Joe Irlbeck, the kingpin of Templeton bootlegging during Prohibition
Joe Irlbeck, the kingpin of Templeton bootlegging during Prohibition
December 9, 2013


The filmmakers behind a deeply researched documentary of first-rate production quality on the history of illicit Templeton Rye trade introduce a dramatic new element to the long-told narrative of a boozy early 20th century - a twist that surprised about a dozen Carroll Countians during a recent screening at the local fire house.

The "West Iowa Whiskey Cookers" reveals a town snitch -Dutch jeweler Henry F. Vermeule. Vermeule, who operated out of downtown Templeton, went big time with his information - sending a letter in 1920 naming a host of southern Carroll County residents involved in bootlegging to A. Mitchell Palmer, the U.S. attorney general (who had hired J. Edgar Hoover) and the shot-caller in the immigrant-terrorizing Palmer Raids.

Developed by Dan Manatt and Bryce T. Bauer - and now owned by the City of Templeton - "West Iowa Whiskey Cookers" delves into local materials, but expands the historical pursuit into The National Archives in Washington, D.C. The result: an unprecedented blend of local lore and well-documented national research.

The documentary, which runs from the late 19th century German immigration in Iowa through the end of Prohibition in 1933, is very much a rollicking cat-and-mouse story featuring central roles for Templeton Rye bootlegging "kingpin" Joe Irlbeck and Audubon County Sheriff Frank Wilson - whom Bauer and Manatt cast as a local Eliot Ness..

"Like a Joe Irlbeck batch of whiskey, a little time has made this a better project," Manatt said of the film production, which started in 2005.

Manatt was scheduled to meet with executives at Iowa Public Television, where he has a tentative agreement for broadcast in 2014 of the roughly 1 hour-and-15 minute film.

The producing team - which includes Templeton Mayor Ken Behrens - spies opportunity for national release as well. Manatt said he will take "Whiskey Cookers" to a number of film festivals.

"We're going to enter it into a lot of places and see how we do," Manatt said.

"Whiskey Çookers" defines Templeton as the rye whiskey bootlegging capital of the American Heartland. But it goes beyond the stories of "wet Carroll County juries" and grand tales of the production process, the secreting away of barrels and kegs and jugs in cemeteries and corn stalks and hog barns. To be sure, that's all there - in delightfully digestible descriptions and images, like the little brown jugs hanging in downtown Templeton during a Prohibition-year Christmas with the brazen message - "XMas Spirits."

The film places the rye trade in a larger context of immigration and bigotry and economic survival for a Catholic minority in Iowa. Federal agents were often accompanied on rye raids by members of the Ku Klux Klan, a powerful force in the 1920s Midwest with an organizing motivation not aimed at blacks but rather at Catholics. The Carroll County-Audubon County takes on enormous significance as in 1916 mobs in Audubon County attempted to lynch a German-American farmer and clergyman, according to the film.

With a wide range of photos and great biographical detail, "Whiskey Cookers" brings to life Wilson, the Audubon County lawman, and Irlbeck, a gentleman bootlegger whom, the film suggests, at one point oversaw the production of 1,000 gallons of illegal rye a day with a payroll of 40 men.

Dan Manatt, 44, now living in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Bethesda, Md., is a son of the late Charles Manatt. Charles Manatt grew up in Audubon and went on to substantial success in business and the law in California and Washington, D.C. He served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1981 to 1985.

Manatt, a Duke University history graduate who grew up in Washington, D.C., and went to Sidwell Friends, the same school President Obama's two daughters attend and one that lists Chelsea Clinton as an alum, spent summers in Audubon.

"I wish I was from Templeton, but I'm not," Dan Manatt said. "But I'm still biased for the area."

Manatt, the owner of Manatt Media, said he makes his living doing film and advertising work for political clients and nonprofit organizations, including Democrats such as U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois.

He termed the Templeton project a "labor of love."

Previously, Manatt produced a documentary titled "The Republic of Baseball," which chronicles the lives of Major League Baseball players from the Dominican Republic.

For his part, Bauer is writing a book on Templeton Rye, tentatively titled "Gentlemen Bootleggers," forthcoming from Chicago Review Press in 2014.

Behrens views release of the movie as positive for Templeton, a city of 362 people that saw an increase of 28 people over the last decade.

Simply put, the colorful history of Templeton helps brand the town today, making it memorable for people, not just in Iowa, but across the nation, Behrens said. Other small towns in Iowa often don't have distinguishing features, characters or histories and those communities blend together, he added.

But Templeton has rye.

"It makes Templeton not forgettable," Behrens said. "It gives us that connection to the community."