Facebook facts can be fun. In fact, one led me to my latest rabbit hole through Iowa history, specifically July 8th, 1936. We’ve all heard of, and seen, the fabled Butter Cow of the Iowa State Fair, but have you ever heard the tale of the Iowa Butter Gang? Well, grab your popcorn (heavily buttered for this one), because today we're diving into one of the creamiest crime sprees in Iowa history. This saga of butter thievery rose to fame during the Great Depression and due to some exceptionally daring dairy desperados!

Credit: Canva
Credit: Canva

The Cream of the Crop: Iowa's Dairy Industry

Back in the 1930s, Iowa was at the top of its game when it came to dairy. With countless creameries dotted across its rural landscape, the state produced high-quality butter that made its way to big markets like New York City, Chicago, and Omaha. Iowa butter was the real deal, a true "golden ticket" in the midst of economic despair.

A Crime That Spread Like Butter

It all started in the spring of 1936. As the Great Depression churned on, a group of thieves saw an opportunity to milk the situation for all it was worth. Dubbed the Iowa Butter Gang, these slick criminals orchestrated a series of heists that would leave creameries from Palmer to Oran feeling the burn.

Credit: Google Maps The Iowa area from Palmer to Oran.
Credit: Google Maps
The Iowa area from Palmer to Oran.

Spreading that Buttery-Wealth: The Heists

  • April 3, Palmer, 2,172 pounds
  • April 8, Fenton, 3,440 pounds
  • May 15, Fenton, 2,080 pounds
  • May 28, Edgewood, 630 pounds
  • June 4, Britt, 5,184 pounds
  • June 12, Kimballton, 4,000 pounds
  • June 20, Coulter, 4,095 pounds
  • June 30, Afton, 2,200 pounds
  • July 1, Hampton, 2,209 pounds
  • July 3, Hubbard, 7,488 pounds
  • July 8, Palmer, 3,553 pounds
  • July 11, Randall, 2,304 pounds
  • July 22, Afton, 2,764 pounds
  • July 30, Nashua, 1,500 pounds
  • July 31, Masonville, 2,228 pounds
  • August 3, Dumont, 1,100 pounds
  • August 3, Oran, 1,000 pounds

In total, more than 20 tons of butter were lifted from 17 different creameries between April and August of 1936. By mid-summer, these butter bandits had stolen over $15,000 worth of the creamy gold, that’s equivalent to over $330,000 today. 20 separate robberies occurred before just one suspect was arrested in connection to the creamery crime spree.

Credit: notesoniowa.com
Credit: notesoniowa.com

Smooth Operators

The gang’s operations were anything but amateur. They scouted their targets meticulously and executed their heists with precision. Using trucks and dry ice, they ensured their loot stayed fresh as they transported it to a central warehouse. From there it was sold through a 'fence' in cities like Chicago and Omaha.

Credit: notesoniowa.com
Credit: notesoniowa.com

Cops and Robbers, Cows and Crimes: The Big Break

For months, the Iowa State Patrol, local sheriffs, and even vigilantes were left chasing shadows. But in August 1936, the butter began to melt for our crafty criminals. Law enforcement finally nabbed an Omaha-based gang of six men and one woman. These slippery suspects were charged with 32 area robberies, having pilfered butter, cheese, and eggs worth about $30,000. That’s over $675,000 in today’s money! The arrested gang members included:

  • Harvey Mighell of Holstein (initially suspected and released on bond)
  • Byron Green
  • Five other unnamed male accomplices
  • One unnamed female accomplice

These arrests brought their buttery escapades to a halt. The gang was caught cream-handed with 70 tubs of butter, 66 of which had been stolen from a creamery in Wesley. All the cheese recovered was lifted from Ionia. In the end, law enforcement officials took the dairy products and sold them through legitimate channels to packers in Omaha.

Credit: Des Moines Tribune / notesoniowa.com
Credit: Des Moines Tribune / notesoniowa.com

The Final Spread: An Attempt to Re-Butter

Just when it seemed like the story was toast, one of the original gang members, Byron Green, tried to re-spread the butter banditry in 1941. Fresh out of prison, Green was caught red-handed breaking into the Masonville Creamery in Delaware County, Iowa. He attempted to ship 1,230 pounds of butter to a Chicago firm being used as a fence. His arrest was the final pat of butter, ending the saga of the Iowa Butter Gang.

Credit: Mason City Globe-Gazette
Credit: Mason City Globe-Gazette

Churning Through History

The tale of the Iowa Butter Gang is a savory blend of desperation and daring, a reminder that even during the darkest times, there’s usually an interesting story ready to melt your mind—or on your toast in this case. So, next time you spread a little butter, think back to those days when butter was worth its weight in gold, and a gang of Midwest thieves nearly creamed the industry in Iowa.

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