In the 1920s, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was to arrive in Burlington in drips and dribbles. This draconian federal prohibition law made the consumption of booze illegal throughout the land. But it arrived gradually, to be greeted locally with only muffled cries of despair and general non-compliance.
Burlington, after all, was a hard-bitten drinking town with a hard-bitten core of drinkers. And many of these imbibers vowed they would rally to the cause to resist the outlawing of alcohol as long as their badly scarred livers would allow.
These “wets” were counter-balanced by Prohibition party-poopers who insisted the laws be obeyed and beer, wine and whiskey be banished from the streets, taverns and family kitchens throughout the town.
The German and Irish elements of the community were especially loath to surrender their traditional beer and whiskeys on the say-so of distant lawmakers.
Burlington and Iowa had actually adopted prohibition a year before it was mandated nationally. But that early precursor to the 18th Amendment was often enforced with a wink and a nod. The watering holes in Dutchtown and Hibernia continued to discreetly conduct their business.
Working men and an occasional frazzled house frau were still able to “whet their whistles” after a day of toil.
But slowly, all of that changed. The entire country went dry and things got serious. Organized crime discovered the profits of illegal alcohol and federal agents moved in to stop the illicit trade. Caught in the middle were the neighborhood taverns and hometown moonshiners.
Local beer gardens were the first to be shuttered. Then moonshiners opted for quieter quarters in the Green Bay Bottoms or along Tama Road. One of these latter enterprises was housed in a cave. When it fell to Sheriff Bill Murray’s raiding party to shut it down in 1923, it was found to have four copper stills, 25 barrels of sour mash, gasoline stoves and 30 gallons of high quality tasty liquor.
After the raid, it appeared Burlington had gone dry. Then word circulated the river islands had escaped the notice of the law and were the place to go for a pleasant libation. But it wasn’t long before watchful authorities grew aware of the rumors and became suspicious of the increased river traffic.
Sheriff Murray was certain something untoward was taking place on or about Otter Island. Consequently, on a hot Saturday afternoon Aug. 3, 1924, he and Marshall Ben Pierce made a call at Claude Brockway’s farm east of Kingston at the ferry boat landing.
Claude was not at home, but his father was found busily tending the gurgling stills pumping out the local version of white lightning. The older gentleman was very displeased by the sudden appearance of the law, and it was necessary for Marshall Pierce to punch out the senior Brockway before he could be hauled off to jail. Shortly thereafter, he was joined by his son.
The now subdued moonshiners proved talkative, and Sheriff Murray had the lead he was seeking. He quickly put together a raiding party of state, county and city officers, and shortly after 10 p.m., these seven agents boarded a river launch on Burlington’s levee and disappeared up river.
Twenty minutes later, the boat nudged into the mud at the south end of the island and the police disembarked. As they worked their way through the dark woods, they were guided by the sound of music and laughter.
Finally, Sheriff Murray motioned his raiders to pause, and there in an opening before them was a large wood building gaily lit by Japanese lanterns.
“It looked like one grand picnic,” Burlington Police Chief Schwenker was later to report. “There were couples sitting out under the trees and in the pavilion couples were drinking and dancing and numerous gambling games were in progress.”
The idyllic scene did not last long, for the minions of the law burst from the trees and loudly announced the entire bunch of bohemian scofflaws was under arrest. The effect was dramatic. Young ladies shrieked and ran into the woods, their swains swore loudly and the gamblers made a desperate grab for their money.
In a moment, Sheriff Murray had the situation under control. Crap games, slot machines, dice, cards, liquor and money were seized. The ladies were coaxed back from the woods and after they and their dates were lectured, they were permitted to board their boats and return home.
Only three arrests were made. Ralph Hill and Frank Moss were judged to be the owners of the pavilion and gambling equipment, and Mrs. Moss was thought to be an operator of the games.
For the next two days, officers ferried booze and gambling equipment from the island before the pavilion was officially declared closed. The officers could draw little comfort from their raid, knowing the river was still filled with similar islands and thirsty law breakers.