Author shares about Prohibition in Eastern Iowa, encourages others to share stories

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Author Linda McCann spoke at Murphy Helwig Library’s monthly coffee house Sept. 6, sharing about her latest book, “Prohibition in Eastern Iowa.” (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Author Linda McCann, best known for her “Lost Towns” book series that details communities that disappeared along the Cedar River, spoke at Murphy Helwig Library’s monthly coffee house Sept. 6, sharing about her latest book, “Prohibition in Eastern Iowa.”

McCann told those gathered she didn’t start as a writer, but rather as an RN.

“As my kids got older, I got into genealogy,” she said, noting that, when she and her husband moved to Shell Rock, she discovered she was a descendent of the town’s founder. Sometime over the years, that information had been lost. “I was determined my kids and grandkids would know about it.”

McCann took to writing when her first granddaughter was born.

“I saw there were stories to be told,” she said, “and I thought someone might want to hear these stories.”

As she toured Eastern Iowa communities presenting on her “Lost Towns” books, McCann said she found people didn’t know a lot about Prohibition.

“I thought, ‘here’s something I can write about,’” she recalled.

Prohibition, which lasted from 1920-1933, made it illegal to manufacture, transport or sell liquor. It wasn’t anything new for Iowans, McCann shared, because the state had already been “dry” since 1917. Dropping corn prices forced many Iowa farmers to get involved just to support their families.

In order to tell the story of Eastern Iowa, she began collecting names and contact information. Some people she spoke with were amenable, McCann quipped, while others freaked out, warning her to forget their names and numbers and that they’d ever spoken.

As McCann talked with people, she discovered each community had its own Prohibition quirks, whether it was a “mail route” where people left money in their mailboxes Saturday nights and discovered liquor in them the next morning, or metal headstones with hidden compartments perfect for hiding bottles. Some river towns had tunnels leading from buildings to the river, perfect for smuggling. Other communities, like Guttenberg, had “soda pop” saloons, or doctors who prescribed alcohol for medicinal purposes.

Newspapers also offered a wealth of knowledge, McCann explained. She shared several articles from this area at the time that told of businesses “keeping a liquor nuisance,” another term for a speakeasy or roadhouse raid. People were charged with bootlegging or “creating hootch with a kick,” which was borderline poisonous. Men from Marquette and McGregor were even charged with selling alcohol to a man who killed another man.

“Every area had their little thing,” McCann said. “You just had to know what it was.”

Piggy-backing on McCann’s program, some of those in attendance also shared their own stories, passed down from the Prohibition era. McCann encouraged them to record those thoughts, as well as any other pieces of history.

“Everybody needs to write stories down,” she stressed. “Even if you don’t think anybody’s interested, there will be.”

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