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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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PROHIBITION. Efforts forbidding the manufacture, transportation or sale of intoxicating beverages have a long history in Dubuque.


In March, 1838, the citizens assembled at the Methodist church and organized a temperance society with Judge Lockwood president and John Plumbe, Jr., secretary, and decided on a basis of total abstinence. (1)


At the monthly meeting of the Catholic Temperance Society in March, 1840, over three hundred persons were present, including many ladies; nineteen persons took the pledge. Among the speakers were Quigley, Benton, Davis, Bradford, Goodrich and Collins, nearly all of whom were lawyers. The Protestants also had a large temperance society. It was thought at this date that soon one-third of all Dubuque would have signed the pledge. (2)


"A complete temperance reformation has been effected by the zeal of the Catholic clergy among its much abused Irish citizens in whose hands the glass has given place to implements of industry. Nor is the reformation confined to them alone — it has spread throughout the community (Dubuque), embracing every class and every denomination. Almost every Irish Catholic has signed the pledge of total abstinence." (Bloomington, April 16, 1841)(3)


An ordinance prohibiting the opening of saloons or store on Sunday was rejected by the city council. (4)


The first state legislature enacted a local option law and every county except Keokuk voted not to license the sale of liquor. (5)


George L. Dickinson kept a popular temperance hotel in 1851. (6)


A strong temperance movement swept the city early in the 1850s. (7) A bill for the suppression of intemperance was opposed in the legislature by Representative Samuels on constitutional grounds; this prohibitory law was passed in February, 1855. In March, 1855, when the Bishop of Dubuque issued a communication to his clergymen favoring the passage of the Iowa Prohibition law, the Tribune, really a Know Nothing sheet, commended the act in warm terms, while the Herald laughed at the incongruity ; the latter published twenty-five objections to the law. Immense temperance meetings were held here while the bill was pending. One of the big meetings of Protestants thanked Bishop Loras for his letter to the Catholics of Iowa. Rev. W. Guernsey, a fiery Congregational minister, called Ben. M. Samuels, who had opposed the prohibitory law in the legislature, the "gutter champion." The Bishop later said he favored no political party — was simply in favor of temperance and against the liquor interests. The Germans of Dubuque did all they could to defeat the prohibitory law. They held mass meetings and passed resolutions denouncing the bill. Action against liquor dealers who violated the Iowa prohibitory law was taken in July, 1855, by the seizure of liquors.

1857 and 1858

An amendment to the 1855 prohibition law permitted the sale of wine and beer, but stronger liquors could not be sold in Iowa. Some with licenses to sell wine and beer sold liquor illegally leading to rising concern in the state. (8)


"The year 1860 has been remarkable in this section for a sort of voluntary temperance movement. There has been no organization, no apparent external movement; but simultaneously as it were, in the month of January, a large number of hard drinkers voluntarily suspended operations in this direction. It numbers among the victims men of all classes, ages and conditions — honorables, ex-honorables, lawyers, doctors, bootblacks, horse jockeys, editors, printers, river men, hodcarriers — fellows who indulged in Heidsieck, Moussiere lager, 'hale' and all the brands of whisky from 'instant death' and 'just around the corner' to the longer ranges such as 'eighty-rod' and 'Minie rifle.' There are other changes as marked." — (Herald, March 1, 1860.) During the summer of 1860 the Dubuque Temperance Society petitioned the city council to close saloons, gardens, etc., on the Sabbath. At the same time a petition signed by several hundred citizens asked that no such Sunday law be passed. After sharp debate both petitions were laid on the table. It was claimed that the existing Sunday law was strong enough if enforced. (9)


The bill of 1862, which aimed to stop the manufacture and sale of lager beer in Iowa, was vehemently denounced here by press and mass meetings. Early in 1862 the Legislature refused to repeal the prohibitory liquor law, though strongly urged to do so by Dubuque and other river cities. This law provided that on the affidavit of any person private houses might be searched for liquors and the right of a change of venue was cut off. "A greater outrage than this has never been attempted in the most despotic countries on earth," said the "Herald." (10)


The Dubuque lodge of the INTERNATIONAL ORGANISATION OF GOOD TEMPLARS was established in Dubuque.


St. Raphael's Temperance Society on July 28th decided to form a band to work with the organization. (11)


The Woman's Christian Temperance was organized in Iowa. (12) A temperance crusade was started in Dubuque in March, 1874; the liquor people united in opposition and demanded the license system. The crusaders demanded the enforcement of the existing prohibitory law and an increase in the price of local liquor licenses to $300.00--a tripling of the fee. (13) In 1873 the liquor trade here was about $500,000; should this be abolished Dubuque finances would receive a deadly blow, it was stated. The view of the Dubuque Herald was clear and colorful in stating on May 17, 1874, "The temperance people in some of the town toward the west of us are giving the teats of the prohibition cow a lively squeeze that will make the brute kick the pail over and spill the milk one of these days." (14)

Many citizens resolved to back the liquor interests in their fight for existence under a license system. Immense meetings were held by both sides. The crusade did not succeed because it attacked liquor selling and not intemperance. It assumed that it was a crime to use intoxicating liquors. The law had the right to punish men for becoming drunk, but not for drinking. Liquor was seized and numerous suits resulted. (15)


Late in 1875 a temperance crusade secured 400 signers to the pledge. (16)


The Dubuque Herald announced that K. N. Line Packet Company had closed all the bars on their steamboats and no liquor was to be sold aboard their boats after April 10, 1876. (17)

Prohibition publication of January 30, 1878. Photo courtesy: Neal Sprenglemeyer


Dubuque Temple of Honor, No. 13, a temperance organization, was established on April 4, 1879 with twenty-one applicants for membership and an endowment of $1,000. The Evergreen Temple of Honor, No. 2 "the social branch of temperance," was formed on October 4, 1879. (18)


The ladies of the "Women's Temperance League" changed the organization's name to the WOMAN'S CHRISTIAN TEMPERANCE UNION believing there was value in being associated with the state organization. (19)

In May, the writers of the Dubuque Herald noted that those attending temperance lectures were now being charged an admission fee between five and twenty-five cents. "Is the object of it to make poor fallen humanity pay for its own reformation, or to support itinerant lectures in luxurious idleness?" (20)


The Women's Christian Temperance Union brought a bill forbidding the sale of liquor before the Iowa Legislature. A strong anti-prohibition club was formed here to defeat the amendment. The Brewers' Association in Iowa levied a tax on its members based on production the previous year and raised $6,000 to finance an effort to defeat the measure. (21) On the question of amending the prohibitory law the vote in Dubuque stood 1,223 for the amendment; 6,283 against the amendment. The amendment was carried in the state by a large majority. Iowa became a "dry" state on June 27th. (22) The law was declared unconstitutional in January 1883. Prohibition forces, however, convinced the legislature to repeal the wine and beer exempt passed in 1858 so Iowa returned to state-wide prohibition. (23)

At their convention that summer, Democrats called for a “well regulated license law.” At the Republican convention the chairman David B. HENDERSON declared, “My friends, the wife and child of the ‘drunkard’ are raising their hands to you for aid. Their appeal will not be unheard.” In the 1883 fall election of members to the General Assembly, the Republicans gained control of both houses. (24)


When the legislators met, Republicans quickly went to work. An attempt was made to begin the amendment process again but it went nowhere. In the end a strong prohibition law was passed that outlawed all intoxicating liquids including beer, ale, and wine, which had been exempted in earlier laws. Iowa now had absolute prohibition. (25)

The new law went into effect on July 4, 1884. There was open defiance of the law. In Dubuque the newspaper said people understood that the new law would not be enforced. (26) Saloons here did business about as usual, though apprehensively. The PERSONAL LIBERTY ASSOCIATION held regular meetings to consider the situation. Informers were led to understand that they would get into serious trouble if they interfered. Secret anti-prohibition meetings were held; Jesse P. FARLEY was one of the leaders of the movement for the enforcement of the law. (27) The Democrats used the prohibition issue to increase their hold on the German vote. (28)

1889 and 1891

Republicans split on the issue of prohibition leading to the first loss of a Republican to the office of Iowa governor since the first had been elected in 1858. (29) Horace Boies, the new governor, opposed radical prohibition. In winning, Democrats appealed to opponents of prohibition in their platform which read," We demand the passage of a carefully guarded license lax law." Each township would have the option of permitting or prohibiting saloons and could keep all license fees above $500. This stand also appealed to the moderates. Boies even ended up carrying traditionally Republican upper-class wards in Dubuque. (30) The liquor interests were called "River Rats of the Rum Counties" by the prohibition supporters during the campaign. (31)


The City Marshal notified all saloons owners that their businesses had to be closed during the hours polls were open. Violators would be arrested and prosecuted. (32)

Charles Curtis of Marion visited Dubuque on behalf of the Colored-Anti Prohibition League. A convention was planned to meet in Dubuque in early September. Pamphlets were sent to every "colored man" in the state to urge them to vote against prohibition. (33)


There were 391 arrests for intoxication in Dubuque while Cedar Rapids had 589 and Clinton had 304. (34)


A number of liquor bills were introduced into the legislature in 1894, but the one which seemed to meet the governor’s criterion of modification was the mulct law.

The mulct law was a form of local option with the use of informers and trials before justices of the peace, both paid according to the number of convictions. (35) The law provided that a tax of six hundred dollars be levied against anyone, other than a registered pharmacist, who sold liquor. Upon payment of the tax, they could continue to sell liquor and not be subject to prosecution. The law provided that the citizens of a county could call for a referendum to decide whether the mulct would be offered. The mulct was not legalization of liquor; at the same time it allowed local option sales of liquor, the goal of the "wet" moderates. In October, 1896 twenty-one bars closed rather than pay the monthly tax. By 1906 the mulct law was in operation in forty-three counties with a total of 1,770 saloons. (36)


On September 7, James Dunn, national organizer and lecturer of the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of America, arrived in Dubuque at the invitation of Father Toomey, pastor of ST. RAPHAEL'S CATHEDRAL. The announcement was made that Dubuque would host the national convention of the organization in 1902. (37)


The St. Raphael's branch of the Happy Home League met for the first time on January 5th with one hundred men in attendance. The constitution and by-laws of the organization were adopted. The objective of the group included in the constitution's preamble was to encourage "abstinence on the part of the members from all intoxicating drinks and to promote happiness in the home by discountenancing drunkenness." League badges including a medallion containing a picture of Archbishop Keane were to be designed to wear in public when the group appeared together. Buttons for members suitably inscribed and include a picture of the Holy Family were also planned. (38)


In Iowa the Anti-Saloon League joined other established temperance organizations and religious groups to limit the availability of liquor. (39)


In March, 1907, a mass meeting against illegal saloons was held at the opera house. Archbishop John J. KEANE was the principal speaker. The saloons were violating the Sunday and night closing ordinance. The Law and Order League began numerous legal proceedings against them. (40)

All saloons in Dubuque and Dubuque County are closed for the first time in fifty years. (41)


Hill railroads were added to the other roads on which drinking men were not employed in Dubuque. (42)

The only new law that had an impact on liquor enforcement was the “Moon Law” passed in 1909. Named for Senator Edwin G. Moon, a Democrat from Ottumwa, the law set a limit on liquor licenses a city could issue to one for each 1,000 residents. Exceptions were made for large cities that current licenses would not have to be revoked to achieve the goal the law established. By September 1912 the number of saloons in Iowa was half the number in 1908. (43)

A delegation of Dubuque's business men was sent to Des Moines in 1909 to appear before the senatorial committee to protest against the re-submission of prohibition to the vote of the people as a constitutional amendment. (44)


The 1915 General Assembly passed a prohibition amendment. Moreover, the "dry forces" also repealed the Mulct Law. In theory, liquor would be banned in Iowa no matter what happened to the constitutional amendment. (45) The image of Dubuque residents being less than enthusiastic about prohibition began on the first "dry" Saturday in 1916. Movement on the bridge into Illinois had to be stopped until the traffic snarls leading to "wet" Illinois were cleared. (46) An extra car was added by the trolley company in a wasted attempt to handle the traffic. (47)

When the General Assembly met again in early 1917, it passed the prohibition amendment for the second time and established October 15, 1917 for the ratifying vote by Iowa voters. Citizens waited nearly two weeks for the vote to be certified. In the end the amendment lost by only 932 votes out of a total of 430,588 votes cast. Fifty-six counties voted for the amendment; forty-three counties, including all the Mississippi River counties, voted against it. (48)

Partial map of Wisconsin showing (above the words "Center Park") the land owned by the Dubuque Brewing and Malting Company.

In 1918 Iowa became one of 32 states to go "dry" prior to the start of national prohibition in 1919. While the DUBUQUE BREWING AND MALTING COMPANY closed down its Dubuque operation, the company continues business from a site in Wisconsin it had purchased earlier. Richard KIMBEL was the manager. (49)


An article in the July 1, 1918 issue of the Telegraph Herald reported on the disposal of seized alcohol. The equivalent of 15 cases of beer and two gallons of whiskey confiscated at the Frank Keck saloon and pool hall had been stored in a DUBUQUE CITY HALL anteroom. The items were dragged through the corridor to a sink and emptied. "Strong smells gloated through the room, an forlorn faces began to gaze upon what was termed a foolhardy proceedings. (50)


By the time the Iowa General Assembly convened again in 1919 the United States Congress had passed and sent to the states the Eighteenth Amendment establishing national prohibition. Iowa was the thirty-first state to ratify it on January 15, 1919. (51) This made little difference in Dubuque which had not had legal liquor since the repeal of the Mulct Law in 1916. (52)

The supporters of prohibition had a special show at the GRAND OPERA HOUSE to celebrate. (53) The wild parties on the eve of national prohibition occurred in Illinois which was affected by the new law. (54) The East Dubuque City Council anticipating a financial bonanza raised the liquor license fee from five hundred to one thousand dollars. (55) A riot broke out in East Dubuque that resulted in the fire departments of both cities being called in to use their fire hoses to break up the crowd. This did not help for long, because people cut the hoses. (56) Wagon loads of beer and whiskey were brought across the river to "last for the duration." State inspectors on the bridge to inspect cars were often tipped off to ignore particular cars. (57) Prices on whiskey and beer were cut during the night by some bar owners as they worked to get rid of their supply. Others reopened in the days to follow as "key clubs" or "speakeasies" where liquor could be purchased. (58)

Dubuque had several "speakeasies." According to retired policeman Captain Alfred Noel, the largest was operated on University Avenue by two women. One policeman was hired to watch the clubs. Raids by the police were infrequent unless there was a complaint or "the city was running short of money." (59)

Home brew was popular. A malt extract was sold in nearly every grocery or drug store. (60)

Boaters on the Mississippi River recalled that a person could easily identify the sites of illegal stills by the smoke coming out of the woods. (61) In Iowa bootleggers (people who illegally made and sold alcohol) had easy access to a key ingredient for the manufacture of alcohol—corn. By not following safety/cleanliness guidelines, contaminated liquor led to paralysis or blindness. (62) Terms used to describe the effects of bad alcohol included "swell head," "limber neck," and "jake paralysis." Other risks included harm from the explosion of alcohol cookers.

Iowa’s bootleggers made moonshine whiskey, wine, gin and home brew beer. If Iowans wanted to purchase illegal liquor, they went to speakeasies or to criminals in alleys or back doors. Bootleggers charged $16 to $25 per “gallon of alky” in the early days of Prohibition. As competition increased, the price dropped to about $5 a gallon. Moonshiners usually had to pay a $500 fine or serve six months in jail. Few people could afford to pay the fine and usually served their time. (63)

Fear of unannounced visits by state liquor agents led local bartenders and citizens to develop unique methods of hiding their illegal liquor. It was said that the lanterns shining from belvederes on several Dubuque homes were used to signal bootleggers. Liquor bottles were hidden in holes in the floor. If a raid was made, a brick could be kicked into the hole, breaking the bottles and destroying the evidence. Boat owners often appeared to have two anchor ropes dangling in the water-one actually tied to their favorite brand of liquor. (64)

Bootleggers were estimated to have made $100 million dollars in the first year of prohibition as beer went from a nickel to a quarter a glass. (65) Such profits attracted mob interest. It was said that bootleggers used the old DUBUQUE BREWING AND MALTING COMPANY. (66) Other breweries attempted to change products to remain in business. "Near beer," rated at one-half of one percent alcohol, was said to offer the taste of beer without alcohol. Bottlers also turned to the manufacture of root beer. (67)

Once again, many residents of Iowa seemed ready to ignore prohibition. Soldiers returning home from World War I could find neighborhood Sunday morning, fraternal, or "Foam Blowing" Clubs without much effort. (68) In May 1925, the Anti-Saloon League issued a report based on a survey of prohibition in Iowa focused primarily on the cities of Burlington, Clinton, Davenport, Dubuque, and Muscatine along the MISSISSIPPI RIVER. The report stated:

         Violators of the prohibition laws in these five cities range from
         almost open sale of intoxicating liquors at Dubuque over the bars
         of saloons masked as "near-beer parlors" to numerous 'canned-heat
         jags' put on in Burlington in lieu of something better to drink. (69)

Enforcement conditions in the three northern most cities were described as "deplorable." Dubuque was described as the "moonshiners or bootleggers paradise." (70)

          Dubuque boasts of 41,000 citizens and 1,000 bootleggers not to 
          mention the countless moonshiners operating in the city and
          vicinity. So keen has the competition become among the hundreds
          of moonshiners living on the jungle-like isles of the Mississippi
          and the vastness of the heavily-wooded bluffs that the largest
          manufacturer cut his whole-sale price in half a short time ago.
          The islands and bluffs are swarming with stills, some of which
          turn out large quantities of liquor each week. It is believed that
          more stills exist in the given around around Dubuque than in any
          other place in the United States, including the mountains of
          Kentucky. (71)

The "old time saloon," the report mentioned, was not wanted by the people in these five cities. There was, however, a desire to modify the law to allow light wines and beer. This move for modification of the law was thought to appeal to more than a majority of people in Dubuque and Davenport, although the effort to change the law was not organized. The report concluded that if organization came to the movement, the result would be the "one of the most serious menaces yet encountered." (72)

Alcohol was allowed back on December 5, 1933. To tease their listeners, some radio announcers put their microphones up to the bottling machinery in Milwaukee and Chicago. Some people chose to sit on a hill overlooking the Mississippi until three o'clock in the morning waiting for the first boat deliveries. (73)

The prohibition era was the background for a musical comedy, JOE SENT ME! written by Paul HEMMER.



1. Oldt, Franklin T. History of Dubuque County, Iowa. Chicago: Goodspeed Historical Association, 1911, p. 61. Online: http://archive.org/stream/cu31924028913965/cu31924028913965_djvu.txt

2. Ibid., p. 68

3. Ibid., p. 70

4. Ibid. p. 74

5. "Liquor Perennial Problem in Iowa; First Vote Taken on Prohibition in June, 1882," Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal Dubuque Centennial Edition , August 6, 1933, p. 3

6. Oldt, p. 92

7. Ibid., p. 95

8. Houlette, William. Iowa: The Pioneer Heritage, Des Moines: Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1970, p. 215

9. Oldt, Franklin T. History of Dubuque, Iowa. Chicago: Western Historical Association, 1880, Online: http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/franklin-t-oldt/history-of-dubuque-county-iowa-being-a-general-survey-of-dubuque-county-histor-tdl/page-15-history-of-dubuque-county-iowa-being-a-general-survey-of-dubuque-county-histor-tdl.shtml

10. "Iowa's Prohibition Years," Iowa Pathways, Online: http://www.iptv.org/iowapathways/mypath.cfm?ounid=ob_000162

11. "Temperance," Dubuque Herald, July 31, 1866, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18720731&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

12. "The Temperance Meeting," Dubuque Herald, March 29, 1874, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18740329&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

13. "The Prohibition Cow," Dubuque Herald, May 17, 1874, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18740517&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

14. Oldt, p. 174

15. Ibid., p. 177

16. "Steamboat Bars Closed," Dubuque Herald, April 11, 1876, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18760411&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

17. "Change of Name," Dubuque Herald, January 11, 1880, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18800111&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

18. "Dubuque County Before 1880," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal, November 13, 1933, p. 11

19. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, May 30, 1880, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18800530&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

20. Kruse, Len. My Old Dubuque. Dubuque: Center for Dubuque History, Loras College, 2000, p. 241

21. "Liquor Perennial Problem..."

22. "The Rocky Road to Nirvana: Nineteenth Century Liquor Legislation in Iowa and the Problem of Enforcement," Essay Read at the German-America Heritage Center, June 10, 2012 Online: http://gahc.org/McDaniel%20Lecture.htm

23. "Liquor Perennial Problem..."

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. "Liquor Perennial Problem..."

27. Oldt, p. 186

28. Bergman, Marvin. Iowa History Reader. Ames: The Iowa State University Press, 1996. Jensen, Richard. "Iowa, Wet or Dry? Prohibition and the Fall of the GOP," p. 270

29. "Rocky Road...", p. 187

30. Bergman, p. 282

31. "Rocky Road..."

32. "Local News in Brief," Dubuque Daily Herald, April 6, 1890, p. 8

33. "A Colored Convention," Dubuque Daily Herald, August 1, 1890, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18900801&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

34. "Municipal Molecules," Dubuque Daily Herald, February 10, 1894, p. 4

35. Sage, Leland L. A History of Iowa. Ames: The Iowa State University Press, 1974, p. 204

36. "Rocky Road..."

37. "Will Start Movement," Dubuque Daily Telegraph, September 7, 1901, p. 2

38. "The Happy Home," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, January 76, 1902, p. 5

39. Oldt, p. 202

40. Ibid.

41. "Saloons Close 1st Time in Fifty Years," Dubuque Herald, June 16, 1907, p. 1A

42. Untitled article, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, December 23, 1909, 4

43. "Rocky Road..."

44. Oldt. P. 202

45. "Rocky Road..."

46. Kruse, p. 243

47. Breyfogle.

48. Ibid.

49. Schuster, Judy Burns. "Prohibition Began With a Shout and a Gurgle," Telegraph Herald, January 17, 1965, p. 5

50. Hogstrom, Erik, "Local Officials Face 'Grim Task' Disposing of Seized Booze in 1918," Telegraph Herald, June 28, 2018, p. 3A

51. Breyfogle

52. Schuster

53. Ibid.

54. Ibid.

55. Breyfogle.

56. Schuster

57. Breyfogle.

58. Schuster.

59. Ibid.

60. Ibid.

61. Ibid.

62. Ibid.

63. Iowa Pathways

64. Breyfogle.

65. Ibid.

66. Kruse, p. 244

67. Schuster.

68. Walters

69. "Leads U.S. in Stills, Report of Dry League," Telegraph Herald, May 6, 1925, p. 1

70. Ibid.

71. Ibid.

72. Ibid.

73. Walters

Special thanks to Paul Hemmer for source material.