Iowa's Prohibition Years, 1920-1933
"In 1928 Prohibition was still the law of the land, but like everywhere else in the country, it was hard to convince many people in Iowa to obey something so obviously silly."
-Behind the Badge: Stories and Pictures from the Des Moines Police Department
Prohibition was a controversial policy in the early 1900s that made the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages illegal. During World War I at the height of the Prohibition debate, Iowa's Senator William Kenyon asked Congress: "Why should the country permit working men to be employed in the useless manufacture of intoxicating liquor when there is a shortage of labor in the important and necessary work to carry on the war?”
Iowa Ahead of the Country on Prohibition
The senator’s opinion was shared by many people in the United States and in Iowa during the early 1900s. For a long time, the idea of Prohibition was supported by many people who passionately believed in their cause. The passage of the 18th Amendment marked their success. Iowans had led the way, one of three strong Prohibition states along with Kansas and Maine. In fact, Iowa had statewide prohibition in 1916, four years before the national policy of 1920.
With the passage of the 18th Amendment which outlawed the manufacturing and selling of liquor, came the illegal manufacture and sale of liquor. Illegal activities occurred all over the country including Iowa. And most of these activities were dangerous.
Crime and violence increased during the 1920s. In Iowa, bootleggers (people who illegally made and sold alcohol) created profitable businesses. They had easy access to a key ingredient for the manufacture of alcohol—corn. And many Iowa bootleggers set up their businesses in rural areas, away from law officials.
Illegal whiskey was made on farms in northwest Iowa near the small town of Templeton. The reddish colored "Templeton rye" was popular in speakeasies across the country from Chicago to Kansas City to New York City.
Since alcohol was not manufactured in factories that were regularly inspected for cleanliness, alcohol consumption could be a dangerous activity. Bootleggers didn’t always worry about following safety guidelines when they “cooked up” their liquor recipes. Sometimes the liquor was contaminated. Health problems could result from drinking bad alcohol. Dangers from contaminated liquor could lead to paralysis or other ills. Terms used to describe the effects of bad alcohol were "swell head" or "limber neck" and also "jake paralysis." Other risks included harm from the explosion of alcohol cookers.
Iowa’s bootleggers made moonshine whiskey, wine, gin and home brew beer. These beverages were simply raw alcohol. If Iowans wanted to purchase illegal liquor, they went to speakeasies or to criminals in alleys or back doors. Bootleggers charged $16 to $25 per “gallon of alky” in the early days of Prohibition. Later, as competition increased, the price dropped to about $5 a gallon.
Moonshine in Davenport
Davenport was one Iowa city that had a lot of moonshine activity. In 1923 the federal officers (“feds”) raided one residence and found two stills with daily production capacities of 100 gallons. One successful Iowa sheriff, Frank Christen of Winneshiek County, seized 23 whiskey stills in his first two weeks on the job during Prohibition. Bootleggers always tried to dispose of their liquor quickly, usually dumping it down the drain, before law officials arrived. “I could not find a still at one place,” Christen recalled, “until I noticed that there were no bees buzzing around the farmer’s hives. I checked one hive and found a five gallon still.”
The first aerial bootleggers were caught in Marhsalltown in 1928 when they tried to land a plane loaded with illegal liquor. Usually, officers chased bootleggers in dangerous high speed automobile chases. Police often looked for cars that were heavily loaded as transport vehicles.
If caught, moonshiners usually had to pay a $500 fine or serve six months in jail. Few people could afford to pay the fine and usually served their jail time. Courts were packed all over the nation with more than 20,000 people going to jail in the last half of 1931 alone.
Some law officials worried that Des Moines might turn into a "little Chicago." Al Capone, nicknamed “Scarface,” was a notorious gangster from Chicago. He controlled most alcohol distribution in the Midwestern states as well as gambling and prostitution operations. Charlie Gioe, nicknamed “Cherry Nose,” oversaw much of Capone’s liquor, gambling and prostitution rings in Des Moines from 1928 through 1936. A minimum price of $8.50 per gallon was set in 1931 with $1.50 going to organized crime for "protection."
Country bootleggers made liquor in caves, basements, wood lots, hog houses and barns. Stories of both gangsters and bootleggers often made headline news in The Des Moines Register.
Although Iowa was once very supportive of the policy, in 1933 the state’s residents voted to pass the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment. The “Bible Belt” of Iowa had remarkably voted to repeal Prohibition 13 years after it started.
- Deemer, Lee. Esther's Town. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1980.
- Mills, George. A Judge and a Rope and Other Stories of Bygone Iowa. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1994.
- Odegard, Peter H. Pressure Politics: The Story of the Anti-Saloon League. New York, New York: Octagon Books, 1966.
- State Historical Society Library and Archives. Prohibition Clippings Folder.
Quad City Times, 24 June 2001
Des Moines Register, 25 January 1979
Des Moines Register, 16 January 1979
- Zeller, John, research editor. Behind the Badge: Stories and Pictures from the Des Moines Police Department. Des Moines, Iowa: Peglow Art & Design Publishing,
Written for Iowa Pathways by Lisa Ossian.