More than 100 years, ago, Iowa Citians staged an anti-government uprising.
“Beer Money,” a new novel by local author S.C. Sherman, is a fictionalization of the true story of Iowa City’s 1884 beer riots. Confronted with state prohibition, the city’s powerful brewers led a brief but violent spat against local authorities.
The story, which Sherman says contains mostly historically accurate characters and events, features a group known as the German beer mafia, described as “titans of industry and celebrities within Iowa City and Johnson County” — Union Brewery’s Conrad Graf, Great Western Brewery’s John Dostal and City Brewery’s J.J. Englert, who was a City Council member.
While the national experiment with prohibition in the 1920s is well known, state governments’ efforts to ban alcohol decades earlier often are overlooked.
Politics in the latter 20th century was infected by overbearing moralism. That governing philosophy was embodied by the temperance movement, led by the Prohibition Party and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Johnson County sent anti-prohibition legislators to Des Moines, but they were outnumbered. In 1882, the Iowa Legislature passed a constitutional amendment to outlaw the manufacture and sale of alcohol. The amendment was ruled unconstitutional, but lawmakers continued to pass laws aimed at restricting legal access to liquor and beer.
In protest of a new prohibition law, Graf’s brewery threw an illegal beer party and Independence Day celebration on July 4, 1884. The crowd reportedly grew rowdy, law enforcement officers locked the bar down, and the brewers faced charges for ignoring the anti-alcohol law.
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When the outlaws reported to county justice John Schell’s house the next month, they brought a mob of supporters. In the ensuing riot, government officials were beaten, stabbed and tarred, with the chaos later spilling over into other parts of town, according to local historian Marlin R. Ingalls.
“All night the mob terrorized citizens and ruled the streets,” Ingalls wrote in a 2013 Little Village article about the riot.
A literal riot may seem like a disproportionate response to the cops shutting down a party, but the brewers and drinkers only resorted to violence after political maneuvering, legal recourse and civil disobedience proved impotent. It’s a lesson about the delicate balance between the rule of law and human freedom.
Iowa City’s cultural DNA is soaked in beer, from the 19th century scofflaws in “Beer Money” to our storied bars and tailgating traditions. While the University of Iowa has recently slipped off the rankings, less than a decade ago it was rated the No. 1 “party school” in the nation.
In his author’s note, Sherman recalls his own connection to our local history. As a UI freshman in 1988, Sherman was about a decade too young to benefit from Iowa’s 18-year-old drinking age of the 1970s. His first act as an Iowa City resident was to illegally buy beer from a north-side gas station, next-door to the historical brewery sites.
“We were undeterred that the state of Iowa had declared that at age eighteen, we were not allowed to buy or drink beer,” Sherman wrote.
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