The following is part of a special commemorative series called My Hometown. Although not required reading, you may want to read, Part I – The Man and His Clam, first. For that, Click this link:

My Hometown Part I – The Man and His Clam

Thank you, by clicking that link you just gave me another web page hit which will be important to my sponsors, when I find some.

Our story picks up during the waning days of the Great American Clam Rush. By the mid 1920s Runway models in far off places like New York, Paris & Waterloo/Cedar Falls would soon be modeling clothes made with the new trendy plastic button, rendering the made from a clam Muscatine Pearl Button obsolete.

As an aside, despite the lack of footnotes at the bottom of this report what you are about to read is a true story. I was known to skip my college journalism course, JO-181 How to Properly Attribute a Source. …Quite often, as it turned out.

BACKDROP
The 1920s had come to the Mississippi River town of Muscatine, Iowa. Industry was yet to meet the full brunt of its Depressional 1930s smackdown. Former Iowan Herbert Hoover was still just a lowly cabinet member in the Harding and Coolidge administrations. Only later would his Presidential body of work ruin for all time, the presidential aspirations of Iowans like Ray, Harkin and Vilsack. Perhaps also, those three losers suffered an allusion of grandeur that they felt they had actual name recognition with someone whose porch was not being pelted by Des Moines Register paperboys on slow moving banana seat bikes.

Prohibition was at play and had shut down my hometown’s two favorite watering holes, Casey’s Wooden Nickel Pile Saloon and the original Pete’s Original Tap. Not so secretly, there was one Speakeasy on Iowa Avenue between Second and Third Streets across from the future Stanley building. Today, locals know this place as Bootleggers, ironically not because of its Prohibition past, but more so because they ran out of names to call it after 18 previous owners and naming stints that included DC Arnolds, Mac’s on the Avenue, Ken Crabtree’s Sud Factory, Sgt Hammer’s Confiscated Spirits and my personal favorite Dr. Craig Paul’s Plus 21 Pub & Saturday Night Dance Emporium. 

The original Bootleggers of the 1920s offered more of the banjo and fiddle sound, and not so much of the jazz based flapper music that was commonplace in other spirited American locales. In fact the first known female to dance-step the Charleston in Muscatine did it to woo males into letting her cut in a 1930s soup line. …It worked by the way.

They Found What in a Ketchup Bottle?
In the mid 1920s JT Van Heck lived alone with his mother, the widow Mairebelle Van Heck. One morning he groggily proclaimed, “I will not set one more damned boot on that god forsaken Clamming Rig. Demaris can kiss my Ahrse!” Like most mornings in the summer of 1925, the widow Van Heck had just awakened her sleeping giant. Her baby boy, JT was all of 25, normally a gentle person by nature, on this morning he was particularly prickly, and angry at the world.

“I didn’t survive the Argonne taking machine-gun fire from the damn Huns to put up with this clam crap forever,” JT continued to complain to his mother.

JT was a veteran of the Great War, a Doughboy. After a troop raising assembly led by his high school principal, William Rettko, he signed up at the age of 17 in the year 1917. Before the year was out the second generation German immigrant would be fighting in the American First Army for General Pershing in France. A strange twist taking up arms against your parent’s homeland. Even more strange, a Hun himself, he had taken to name-calling other Huns. Perhaps that was an odd thing for the youngster to say to the Widow? Or maybe, it was an acceptable practice back in that day, just like today’s rap artists have the creative license to use the N word at will.

What had JT all hot and bothered? The day before his best friend Mattias Bartenhagen, a fellow worker for the Mitchell Demaris Pearl Button Company had just landed the job they had both interviewed for at the newly expanded HJ Heinz Ketchup factory. A third friend, Wilbur Surfurlong had worked for Heinz for the past 18 months and highly recommended they both try to get jobs at the plant.

Mattias had found a posting on Monster.com and with a fancy cover letter, resume, and several practice interviews he had outflanked JT for the job. While Mattias correctly answered in his interview when asked “What is your biggest weakness?” that he was sometimes too “detail oriented”, JT had mistakenly told the shift manager that his biggest weakness was, “Sometimes when I’m on the clam rig, I will forget which way the wind is blowing, and I will accidentally piss into the wind and soil my work pants!”

So it would be Mattias that would show up early for work that day, fill out HR forms and request business cards with his new title, Food QA Inspector. A fancy way of saying that he would start his career chucking rotten tomatoes in a horse drawn cart and hand tossing the good ones into a slow moving canal of bobbing tomatoes that meandered through a factory door where the voluptuous orange fruit would be crushed, squeezed, cooked, and slow dripped into a thick paste that would settle to the bottom of a Heinz ketchup bottle, a condiment to become a symbol for a nation. That same reddish thick sauce later to be found on Ray Kroc’s Big Mac and Dave Thomas’s Wendys Single, and when it is requested in fancy Parisian restaurants, it is a rather comical way for an American tourist to say screw you to their French waiter. In the Liebrandt house, one of the younger Liebrandts is nicknamed Ketchup Girl for her liberal and mutli-faceted food group usage of the red paste.

But the real reason that both Mattias and JT wanted the gig at Heinz was because of a discovery they had made the summer before. They had been out one night after closing down things at the Speakeasy, and it was a short walk back to their neighboring houses on Sycamore. Mostly in their nighttime stroll they just lamented how the Bill Killefer coached Cubs were destined to not win a pennant again this year, the fourteenth straight year.

But as JT claimed, “Aww shucks, at least this streak won’t last forever.”

To shorten their walk, they decided to cut a corner and walk through the open lot next to their friend, Wilbur Surfurlong’s house. Heavy with trees and brush, the open lot was a favorite hide-and-go-seek spot for chore-less neighboring school kids. Which is also the same thing as saying the lot was not used for hide-and-go-seek becasue no kid in the 1920s was without a day full of chores.

It was dark and with no street lights to find their way, JT tripped over a half buried crate.

“You are a sorry, clumsy Hun bastard, I thought you had recovered from your trench foot,” Mattias hazed JT.

“At least I fought, I didn’t pull a Cheney,” JT replied.

“Who’s Cheney?” Mattias might have said.

“Never mind, what is this thing that I just tripped on?” said JT.

They pried the lid off the crate and were surprised to find two dozen HJ Heinz ketchup bottles, filled and sealed, but with what?

“Who’s out there?” Their friend Wilbur Surfurlong was heard to yell out.

“It’s just us, Mattias and I,” JT responded back. “Just getting back from the Speakeasy.”

Wilbur approached his two former clam working buddies.

“Careful with those Ketchup bottles, you mongol-hun cross breeds!” the young Surfurlong chided his friends.

Wilbur was now the after hours security manager at Heinz, tonight was his night off. His work was a dull, boring, brainless kind of gig, but as JT and Mattias would soon learn he made the most of it.

His friends knew Wilbur was known to create different flavors of ketchup training himself on the plant equipment when he was alone at night in the plant. You couldn’t attend a church potluck, family picnic, or Great River Days party without Wilbur producing one of his personal ketchup creations.

And then it happened, one night Wilbur was mixing up a ketchupy witches brew of ingredients and playing around with different cooking temperatures. His concoction included the typical ketchup ingredients like corn, sugar, yeast and water, only he forgot to add that important ketchup staple, the tomato. Instead he mixed the yeast with the sugar in a quite accidental way that what turned out was one of the more delicious of spirts Wilbur had ever imbibed, a homemade moonshine with just a hint of tomato.. He did not know that using yeast to burn sugar created moonshine, and it turned out you couldn’t get all of the tomato residue out of the cooking vats.

Not sure what to do with his discovery, his mind started to race. He began filling Heinz Ketchup bottles with his special blend. Before his night had ended, he would put the bottles in cases in the back of his 1922 Model T Ford Truck. By the next month, Wilbur Surfurlong was producing 12 cases of tomato laced moonshine everynight. Soon his own house was filled to the rafters with the illegal nectar.

What Mattias and JT had stumbled upon on that summer night of 1924 was the beginnings of the Wilbur Surfurlong Moonshine business. Private parties and Speakeasies in ten adjacent counties would soon be drinking the special blend of moonshine served out of stolen Heinz Ketchup bottles.

Sadly for Wilbur Surfurlong, the demand for his special brew would end with the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. This was not before he had amassed a larger personal fortune and before he had put in his employ his two best friends, Mattias and JT.

The Muscatine Police formed an Untouchables like division to root out illegal alcohol, but had no Elliot Ness like detective mind. They never did get close to finding the makers of the tomato tinted cocktail. They would never connect the dots back to Wilbur Surfurlong and the nighttime moonshine production at the Heinz plant.

….Stay tuned, you won’t want to miss My Hometown Part III – Check Out Those Melons!

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