By Jerry Harrington
It all began with a raid.
On Dec. 12, 1934, Cedar Rapids police burst into the cellar of a canning factory on 12th Avenue SE, arresting owner J. Leroy Farmer. His crime was illegally selling liquor in his basement bar. In post-Prohibition Iowa, only the state of Iowa could sell alcohol through its state-run stores.
But the police found more. As they rummaged through Farmer’s vast assortment of whiskey, port, wine, cognac, champagne, gin and other high-proof refreshments, authorities came across a letter addressed to Farmer from Harold Cooper, chairman of the Iowa Liquor Control Commission. Attached to the letter were 200 Iowa state liquor seals, designed to make the liquor bottles appear as if they originated from the state commission. Signed by Cooper, the letter said the seals were provided to Farmer to put “on your merchandise which you have in your personal stock.”
News of the raid — and the letter and seals — quickly reached the office of Cedar Rapids Gazette Editor Verne Marshall. The 45-year-old editor immediately called up Cooper in Des Moines, asking him why he had mailed the state seals to this illegal operator. The commissioner replied that he never suspected Farmer was breaking any laws and sent the seals, in Cooper’s words, as a “personal courtesy” because Farmer “had a stock of fine old liquors that he had picked up somewhere in Wisconsin, and that he wanted to protect himself by having it all properly labeled.”
Marshall knew the new state liquor law prohibited bringing alcohol into Iowa from outside the state, making the state liquor commissioner a conspirator in breaking the very law he had sworn to uphold. Incredulously, the editor realized Cooper didn’t understand the scope of his statement. Marshall even called Cooper back to reaffirm his quotes before running the story in that afternoon’s Gazette.
The next morning, perhaps after consulting with others, Cooper issued a statement completely contradicting the story he gave Marshall. Cooper asserted that Farmer had asked for the seals for liquor purchased before Prohibition began. That meant Farmer had kept the bottles in storage since 1916 when statewide Prohibition began in Iowa some 18 years earlier — a very unlikely story.
Commissioner Cooper had lied to the wrong man.