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Muscatine and Whiskey

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

In 1839, the village of Bloomington just south of here was upgraded to the status of second-class town by the Iowa Legislature. Its city council met only once, and then only to permit grocery stores to sell whiskey. That same year, the Iowa Territorial Legislature officially defined "grocery store" as any establishment that sold whiskey in less than gallon lots.

Not everyone was happy. The clergy and other prominent citizens lined up against the whiskey interests, to little avail. Bloomington shortly changed its name to Muscatine and became a first-class town. The fight escalated. The whole state of Iowa voted in prohibition in 1855, exempted beer and wine in 1858, then repealed that exemption in 1884. The wide-open whiskey town of Muscatine paid little attention.

In 1893, a Muscatine crusader upped the ante. Newspaper editor John Mahin had fought whiskey in Muscatine for forty years. Along with a lawyer and a businessman, Mahin sued the saloons and succeeded in getting six of them closed.

Revenge was quick. Shortly after midnight of May 11th, 1893, Ascension Day, three explosions rocked Muscatine as the homes of the three men were blown up by black powder. No lives were lost, but parts of Mahin's house lay all over the neighborhood.

Muscatine made headlines and editorials around the nation, but whiskey survived. It was time for some outside guns. In February of 1901 the reformers brought in the Kansas crusader Carrie Nation, who made a small dent in the local conscience.

Then the teetotalers found their champion in a young evangelist who was using small Iowa towns to hone his platform skills in preparation for an assault on America's great cities. In November of 1907, in a hastily constructed wooden tabernacle with sawdust floors, Billy Sunday preached to thousands, converted hundreds, and so riled his audiences against the liquor traffic that the fight was over. On January 1, 1908, the saloons of Muscatine closed for good, sending Billy Sunday off to the big time, and Muscatiners off in quest of other sins.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.