Author offers insights into area’s ‘Gentlemen Bootleggers’
Bryce T. Bauer, the Audubon-raised author of a just-released book on Templeton Rye during Prohibition, spent about two hours last week reading selections from his work and answering questions from the 60 people who attended his signing event at the Carroll Public Library.
Bauer, 27, a native of a farm 4 miles north of Audubon on U.S. Highway 71 — land still farmed by his parents, Ted and Donna — earned a favorable review for “Gentlemen Bootleggers” in The Wall Street Journal.
The exhaustively reported 238-page book tells a rich story of the people and places of Carroll and Audubon counties during their founding through the early parts of the 1930s, and delves into the central role Templeton rye production played in the economy and culture.
“It was nearly the entire town that participated in some way,” Bauer said of Templeton.
The key figures in the book, Bauer told his audience, are Joe Irlbeck, whom Bauer describes as the kingpin of rye production in the region, and B.F. Wilson, an Audubon County sheriff, who later worked as federal Prohibition agent.
The two colorful men engaged in something of a cat-and-mouse game — with the Audubon/Carroll County line taking on serious importance.
Bauer places the rye production in the broader context of Prohibition, and spends time in the book comparing the booze trade in Carroll County with organized crime-led bootlegging in Chicago and even Des Moines.
With the exception of a production accident in a Templeton home, the culture of rye was a relatively “peaceful” one in Carroll County, according to Bauer.
Bauer says a confluence of factors led to this.
Much of it is attributable to Joe Irlbeck, whose easy-going, community-minded temperament didn’t provoke reprisals in business deals.
“I think if Irlbeck wouldn’t have been such a great guy it would have been more violent,” Bauer said.
Frankly, Bauer said, there was such a “big pie” for rye in terms of demand in the nation, that there was enough profit to go around to the 400 or so families in the Templeton area during Prohibition.
“It’s what makes this story so interesting,” Bauer said. “It was a positive story of bootlegging.”
In writing the book, Bauer did extensive research on the Ku Klux Klan and its strong anti-Catholic organizing influences in the Midwest during the 1920s.
The Klan associated bootlegging and illicit drinking with Catholics and often joined federal agents on raids of stills to further its bigoted philosophies on what it meant to be an American, Bauer said.
“They were mostly focused on going after Catholics,” Bauer said.
Bauer’s book reports that during the 1920s, the Klan counted 400 members in Audubon County.
The Invisible Empire never could gain a foothold in Carroll County.
Residents in Carroll thwarted one rally by calling the fire department and reporting a problem in a field before the Klan could start its recruitment program.
By the late 1920s, the Klan lost its influence in Iowa.
“I don’t think you always attracted the best and brightest of the community to the Klan,” Bauer said.
Overall, Bauer said, Templeton rye boosted the fortunes of farmers in Carroll County (there was whiskey production in Breda, too) through challenging times, and helped an immigrant culture retain its personality and spirit.
“I’m kind of convinced that it turned out pretty well for Templeton, Carroll County,” Bauer said.
Now living in New York City, where he sees the modern, legal version of Templeton Rye in bars, Bauer earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Iowa and a master’s in fine arts from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.
He is considering work on another project related to Prohibition: a non-fiction book on the Story County-born dry preacher Billy Sunday — an iconic figure who played a leading role on the opposite side of Templeton’s bootleggers.
“I would love to do something on him,” Bauer said.