Time Machine

Time Machine: Cedar Rapids 'Moonshine King' kept making booze (and getting arrested) during Prohibition

A man is shown behind the bar of the near beer saloon and restaurant operated during the 1920s by John and Mary Dvorak i
A man is shown behind the bar of the near beer saloon and restaurant operated during the 1920s by John and Mary Dvorak in southeast Cedar Rapids. The Dvoraks were frequently arrested for bootlegging and other liquor violations during Prohibition. The bar, at 1317 Third St. SE, was known as Puzdernick’s before Prohibition and is the Little Bohemia tavern today. (Gazette archives)
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When the 18th Amendment outlawing the manufacture and sale of liquor was added to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, it provided a lucrative challenge organized crime couldn’t pass up. As crime and violence increased nationwide, so did the number of bootleggers in Iowa.

Newspapers, including The Gazette, were peppered with reports of federal arrests for violations of Prohibition. Sometimes those arrested were couples who were in the illicit occupation together.

The Dvoraks

John and Mary Dvorak’s names appeared regularly in Gazette stories, beginning in 1920.

A September warrant that year charged Mary Dvorak with maintaining a liquor nuisance, but the county attorney dismissed the charge.

The Dvoraks at the time lived at 1317 Third St. SE in Cedar Rapids — the location of the Little Bohemia tavern today — where they operated a combination restaurant and near beer saloon. Near beer, a fermented malt beverage with very low alcohol content, was the only “beer” that could be legally produced and consumed during Prohibition.

The Dvoraks were arrested again in February 1921 on charges of possessing moonshine and selling liquor. They were fined $105 and costs.

Shortly after that, they bought a small hotel and restaurant on A Avenue NE near where Interstate 380 now crosses the Cedar River.

The couple sold soft drinks at their hotel, but John was in Justice Lightner’s court in mid-October for failing to provide rope fire escapes, required by state law in hotels lacking modern fire escapes.

‘Moonshine king’

In February 1921, federal agent R.C. Adams and two Cedar Rapids police officers raided the Dvoraks’ near-beer saloon on Third Street SE. Both Dvoraks were arrested, and The Gazette called John the “alleged middleman moonshine king of the south end of Cedar Rapids.”

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“Adams and his raiding party started out in the police car from the station at 3 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 5) and burned up the road until they reached Dvorak’s place,” The Gazette reported. “Arriving there, Adams leapt from the car followed by (patrolmen) Dyson and Buttler, and, dashing into the plant, ran straight to the dark backroom, which he hastily searched with an electric torch, and then came out into the dining room. …

“Seeing Mrs. Dvorak stealthily creeping upstairs, he charged after her and entered the kitchen on the second floor just in time to see her throw a gallon jug of liquor into the sink in an attempt to destroy the evidence. Adams grabbed a dishpan in time to save two and a half quarts of hooch heavily diluted with dishwater and soapsuds from disappearing down the drain pipe.”

Customers downstairs argued about what to do next while people from the neighborhood gathered outside.

Throughout the melee, John sat quietly and “stolidly smoked his pipe and watched the proceedings.” When it was over, he demanded to see the search warrant. It was produced, while Mary vowed the next time a raid was staged, she would make sure her sink was empty to facilitate the destruction of evidence.

The Dvoraks were released after posting $1,000 bond. That’s when John found his voice and declared that he had “enough money to fight the government to a standstill.”

Marshal M.L. Healy supported that statement. He said Dvorak had recently bought a six-passenger automobile and had a lot of money hidden away from his whiskey business.

More arrests

The case against the Dvoraks was continued while federal agent Adams investigated the liquor supply coming out of Waterloo, perhaps from New York City.

That continuance gave the Dvoraks time to sell some “hooch” to a cohort of Agent Adams at $4 a pint. They were arrested again and bound over to a federal grand jury under another joint bond of $1,000.

The Dvoraks’ next arrest came at their A Avenue restaurant in June 1922.

When Adams and Patrolman Janda entered the restaurant, employee Albia Maresh threw a bottle of moonshine at them, breaking it. Adams quickly mopped it up. That evidence, along with a full pitcher of moonshine in the sink and a fruit jar full of hooch on the mantel, accompanied Dvorak and Maresh to court.

The moonshine makers were not deterred.

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In December, Adams again targeted the A Avenue restaurant, where intoxicated patrons were served their hooch in coffee cups. Adams said it was “one of the most notorious places in the city.”

Adams stationed four officers around the restaurant/hotel and entered the front door. When a man, two women and a child attacked him, the officers slipped in and grabbed a quantity of wine and moonshine. Maresh tried unsuccessfully to conceal a couple of pint bottles in her dress.

Hooch at home

In June 1924, Linn County Attorney Walter J. Barngrover asked the district court for an injunction against Mary Dvorak for maintaining a liquor nuisance at her home at 524 Seventh St. SE — the site of a medical parking lot today.

Police raided the Dvorak home Sept. 9 after Mary sold a pint of alcohol to an agent who paid for it with a marked $2 bill. Agents confiscated 50 gallons of cherry wine, 15 gallons of strawberry wine and three bottles of beer.

On Dec. 20, 1924, John and Mary were fined $1,000 each plus costs, but $500 of each fine was revoked for good behavior. If the fines weren’t paid, they had to spend five months in the county jail.

They were back in court in March 1925 for bootlegging.

Two other men faced charges in 1926 for selling alcohol from the Dvoraks’ Third Street saloon and restaurant: John Melicher and Leo Flaherty. Flaherty was accused of selling a pint of alcohol to two women who were working undercover for Sheriff Thomas Avery.

Charles Karlik was the bar’s proprietor in 1928 when police deemed his near-beer “a little too near beer to be called near beer.” Agents found 3 gallons of alcohol used to spike the near beer.

Chicago next?

John Dvorak seemingly disappeared from the Cedar Rapids restaurant scene, but in 1931 a truck driver by that name was followed to an abandoned cheese factory in Chicago connected to Al Capone. Agents seized Dvorak’s truck and found 6,000 gallons of mash, 250 gallons of beer, two vehicles and a still inside the factory.

Prohibition was repealed in 1933. In 1934, the state of Iowa took control of wholesale and retail sales of alcoholic beverages, except beer.

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