Carter House Museum - Prohibition is season’s theme

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This old moonshiner, who bears a striking resemblance to Elkader resident Howard Mayer, poses in front of a still that will be part of the Carter House’s season-long tribute to Prohibition.

By Pam Reinig

Register Editor

An antique still that was once buried in a Northeast Iowa farm field is the centerpiece of a kick-off celebration planned for Friday, June 2, at the Carter House Museum in Elkader.

“Prohibition in Our Backyard” is the title of the event, which will be held from 5-8 p.m. The still, on loan for the summer from the George Maier Rural Heritage Center, is just one of several touches that will lend an air of authenticity to the evening. The main entrance to the Carter House will be temporarily retrofitted to give the appearance of a speakeasy while two “residents,” both deeply committed to the Temperance Movement, will take to the podium to explain their cause. Also be on the lookout for a moonshiner or two and a revenue man!

“We’ve loosely modeled this on a Prohibition exhibit that Marge Costigan (a long-time museum board member) saw a few years ago in Minneapolis,” said Board President Betty Buchholz. “We have many things planned for the season but there will be some extra touches for the kickoff to make it fun.”

A Garber man was the original owner of the still, which he buried under a machine shed during Prohibition. A storm twisted the shed out of shape and when the new owners leveled the ground to put in a new post, they hit the opening of the still’s kettle. They dug up the still and left it in a field with their cows. That’s where former resident, collector and museum owner George Maier found it several years ago. Maier, who died in 2014, convinced the farmer to donate the still to Maier’s center.

According to the farmer who dug up the piece, cooking mash in the kettle and letting the steam flow through the coils into a barrel of cold water where the steam was transformed back into a potent liquid made moonshine. The first quart was poured off because it was like “rat poison.”

Making a case Friday night for temperance will be Garnavillo attorney James Crosby (portrayed by Dave Beck, Elkader) and Elkader resident Esther Carter Warner (portrayed by Donna Anderson, also of Elkader). 

Crosby, an original investor in Motor Mill, and Mrs. Warner, whose brothers built the Carter House, will give short speeches beginning at 6 p.m. Crosby might share some of his adventures, including his trip down the Ohio River on a homemade raft with nothing but his fiddle for company. Mrs. Warner, whose physician husband built a large white house across the street from the Carters’, will likely assure visitors that the members of the Temperance Society have undertaken their cause only after their home and family duties have been “done up.” In addition, she may tell them that her fellow supporters will yield words not weapons, and will accept donations from “grog-sellers.” The money will be used to buy clothing for “such poor inebriates as have emptied their pockets (at drinking establishments) and now have not the wherewithal to purchase necessary clothing.”

Tickets for the event are $15 and are available at Moser’s Pharmacy, Elkader, and at the door. “Prohibition in Our Backyard” is the season-long theme for the Carter House. The museum is open weekends through September 30 from noon to 4 p.m.

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