Review: 'Prohibition in Eastern Iowa'

Local history book tackles interesting era

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By Stacie Gorkow, correspondent

Are you one of the many Iowans who never knew Iowa had a Prohibition law? Linda McCann’s latest book covers the 13-plus years when it was illegal to make, transport, or sell alcohol in the United States and how that law affected Eastern Iowa. Iowa was the 31st state to join the constitutional amendment.

McCann’s latest book, “Prohibition in Eastern Iowa,” shares historical accounts and newspaper articles noting the years of Prohibition and how families, farmers, small towns and big cities handled the enforcement (or lack of it). Much of her research is taken from newspaper articles noting arrests, gunbattles and even murders in Iowa’s quiet rural communities.

Many Iowa farm families were used to corn selling for $5 a bushel in 1917. Times were good and families were able to get by. Then by 1923, just three years into Prohibition, corn was selling for just 25 cents a bushel. Farmers couldn’t pay their bills or feed their families. Making and selling alcohol became a way of life for many farmers. Most law enforcement chose to look the other way, knowing that farmers needed the income to survive. As long as they didn’t call attention to themselves, police usually ignored them. This practice worked fine until the mob came to Iowa making things more dangerous for farmers and police. It seems nearly every community notes a sighting of Al Capone during this time. Could he have really been in all these places in Iowa?

McCann’s stories made me wish I could ask my grandparents about some of these stories. I found many stories about families from my hometown area as well as those from Benton County. I had no idea there was a still unsolved murder case in Vinton related to Prohibition. The president of the Iowa Women’s Christian Temperance Union was murdered in 1925 in her home in Vinton. The temperance union message was strong and touted morals and values in their ads, including one that is sure to give you a chuckle, “Lips that touch liquor shall not touch ours.”

Much of McCann’s book reads like a police ledger or a society page noting people arrested for bootlegging, having stills on their properties, or found to be intoxicated. What I found most interesting was that in one community, a young man was arrested for transporting alcohol and then I’d be reading about the numerous loopholes created to get around the laws. Pharmacies and churches were able to continue to purchase alcohol for medicinal and religious reasons. Churches were allotted 10 gallons of wine per adult for their church per year. If you do the math that is 24 ounces of wine for communion for each adult that goes to church once a week. I know we don’t get that much wine at our church!

So, these situations were appalling to me when I am quite sure that many people were jailed while trying to support a family while others were getting prescriptions to support their habits and not getting arrested. It made the Prohibition law seem silly and caused more hassle than help during these uncertain times in our state.

McCann’s talent for research and finding the stories that need to be told is a gift to all who no longer have loved ones left to hear the stories of the past. If anything, her books nudge us to sit and listen to the stories of our grandparents, so one day we can share them with the next generation.

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