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Busting the Iowa Butter Gang

By Staff | Jun 16, 2017

“Hey, did you ever hear of the Iowa Butter Gang?” It’s the last question I expected to hear during my recent “Culinary History of Iowa” book signing in West Des Moines, and it definitely caught my attention.

It came from Jan Kaiser, a former Des Moines librarian who had first “encountered” the nefarious gang a few years ago through research into 70+-year-old newspaper archives.

Turns out that crime came in many forms during the Great Depression. Back then, butter was big business in Iowa. Not only was Iowa a leading dairy state, but hundreds of small-town creameries produced high-quality butter that made Iowa a top shipper of butter into New York City, according to Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.

While some Depression-era criminals robbed banks, other thieves targeted rural Iowa to rob creameries. A headline in the Aug. 6, 1936, edition of the Adams County Free Press newspaper announced, “Hunt for Iowa Gang in 17 Iowa Creamery Butter Robberies: Officers Believe Larceny Work of Organized Gang.”

The article noted that during the spring and summer of 1936, a new “racket” had sprung up in Iowa. In most cases, creameries that were broken into were located on the edge of town or in isolated spots. Among the gang’s targets were:

  • April 3, Palmer; 2,172 pounds of butter stolen
  • April 8, Fenton; 3,440 pounds
  • June 4, Britt; 5,184 pounds
  • June 12, Kimballton; 4,000 pounds
  • June 20, Coulter;4,095 pounds
  • July 3, Hubbard; 7,488 pounds
  • July 8, Palmer; 3,553 pounds
  • July 31; Masonville, 2,228 pounds
  • August 3; Dumont, 1,100 pounds

“The robbers are evidently expert burglars and experience little difficulty in breaking into creameries,” reported the Adams County Free Press. “They use a truck and are gone with their loot before local officials know there has been a burglary. Officers believe this ‘hot butter’ is peddled through a ‘fence’ in some large city, possibly Chicago or Omaha.”

(A fence is someone who knowingly buys stolen property for later resale, sometimes in a legitimate market.)

Finally-a big break in the case

By August 1936, officers with the Iowa State Patrol (formed just a year earlier in 1935) and a group of northern Iowa vigilantes and deputy sheriffs were patrolling Iowa’s country roads in hopes of catching the butter gang.

Law enforcement officials got a big break by late August 1936. A headline in the Aug. 29, 1936, edition of the Des Moines Tribune proclaimed “Iowa Butter Gang Crushed.”

Turns out an Omaha gang of six men and one woman stole some $30,000 worth of butter, cheese and eggs (that’s nearly $525,000 in today’s money) in a string of robberies across Iowa. The butter was trucked to Omaha and was sold through a fence.

Iowa prosecutors charged the gang with 32 robberies. Detectives recovered 70 tubs of butter, the Tribune reported, 66 of which had been stolen from a creamery in Wesley. “Capture of the Butter Gang was the climax of one of the greatest Iowa manhunts in recent years,” officials told the newspaper.

The story wasn’t over, though. Less than five years later, one of the original butter gang members tried to revive the scheme. Under the headline “Butter Theft Gang Thwarted,” the Jan. 15, 1941, issue of the Mason City Globe-Gazette reported the arrest of Bryon Green, 32, of Sioux City.

On Dec. 13, 1940, Green had been released from prison in Stillwater, Minnesota, after serving three-and-a-half years for burglary. Within weeks, Green was arrested by Chicago police, who accused him of entering the Masonville, Iowa, creamery on January 9, 1941, and shipping 1,230 pounds of stolen butter to a Chicago firm.

Thus ended the saga of the infamous butter gangs that once terrorized rural Iowa.

Darcy Dougherty Maulsby (a.k.a. Yetter-girl) grew up on a Century Farm between Lake City and Yetter and is proud to call Calhoun County home. Contact her at yettergirl@yahoo.com, and visit her online at www.darcymaulsby.com.

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