The Great Gatsbys of Carroll County
June 13, 2013
Dan Manatt is director and Bryce T. Bauer the producer of "The West Iowa Whiskey Cookers: The True Story of Templeton Rye," a documentary film to be released later this year. Bauer is also writing a book on the subject, tentatively titled "Gentlemen Bootleggers," forthcoming from Chicago Review Press in 2014.
Templeton rye has long been associated with the legendary - and infamous - gangster Al Capone. But in researching our documentary, "The West Iowa Whiskey Cookers," we failed to find any evidence of a Templeton Rye-Capone connection in the National Archives, Prohibition Bureau files or even Capone wiretaps from Eliot Ness's "Untouchables" unit.
The Templeton story does have direct links to another legendary American story: "The Great Gatsby," the timeless F. Scott Fitzgerald novel and now Leo DiCaprio movie. Just what does the Jay Gatsby of fiction have in common with Templeton's famous bootleggers? Consider:
- Gatsby, the novel tells us, was born James Gatz - a German-American, a key fact in the book. Templeton was (and still is) overwhelmingly German-American - 95 percent or more. Jay Gatsby (and Leo DiCaprio, with three German grandparents) would physically fit right in with Templeton's teutons, unlike neopolitan Al Capone. Yet with the outbreak of World War I, when being German was a vice worse than debauchery, Gatsby - and many Iowans - changed their German names to make them more English-sounding. So many Schmitzes became Smiths, and Gatzes and Goetzes became Gatsbys.
- Gatsby made his millions from bootlegging. Likewise, Carroll County in the 1920s was one of Iowa's wealthiest counties, with among the highest rates of car ownership and lowest rates of farm foreclosure and bank failures in Iowa and even the nation because of its unique local industry: bootlegging.
- Gatsby was a soldier in World War I whose time fighting in the trenches in Europe presumably made liquid mustard gas, not liquor, his most dreaded libation. Many Carroll County whiskey producers were also veterans of the "Great War" and their military service changed their view of the world - after being exposed to French wine and the horror of trench warfare, bootlegging hardly seemed a mortal sin.
- In the novel and movie, Gatsby throws huge parties to wow his long-lost love, Daisy, and to conduct business (and, the movie suggests, do some retail marketing). Templeton's parties of the time were also an important part of the bootleggers' distribution chain. They would peddle their wares at Carroll County barn dances, boxing matches, floating crap games - even at the inauguration of anti-Prohibition Governor Clyde Herring in 1933 in Des Moines.
--The Gatsby story and Templeton rye story are both, in their own contexts, "true" stories and "legends". In the novel, Gatsby is the subject of scandalous gossip - Gatsby is variously said to be a German prince, a spy, an assassin, and worse. The Templeton story likewise has generated stories about gangland murders, and Capone personally supervising his Carroll County "Empire" in the 1930s - despite his being in solitary confinement on Alcatraz Island with a mind turned to mush by syphilis.
But the biggest commonality between The Great Gatsby and the Templeton story is that they are both fundamentally about the Midwest: Jay Gatsby, we are told, is from North Dakota, where the hard times of the High Plains drove him to seek out a new life - and led him eventually to bootlegging. Though the novel is set on Long Island - the 1920s equivalent of the Hamptons from "The Real Housewives" - Gatsby is always running away from his humble beginnings as a North Dakota farm boy, a point hammered home in DiCaprio's new movie. While the novel never identifies the North Dakota hometown, Fitzgerald makes it clear it is not a nurturing place with the "community spirit" of a Templeton.
The Templeton bootleggers never felt ashamed of their Midwestern roots like Gatsby (and perhaps Minnesotan Fitzgerald). In fact, Templeton's small town ethos of togetherness and mutual protection was the secret to their success, not something to run away from. Whereas New York turns on bootlegger Gatsby, Templeton and Carroll County largely protected its own bootleggers - in courtrooms, in the press, on Main Street.
This was the true secret ingredient of Templeton whiskey. It's also why Templeton whiskey, unlike The Great Gatsby, is a success story rather than a tragedy.
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