We pulled up to a nondescript shed sitting at the edge of a rye field.
“You sure this is the right place?” asked my wife. She worries about many of my ideas, especially when they involve something like procuring bootleg whiskey.
“Only one way to find out,” I replied as I climbed out of the car. I strode up to the shed, opened the door a crack, and was greeted by a pleasant, middle-age lady. She seemed to be in charge of things.
“We’re here for the tour,” I murmured, using the phrase I had been told would grant us access to the inner sanctum.
The lady smiled broadly and replied, “Welcome to Templeton Rye!”
No, we weren’t in the deep South or the backwoods of Appalachia. We were in Carroll County, Iowa, which, we were surprised to learn, has a long and colorful history of making moonshine.
The lady’s name was Cheryl Kerkhoff. Her husband, Dan, is a member of a Templeton, Iowa, family that has decades of experience in the art of illicit distilling.
“The area around Templeton has long been known for its homemade spirits,” explained Cheryl as we strolled the shed. She was entirely nonchalant as we walked past a huge room that held numerous oak barrels of whiskey. In an adjacent room, a crew was busily filling glass containers with the aromatic amber liquid.
Cheryl told us that many residents of the Templeton area are of German ancestry. Brewing up some beer or making a little homemade wine or distilling a few spirits seems as natural as baking bread.
Then came Prohibition and the Great Depression. With their crops worth nearly nothing, many farmers faced financial ruin. But those same crops, after being fermented and distilled, could produce a tidy income -- perhaps enough to save the farm.
“No one kept records, but we think that as many as 40 farmers in the Templeton area once ran stills,” said Cheryl. “There was a cultural tolerance for this practice. Even the local priest was known to enjoy a tipple now and then.”
This tolerance extended well beyond the clergy.
“Whenever federal agents came around, our local sheriff would wear his hat as a sign for folks to be on the lookout,” said Cheryl. “The revenuers would often find a small still and a few bottles of liquor. They would go back to their headquarters, satisfied that they had done their jobs. But the small still was probably just to distract them from the big still hidden out back.”
Things didn’t always work out in the farmer’s favor.
Cheryl said, “One farmer had his still confiscated and his fermenting tubs broken up. The mash ran into a nearby pig pen and the hogs, being hogs, gobbled it up and became falling-down drunk. The farmer was more upset about the feds getting his pigs drunk than the loss of his still!”
Perhaps this incident gave rise to the phrase sloppy drunk.
Bootleggers needed to be sneaky to elude the law. For instance, Alphonse Kerkhoff, Cheryl’s grandfather-in-law, wanted a hydrometer to use in his whiskey-making. But only a pharmacist or a doctor could own a hydrometer without arousing suspicion, so Alphonse ordered one under the name of Dr. Kerkhoff. And Dr. Kerkhoff is what was on the hydrometer’s box when it arrived at the Kerkhoff farm.