June 25, 2022

Author tells stories of prohibition in Iowa

A unique headstone at a cemetery and a car with one working headlight had one thing in common according to author Linda McCann.

McCann spoke Monday at Gibson Memorial Library in Creston about her new book “Prohibition in Eastern Iowa.” McCann has written several books about various places and events in Iowa history.

From 1920 to 1933 under the terms of the Eighteenth Amendment, United States citizens were not allowed to produce, transport or possess alcoholic beverages. Congress used the idea to hopefully reduce crime and corruption and improve the well-being of its residents.

But McCann explained how her research showed troubles with prohibition. The issue even became personal for her as her own ancestors were involved in producing liquor, nicknamed moonshine.

“My grandfather’s moonshine recipe is in the book,” she admitted. “When I began writing this book, my dad was the last of his family alive. He actually gave me the moonshine recipe.”

Talking to her father, he was only 6 when prohibition ended, and has a limited memory of the time, but did say he filled and capped bottles.

But there was more to the production and distribution than what he experienced.

Her early research took her to Waverly where a family had a family member buried. The plot’s headstone was made of metal and had an opening, like a small cupboard, in the structure. There were other plots with similar, metal headstones. The spot was a secret place to hide a bottle of moonshine to be picked up by someone else. Rural route mailboxes were also used on Saturday nights as places to transfer bottles without others knowing.

But prohibition in Iowa had its obvious symptoms.

“We did have murders. We did have gun fights,” she said.

She said a Dubuque County Sheriff reported in the 1920s his staff only enforced prohibition when told to do so by the county board of supervisors.

“These are our neighbors. These are our friends. They might be our relatives,” she said the Sheriff explained why they didn’t pursue. “All they were trying to do, moonshiners and bootleggers, was support their families.”

A newspaper story explained how a car with one working headlight was a sign for those to know moonshine was available, and it was safe to purchase.

“Why did farmers knowingly break the law,” she asked. Iowa’s abundance of corn fields made it easy to produce liquor.

One of the first laws was anything more than .5% alcohol content was illegal. If liquor was needed for medicinal purposes, the liquor would be provided by a pharmacist. Catholic and Jewish services were also allowed to have wine but were only be purchased by a Catholic Bishop or a Jewish Rabbi. Even pharmacists were suspected of breaking the sales laws.

While researching in Cerro Gordo County, she met a man whose father became the largest land owner in the county because of prohibition. “His dad had so much corn he made alcohol with it,” he said. “He had no other way to support his family.”

The family was able to acquire other land through the profits of moonshine sales. The man’s alcohol was given to neighbors and eventually transported to Chicago with loads of cattle. The liquor was hidden in the cattle’s bedding.

McCann said the price of corn in 1919 in Iowa was $5 a bushel and sales were to purchase property and equipment. The price of corn in 1923 dropped to 25 cents and many of those same famers could not make the bank payments.

“The farmers that did it had no other choice,” she said about selling their land.

After 1925, McCann said the culture of moonshiners changed. Organized crime influenced Iowa because of the quality of Iowa moonshine.

Prohibition turned deadly in 1927.

“She was a member of the WCTU,” McCann said about the victim.

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was founded in 1874 in Ohio. The WCTU became a large and influential women’s group campaigning for labor laws, prison reform, suffrage and, eventually, in favor of prohibition.

An Iowa WCTU member was in a building preparing for a speech for the state convention when a gun shot came through the window and killed her.

“It’s still an unsolved murder,” McCann said.

When law enforcement investigated the crime, they were suspect of a known mob killer in the area, Malcolm Harbour. When arrived, the suspect had left. Law enforcement eventually found Harbour in Waterloo after another murder, but he escaped. He was again seen in Waverly and exchanged gun fire with law enforcement and left the town on the Horton Blacktop road. He was chased but law enforcement could not catch him.

A Plainfield motel was raided without finding him. The town’s officials all knew the motel was popular for the mob to use. After prohibition he was suspected of fleeing to Cuba but was never found.

Prohibition ended for various reasons including the difficulty to enforce related laws. The Great Depression of 1929 also influenced government to allow liquor as a way for new jobs and tax revenue.

John Van Nostrand


An Iowa native, John's newspaper career has mostly been in small-town weeklies from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. He first stint in Creston was from 2002 to 2005.