Beautiful Wagons. www.atlasobscura.com, 9/13/2018
Police Think Packamore Was Grudge Victim. The Racine Journal-News, 11/13/1925
One Dead, One Injured in Racine Explosion. Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, 11/12/1925