During Prohibition, while Al Capone was rising to worldwide prominence as Public Enemy Number One, the townspeople of rural Templeton, Iowa—population just 428—were busy with a bootlegging empire of their own. Led by Joe Irlbeck, the whip-smart and gregarious son of a Bavarian immigrant, the outfit of farmers, small merchants, and even the church monsignor worked together to create a whiskey so excellent it was ordered by name: "Templeton rye."
Just as Al Capone had Eliot Ness, Templeton’s bootleggers had as their own enemy a respected Prohibition agent from the adjacent county named Benjamin Franklin Wilson. Wilson was ardent in his fight against alcohol, and he chased Irlbeck for over a decade. But Irlbeck was not Capone, and Templeton would not be ruled by violence like Chicago.
Gentlemen Bootleggers tells a never-before-told tale of ingenuity, bootstrapping, and perseverance in one small town, showcasing a group of immigrants and first-generation Americans who embraced the ideals of self-reliance, dynamism, and democratic justice. It relies on previously classified Prohibition Bureau investigation files, federal court case files, extensive newspaper archive research, and a recently disclosed interview with kingpin Joe Irlbeck. Unlike other Prohibition-era tales of big-city gangsters, it provides an important reminder that bootlegging wasn’t only about glory and riches, but could be in the service of a higher goal: producing the best whiskey money could buy.
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About the Author
Bryce T. Bauer is a Hearst Award–winning journalist who has written for Saveur, the Daily Iowan, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, and other publications. He is coproducing and cowriting the documentary Whiskey Cookers: The Amazing Story of the Bootleggers of Templeton, Iowa. He lives in New York City.
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The True Story of Templeton Rye, Prohibition, and a Small Town in Cahoots
By Bryce T. Bauer
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2014 Bryce T. Bauer
All rights reserved.
JUNE 16, 1931
On June 16, 1931, two bootleggers, both notorious violators of the decade-old National Prohibition Act, which enforced the Eighteenth Amendment's ban on alcohol, fled two different federal courtrooms in a hurry. One hailed a taxi and slid into the backseat as a swarm of spectators thronged inches away; the other sped away in his Ford Model T, trailed by no one.
Their destinations — like their experiences, the shape of their fame, their individual fates — could hardly have been more different. Al Capone, the man in the cab, wended through the clogged, cacophonous streets of downtown Chicago on the way to his splendid floor of suites at the Lexington Hotel. There, the next day, he could pick up the morning newspapers and see his name splayed across the front page, column inches dripping away below, full of paeans to his imminent downfall.
Joe Irlbeck, meanwhile, bounced along the dusty, gully-cut roads of western Iowa. He was headed toward his home in the tiny town of Templeton, Iowa, in the county where he had lived his entire life, Carroll. There he was encircled by neighbors who knew him by name, by sight — as they knew everyone in the surrounding countryside. Some of them were grateful for what he'd done for their community, others perhaps a bit intimidated, a few maybe even disdainful, but still they all supported him. When his crimes hit the paper, the stories were met with amazement more than scorn.
Both bootleggers were about the same age, and though they didn't know each other, they were united. Their last several years had been — and the rest of their lives would be — defined by opposition to the Eighteenth Amendment, the only amendment to ever restrict the freedoms of every citizen.
Its supporters, the drys, were a motley but fierce band of traditional Americans: largely white Protestants, men and, significantly, women, whose ties to America went back generations and who were intensely loyal to the country's English heritage. Some were businessmen, others clergy, yet others professional activists. Politicians were among them, of course. But there were also those who'd never before worked in the public sphere. They weren't all residents of rural America, but it was the values associated with rural America that defined them, that they held dear, that they sought to protect from the sullying effects of alcohol and alcohol's supporters, the wets.
The wets were an even more assorted group, defined, roughly, as everybody the drys were not: Catholic or Jewish, urban and immigrant. To them, Prohibition was nothing but a heavy-handed attempt to legislate morality and an un-American folly. The drys' claim that an era without alcohol would be one of newfound prosperity, in which men would behave as saints and women and children could live in peace, abundance, and godliness, seemed absurd. In the end, the wets would be vindicated — Prohibition would prove to be the most charlatan of laws, one that led the country into temptation and delivered it to evil. But it endured far longer than the wets had predicted. With a century of momentum behind it, repealing it would not be easy. And as long as it remained in effect, the government was obligated to enforce it, no matter how hopeless the fight against its violators appeared to be.
Of medium height and average build, with gray eyes and black hair, Joe Irlbeck nonetheless stood out. His oval face could cut a penetrating stare or a knowing, warm smile. He possessed the attitude of a bartender: companionable, but stern when necessary. He was ambitious and intelligent enough to fulfill his aspirations.
Born in December 1899, he was just eleven months younger than Al Capone. He grew up on a farm near Dedham, seven miles east of Templeton, one of eleven children. His father, like so many early settlers in Carroll County, had been born in Germany, in Bavaria, and came to the newly opened land of western Iowa to find a comfort and safety that was all too elusive in his homeland. Though he found it, the prospect wouldn't last through the second generation. As luck would have it, however, Joe Irlbeck came of age just as a vast new market was opening up: that for illicit alcohol. (Enacting Prohibition, as one astute politician rightly predicted, was tantamount to "legalizing the manufacture of intoxicating liquor without taxation.") He jumped right in.
At a time when asking the provenance of a particular shot of liquor was as absurd — and embarrassingly naive — as asking the origin of the pork in the sausage that rolled off the belts at Swift & Co.'s sprawling processing plant on Chicago's South Side, the whiskey Irlbeck came to make, Templeton rye, managed the remarkable: it established itself as a brand. Newspapers quoted its price independent of other bootleg liquor and discerning buyers ordered it by name.
By 1931, Irlbeck's operation had grown into a sprawling organization capable of producing hundreds of gallons of booze, worth thousands of dollars, a day. To achieve that required the involvement of nearly every one of Templeton's residents, from the town grocer to the church monsignor. As a result of their volume, the quality of their product, and their total commitment to bootlegging, Templeton, population just 428, became known as the "far-famed oasis of the middlewest."
But that same success drew the attention of the federal Prohibition agents charged with cracking down on violators. Leading them was a former blacksmith and sheriff named Benjamin Franklin Wilson, the most respected Prohibition agent in the state. Born in Audubon County, just south of Carroll County, he was familiar with the area.
The still for which Wilson arrested Irlbeck a few months before his June court date was one of the largest producing Templeton rye. It was located on the land of one of Irlbeck's many partners, a struggling farmer named Frank Neppl. The rent Neppl earned, fifty cents for every gallon of Templeton rye produced, was supposed to buy not just a safe place to run the still but also the promise that if the farm was ever raided Neppl would take the blame and not implicate Irlbeck. For years that policy had frustrated Wilson's many attempts to bust Templeton's bootleggers. But this time, he'd caught a break: he'd found Irlbeck at the still site. The case seemed unbeatable.
The June 16 hearing was just a grand jury investigation to determine whether there was enough evidence for an indictment. As a result, Irlbeck was not allowed to attend. Instead he eavesdropped from outside the federal courthouse, listening from inside his car as the prosecutor's voice drifted down from the second-story courtroom through a window someone had opened to ease the sweltering heat. What he overheard was the government's case falling apart. Neppl kept his word to take the fall and swore Irlbeck had nothing to do with the still. The town banker, subpoenaed to talk about Irlbeck's finances, swore his client was not a bootlegger. And when Irlbeck heard the prosecutor, enraged that his case was not going as he planned, vow to summon every business owner in Templeton and call them to testify that he really was a bootlegger, Irlbeck sped off, confident that if he alerted them to the officers' impending arrival, they'd all stay out of their shops.
Four hundred miles east, in Chicago, things proceeded much differently. There the courtroom was jammed with newspapermen, lawyers, and anyone with enough clout to make their way past the guarded sixth-floor blockade set up to keep all of Chicago from pushing in. They were in "furors," wrote one observer, over the anticipation of seeing Al Capone — the former "cheap Brooklyn roustabout" who through murder, extortion, bribery, and, above all, bootlegging — had earned the title of America's Public Enemy Number One, finally face serious charges and real punishment for almost a decade's worth of flagrant crime.
The complaint against Capone was stunning. As it should've been: it was the work of a two-year-long investigation by a small team of extremely dedicated federal agents, led by George E. Q. Johnson, the unassuming federal prosecutor who'd been born just a few miles from the Iowa courthouse Irlbeck was sitting outside of that day.
For those in attendance who were cheering Capone's downfall, the day appeared a victory.
As soon as the judge entered and everyone sat back down, Johnson's assistant stepped forward to address Capone. He read the first indictment, then asked Capone how he pleaded.
"I plead guilty," Scarface Al replied, his voice scarcely audible to the gallery focused intensely on his every word.
In response to the two other charges, Capone shaved his reply to just "guilty," but his voice remained, by all accounts, meek. Once he did, the judge curtly announced he'd be sentenced two weeks later. Then it was over.
In less than three minutes, the capo of Chicago crime admitted what the entire nation already knew: he was a criminal. The government never even had to present its case, but everyone knew that it was built on evidence from Capone associates who were willing to sell out their boss to save themselves.
As Scarface Al left, he was flanked by his lawyers and a contingent of police officers. Behind him thousands of Chicagoans eagerly jostled for a glimpse of their most famous resident, now at his most downtrodden. They were looking at, a reporter for the Associated Press wrote, "a monarch stripped of his realm."
He would return to his lavish headquarters, increasingly aware that his fellow Chicagoans were tired of the violence he brought to their city, and embarrassed of the corruption his millions had wrought. His heyday, he knew, was over.
His would be a startlingly different fate from that of Irlbeck. For the Iowa bootlegger, the day demonstrated once again just how strongly the citizens of Templeton supported his bootlegging operation, the bootlegging operation that had kept many of their businesses solvent and saved their farms from foreclosure.
But neither man's fate was sealed. Capone would change his mind: he would make the government show its hand and reveal its witnesses. Meanwhile, Wilson would not accept his defeat. Like Irlbeck, he was headed back to Templeton, certain he could gather enough evidence for a new case.
The only question was whether he'd find it before the law changed and Prohibition was repealed.CHAPTER 2
That the founding of Templeton, Iowa, and the passage of an absolute prohibition amendment to Iowa's constitution both occurred within a few months of each other in the year 1882 was not a complete coincidence.
Templeton came first. It was announced in a newspaper ad on May 24 that had been taken out by the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul railroad. Like its competitors, the Milwaukee Road, as the railway was known, was busy stretching train tracks out across the country. For the thirty-six-year-old state of Iowa, those lines functioned like blood vessels, pulsing life into the little towns that sprouted up along the way.
Less than four months later, state prohibition arrived. On June 27 voters approved an amendment banning the manufacture, storage, and sale of liquor, wine, and beer by a margin of 10 percent, foreshadowing the very move the nation would make some four decades later. It was the most ambitious of a long string of liquor control laws (and attempts at their circumvention) that stretched back to Iowa's founding.
From its very beginning, Iowa was at the forefront, along with Kansas and Maine, of temperance activity in the nation. Several times before the state's prohibition amendment, the legislature had enacted laws similarly banning alcohol. And several times those laws were either weakened or repealed as soon as the temperance activists let up in their crusade; even when they were in effect they did little, as they proved nearly impossible to enforce in the places where drinking was already ingrained in the culture. The goal with the amendment was to make the law considerably more difficult to repeal and to elevate its stature and perceived seriousness.
Both Templeton and state prohibition were products of the same specific energies of that place and that time — thrown off by the grand, frenetic engine known as progress, which was then powered by the belief that the frontier was there to be conquered and which was running, in the last decades of the nineteenth century in Iowa, at a rate faster than it had ever run before. Templeton was a stake in the conquest of the place, a new perch of civilization on the prairie. Prohibition was a stake in the attendant idea that such bold new places need not be burdened by the deep-rooted habits of their predecessors but could instead be fertile substrate to try bold ideas anew.
Templeton was founded in a township known as Eden, in southern Carroll County, which was named after Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. In their own ways both names, Eden and Carroll, were apt, providential.
Templeton was perched atop one of the highest points in the state, right along the Missouri-Mississippi divide, which separated the streams that flowed toward the Missouri River bounding Iowa to the west from those flowing to the Mississippi River, which defined its eastern edge. The slope and the gently rolling hills that surrounded it formed an area of exquisite cropland unbroken by soggy divots and further enriched by the band of glacial till and loess soils — among the richest found on earth — that met in the county's center. The debate for decades to come would be whether Templeton was comprised of the best cropland in Iowa, and therefore the world, or merely some of the best.
Prior to Templeton's founding, Eden Township was home to 172 of what must have been the hardiest pioneers. By the town's third birthday, that number had surged to nearly 900 — a quarter of whom lived within Templeton city limits. At the turn of the century there would be a total of 321 Templetonians.
The town was bonded together not just by the shared experience of building a new community in a foreign place but also by a shared heritage that went much deeper and back much further.
As the first timbers of the new town were being lashed together and everyone was still adjusting to the whistle of the trains passing through daily, the citizens of Templeton quickly set about building the community's most important building: a Catholic church. Even as pioneers, isolated on scattered farms set amid still virgin prairie, they had been religious. Pastors from nearby congregations would venture out and hold services in open fields, under the shadow of a quickly erected cross and temporary altar. But with a permanent settlement a permanent place for worship was needed.
By the summer of 1883, they'd completed work on a small temporary chapel. But it didn't take long for them to set about building a church more befitting the spiritual and social importance of one religion, Catholicism, in their lives. The result was Sacred Heart Church, a gothic edifice complete with an imported marble statue of St. Michael, a 150-foot spire — visible across the countryside — and seating for seven hundred. At a time when a pound of butter cost about a quarter, a buggy sold for about $55, and a minister (a relatively high-paying profession) earned about $730 a year, the entire project cost $33,000, including $5,000 spent on the altar alone.
In the beginning the Catholics weren't the only denomination in town; there were also Methodists — Protestants and perennial drys. But their middling numbers had fallen so low by 1903 that their own Templeton church was sold at auction. The buyer: the wife of a leading saloon-keeper.
Templeton wasn't united just by its religion. It attracted a specific kind of Catholic: immigrants from Germany, especially the western and southern provinces of Bavaria and Westphalia, who sought the opportunity of cheap land. Only a few places in the country could claim a higher percentage of residents of German heritage than could Carroll County and, specifically, Templeton.
"Does all of Germany wish to come to America?" asked the regionally influential German-language newspaper out of Carroll, Der Carroll Demokrat, in a May 1882 article. "The morning express train left no fewer than sixty-eight families at the local train station who made the trip across the blue waves of the Atlantic Ocean in order to seek a new and happy home here in the distant West in Carroll County. Everyone who has traveled across to Old Germany in the early spring is in agreement that America is the only country where one can have a free and independent life."
So delighted, the paper continued in its report, was one Carroll County man to welcome a new member of his family on that recently arrived train, that he intended to go out and purchase "a small keg, no, a truly large keg of beer."
As the paper indicated, what attracted immigrants to Templeton was the same thing that attracted them to communities throughout the country: that American idea of universal prosperity from universal equality that proved so appealing to the oppressed poor of Europe.
Excerpted from Gentlemen Bootleggers by Bryce T. Bauer. Copyright © 2014 Bryce T. Bauer. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
ContentsMap of West Central Iowa,
1 June 16, 1931,
2 Edens Oasis,
3 Patriotic Murder,
4 Steady Gaze,
5 Anyplace but the Rectory,
6 This Nefarious Business,
7 Storming Eden,
8 "The Treasure Chest",
9 Closing In on the Golden Goose,
10 Wilson Gets the Beck,
12 "Xmas Spirits",
13 A Shoreless Sea,
14 The Bootleggers' Hangover,
On Sources and Abbreviations,