1917’s Flyover Prohibition Campaign Fails To Take Off

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Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

Iowa farm fields from the air.

“Vote Dry October 15th” Those words would appear on the underside of the wings of an airplane scheduled to fly across the state in 1917. The plane’s tail would be painted in red, white and blue stripes.

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The Iowa General Assembly had set October 15 as the day voters would vote to ratify a state prohibition amendment passed earlier by the legislators. Prohibition proponents weren’t taking any chances. They launched a propaganda campaign to encourage voters to support the amendment, hoping once and for all to make Iowa a dry state.

The most eye-catching plan involved using a low-flying plane to distribute paper bombs from the air over all the county seat towns and larger cities in the state. The flyers urged Iowans to vote for ratification of the prohibition amendment on October 15.

The idea was hatched by Virgil G. Henshaw, chair of the National Prohibition Committee, who had Iowa roots having grown up on a farm in Mahaska County. The bombs were intended to “wake up voters” to the “importance of prohibition,” according to the Audubon (Iowa) County Journal. The plane was provided by a company out of Chicago. The pilot, F.S. Hoyt, planned to fly ten times across the state in his plane on consecutive days, with the exception of Sundays. The plane would stop at as many as 50 locations, where rallies featuring prohibition speakers were scheduled.

Mechanics would be stationed at the eastern and western borders of the state. They could easily travel to locations to complete repairs if needed. Extra plane engine parts were shipped to large cities across the state in anticipation of mechanical problems.

From one end of the state to another, excitement preceded the arrival of the plane in the first week of October. “Come to Leon!” the local paper invited readers. It was the “first flying machine” to ever visit the city. “Flying Water Wagon Starts at Postville on Long Flight Today,” the Iowa City Press-Citizen headline proclaimed. And in Keokuk the Daily Gate City and Constitution-Democrat headline promised “Iowa’s Drive on Rum Begins in Earnest Today.”

By the second week in October the news had changed. “Aeroplane Not Coming,” the Adams County Free Press notified readers. And the Des Moines Register reported the prohibition plane had “failed to fly” and had “left the state for good.” The reasons for the aborted campaign were unclear. The drys planted ideas suggesting it had something to do with “machinations of the wet.” Temperance groups sent out the word that for “some strange reason” the engine “that worked perfectly in Chicago” would not work “here in Iowa” and the campaign had to be given up.

In the end voters rejected the amendment. There was a great divide across the state in how voters reacted. In Ringgold County over 76 percent of voters approved the amendment; in the city of Dubuque over 80 percent voted against the amendment.

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Sources

“Aeroplane Not Coming,” Adams County Free Press, Oct. 10, 1917.

“Among the Churches,” Lutheran Companion, p. 485, vol 25, 1917.

“Flying Water Wagon Starts at Postville on Long Flight Today,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, Oct. 1, 1917.

“Iowa’s Drive on Rum Begins in Earnest Today,” Daily Gate City and Constitution-Democrat, Oct. 1, 1917.

Leon Journal-Reporter, display ad, Oct. 4, 1917.

Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa: The Middle Land. Ames: Iowa State University Press, p. 214, 1996.

“Take Precautions for Honest Vote,” Des Moines Register, Oct. 9, 1917.

“Waterwagon Is Flying Over Iowa,” Audubon County Journal, Oct. 11, 1917.

 

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