Iron River Revolt
The Michigan Whiskey Rebellion
By Allan May
It seems improbable, but just weeks after the Volsted Act brought national prohibition into effect on January 16, 1920, armed federal agents accompanied by an army of news reporters descended on the village of Iron River, Michigan to squash a “whiskey rebellion” that had captured headlines throughout the country. Newspapers printed maps to show where tiny Iron River was located, just a few miles from the Wisconsin border in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The village was located in Iron County, a mining district with a heavy Italian population.
The rebellion pitted headstrong State’s Attorney, Martin S. McDonough of Iron County against the egotistical Major A. V. Dalrymple, the federal prohibition enforcement chief for six central-western states. Dalrymple vowed to reporters that he would “crush the liquor rebellion.”
The confrontations started on St. Valentine’s Day 1920 when the state constabulary (Michigan had a body of constables to oversee state districts) made three raids in Iron River. The final raid was at the home/store owned by the three Scalcucci brothers – John, Joseph and Steve. The brothers were successful businessmen in the town and owned a packing company, a meat market, a boarding house, and a mining claim. The raiders called McDonough, the local prosecutor, for instructions on where to store the barrels of wine they had taken. McDonough informed them that they could not confiscate the wine because it had been seized without a warrant.
McDonough hurriedly arranged a hearing after arrest warrants were sworn out against the Scalcuccis. In court the affidavits of the brothers acknowledged that they were in possession of so much wine because they had been unable to sell a “carload” of grapes that they had imported the previous fall. Instead of permitting the grapes to spoil they turned them into wine based on the “advice of pamphlets from the internal revenue commissioner.” McDonough asked the court to dismiss the case stating that it was not illegal for a person to have liquor in their home for their own personal use. “No evidence of a sale was obtained against these men,” the prosecutor stated. Members of the constabulary agreed to let the matter rest with McDonough and the case was dropped.
However, one disgruntled member of the constabulary notified Leo J. Grove, the supervising prohibition agent for the Upper Peninsula. Grove arrived on February 19 again with members of the constabulary and seized the wine that had been turned back to the Scalcucci brothers. McDonough relates what happened next after he was notified of the raid while eating breakfast:
“I went out to the Scalcucci place and found that the wine, eight and one-half barrels of it, together with two barrels of vinegar, had been taken out of the building.
“Then I went outside. I asked someone who the federal man was. A man in a greasy overcoat, looking very dilapidated, spoke up.
“’I am Leo Grove, a federal officer,’ he said.
“’What sort of federal officer are you?’ I asked.
“’I am a federal prohibition officer,’ he said.
“’Let me see your credentials,’ I told him.
“He produced a letter which said he had been appointed a federal prohibition officer. The letter was soiled and did not appeal to me as a genuine document.
“I asked him for his badge or other authority, including the card which all revenue men carry. He said he did not have one.
“Then I pointed down the road and said ‘You see that road? Well that leads out of town. Take it.’
“When I got back to Iron River, I stored the liquor in the town hall. It is waiting for the first revenue man who can show proper authority.”
Grove’s story differed from McDonough’s. He stated that he and his men were overpowered by McDonough, who arrived with the chief of police and a deputy sheriff. Grove had the confiscated wine on a sleigh and when he ordered the driver on, McDonough and the local authorities stopped them. Grove stated he was placed under arrest for transporting liquor, but was later released. Grove then headed straight for Chicago to notify Major A. V. Dalrymple. Based on Dalrymple’s description of the events, the newspapers reported there was, “Open defiance of the power of the federal authorities to enforce prohibition in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.”
Dalrymple told reporters, “States’ Attorney McDonough maintains that liquor…can be manufactured in defiance of the constitution. I shall take as many men as are necessary from Chicago and, in cooperation with the Michigan state constabulary, I shall put respect and fear of the law into Iron County.” Before leaving Chicago, Dalrymple boasted that he would arrest McDonough and the law enforcement officers who had defied Grove. Then he would take the Scalcucci brothers into custody. He declared he would “confiscate every still in the Upper Peninsula and destroy all bootleg liquor.”
“Washington has told me to use my own judgement in this affair,” he claimed. My judgement is to go up and clean hell out of that district or quit trying to enforce this law.”
“This is the acid test,” he proclaimed, “If we don’t beat these folks we may just as well pack up and resign.”
On Monday, February 23, 1920, the Chicago Tribune headlines shouted “Whisky Rebellion; U. S. Defied in Michigan.” An army of reporters arrived in the area before the authorities did. They quickly located McDonough who explained the following to them:
“The Scalcucci brothers, from whom the wine that caused the trouble was seized, are among the most prominent residents of the community. They are leaders in business organizations.
“We have a peculiar situation here on the peninsula.
“We have a large number of foreign workers here and we wish to keep them.
“These foreigners always have their grape presses and their homemade wine. They drink this in preference to water. They carry it to their work in their dinner pails and they won’t work without it.”
Conditions of panic were described in newspaper reports that reached Iron River leading its inhabitants to believe that armed troops would be sent to quell the falsely hyped insurrection. Reporters entering the village noticed that citizens had hung out towels, sheets, pillowcases, even petticoats – all white – to indicate their desire to surrender. Meanwhile, every man, women, child, and animal was being used to transport their stash of liquor up to caves located in the hills, mine shafts, tunnels, and underbrush to keep it from the invading authorities.
Members of the Chicago Tribune drove up into the hilly region surrounding the town where many Italian families lived. Stopping at homes located near the mines people ran out with their hands in the air thinking that the reporters were federal agents. “We want no trouble with the government,” one man yelled.
Another man came out and said, “Me no drink, me no fight the United States.” All the while he pointed to a Croix de Guerre on his ragged coat that he had won for bravery at the Meuse-Argonne during World War I.
Dalrymple arrived by train at Iron River on Tuesday night. Fearing open warfare based on the exaggerated media coverage, the United States Commissioner in Marquette, Michigan refused to grant a warrant for McDonough’s arrest. However, with much fanfare in front of the encircling news people, Dalrymple let them know that he would use his own judgement in deciding whether or not to arrest the violators. Dalrymple announced he was meeting with McDonough the following morning and, “This meeting will determine what action I will take in regard to him and his confederates.”
McDonough responded to the threats of Dalrymple in a meeting before the local American Legion:
“It was reported to me from Marquette today, that neither Major Dalrymple nor his deputies had asked the issuance of warrants against the persons involved in the fanciful rebellion to which the mind of Major Dalrymple gave birth. A report then came to me that Major Dalrymple proposed to come here and take these men without warrants. If he does, he and all his aids will be placed under arrest by the constituted authorities of this county. There is now in the hands of an officer of the law a warrant for Major Dalrymple’s arrest, charging he is responsible for the publication of false and malicious stories against me. The complaint on which this warrant is based was signed by me. In the event of his arrest he will be accorded more courtesy than he extended to me and the people of this state of Michigan, inasmuch as I desire him to suffer no indignity at my hands. But he will be given an opportunity to demonstrate the truth of the statements issued by our metropolitan newspapers – for which he is responsible.
Meanwhile, higher-ups in the Prohibition Department in Washington D.C. seemed to be back-pedaling. Commissioner John F. Kramer cautioned agents about “exceeding their authority.” He warned agents that when acting without local cooperation, they must first obtain warrants permitting searches of suspected premises.
At 10:00 a.m. Wednesday, February 25, Dalrymple and his force of 16 men, “armed with 600 rounds of ammunition,” went to the home of a local priest where some of the wine was being kept in a locked basement storage room. The barrels were removed, taken to a nearby ditch and then smashed open. He then told reporters he would not meet with McDonough to discuss the situation as he had planned.
By this time McDonough had already waited patiently for two hours for Dalrymple to come to his office. When McDonough received word of Dalrymple’s refusal to see him, he walked to the hotel where the major was having lunch. The lobby of the hotel was a busy hive of federal agents, state constabulary, and of course the media. As McDonough entered the room, there was a hushed tone followed by whispers of “that’s McDonough.” The prosecutor walked to the front desk and asked if Major Dalrymple was registered there. A clerk offered to get Dalrymple. McDonough retreated to the middle of the lobby. The newspaper reporters wrote that the law enforcement officers “were seen hitching their guns to better places of vantage.”
Soon Dalrymple appeared. He walked in from the dining room surrounded by four bodyguards. He stopped at the cigar stand, purchased a cigar, and lit it with a nervous hand. He then turned to meet McDonough face to face.
“My name is McDonough,” said the state’s attorney.
Dalrymple stared at his adversary for a moment, smiled, and stuck his hand out, McDonough reluctantly shook it. The newspaper’s recorded the confrontation as follows:
“I have come over here to issue you a warning to you, Mr. Dalrymple,” said McDonough.
“I have read in the papers about various things which you plan to do to quell the whisky revolt, as you call it. Now get this right – I will arrest you and your men and lock you up. Furthermore, if you or your men attempt to enter the homes of citizens here without due process of law, we likewise will arrest you at once, and lock you up, and put you where you belong, Mr. Dalrymple,” McDonough asserted.
The Major, red faced began to stutter, “I-I-I-th-think this is a high handed grandstand play.” His men moved closer towards him as though in protection.
“You are a natural born grandstander yourself,” McDonough responded, plainly angry. “You have been playing to the public press, and have said things without basis which have been an outrageous affront to this community. When you declare there has been a whisky revolt here, you lie. Now that you are here, if you have any business or warnings to give or arrests to make, just proceed with them. Start something. You haven’t scared or cowed any one here.”
Dalrymple responded, “ I do not care to discuss the matter with you. I will continue my course of action and will see it through. I will enforce the law.”
“You start something and I’ll see you through, Mr. Dalrymple – major,” McDonough declared, shaking his hand in the major’s face. “Now you have my position in this matter clearly in your mind, I hope, and I have nothing more to say about it.”
Unbelievably at this point, the news people asked the two to stand together to be photographed by both the newspaper photographers and the news reel movie people. While they were being told to stand still, the banter continued.
“More of your city ways,” said McDonough. “This picture taking – I’m not used to it.”
“You’re a better actor than I am,” Dalrymple retorted.
“Yes,” agreed the state’s attorney, “and you’ll discover that I am a bad actor. As for you, you are naturally a movie poser. As a matter of fact, Mr. Dalrymple, I don’t believe you have quite as much guts right now as when you got off the train last night and dropped into this peaceful village. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, when you look over our streets and our people; aren’t you ashamed of your statements that they were in rebellion against the United States government – a whisky rebellion?”
“I never said that,” Dalrymple declared.
“Press reports quoted your personal telegrams to your superior officers to that effect, Mr. Dalrymple,” said McDonough. If you did say it, it is a damned lie. My purpose is to protect the citizens of this community from actions which have no basis in law. I have no quarrel with the law, but you, Mr. Dalrymple, have gone to the newspapers with a lot of false statements against myself and this community, on reports from persons who obviously have exceeded their authority. That’s all I have to say. Good day, sir.”
Dalrymple, by this time his face almost purple, stormed back to his hotel room. When he was asked for a statement later, he disgustedly replied, “I’m through giving statements.”
By 1:15, both McDonough and Dalrymple had been informed that the assistant chief of prohibition enforcement was en route to Iron River from Washington. In addition, the district attorney of Grand Rapids and the assistant attorney general of Michigan were on their way. At 4 o’clock, Dalrymple announced that “he had important business in Washington, that he and all of his men would leave within an hour, and that he would issue no more statements to the newspapers.”
The Chicago Tribune chided Dalrymple’s efforts by reporting:
“The ‘army of invasion’ brought here by Major A. V. Dalrymple of Chicago to quell the ‘whisky revolt’ in northern Michigan has come – and gone. The major himself has gone; likewise the ‘600 rounds’ of ammunition he brought along.
And tonight the old ‘home brew’ is being dug up again from its hiding places in the hills.”
On February 28, the state of Michigan dropped its investigation into the Iron River “Whisky Rebellion.” Martin McDonough was hailed as a hero and received telegrams from all over the nation congratulating him on his triumph. One, from a committee of citizens in Chicago, stated “Mac, please come to Chicago and be our state’s attorney. You are one grand man.”
Copyright A. R. May 1999