Where & how legalized gambling in Iowa was launched back in 1971


In this spring of 2014, our Greene County in west central Iowa is asking the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission to grant a license so that Wild Rose Entertainment can develop a casino, hotel and conference center to serve the area around Jefferson.  As we’ve learned how big, profitable and philanthropic the gambling industry now is in the state, our columnist recalled a stop he made in 2001 in the little place in northeast Iowa where, in 1971, the new era of gambling was launched.  It’s quite a story, and remember, it was written 13 years ago.

NORTH BUENA VISTA, Iowa, August 26, 2001 — In the past two weeks, the unclaimed “Powerball” jackpot soared to $100 million. Then $200 million. It was nearly $300 million by the time of Saturday night’s drawing.

In the midst of the lottery frenzy that has had everyone running to convenience stores to buy the $1 chances, Carla and I found ourselves driving north of Dubuque in northeast Iowa on our way to see Effigy Mounds National Monument. And right in our path on the Great River Road, we encountered North Buena Vista, a town of 150.

“Bingo!” I yelled. “I’m buying a Powerball ticket right here!”

Much to my surprise, I learned you cannot buy a Powerball ticket, or any other kind of state lottery ticket, in North Buena Vista.

“That fact,” I said, “is news!”

Carla rolled her eyes, obviously having forgotten, as most people have, the special place in Iowa history held by little “Buenie,” as the locals call their town.

A SUNDAY NIGHT RAID.  On the Sunday night of Labor Day weekend 30 years ago, two agents of the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation drove into town as the annual “Buenie Picnic” held as a benefit by the local Immaculate Conception Catholic Church was winding up its day of frivolity and fund raising.

The agents confiscated an illegal “wheel of fortune” gambling device, bingo equipment, five decks of cards, a dice table and they noticed how beer was being served illegally. The next day, parish priest Rev. Carl Ruhland was formally charged with “running a gambling house.”

The agents, who expressed regret about having to make the raid, were well aware that the Buenie Picnic was a 40-year-old tradition that typically attracted 8,000 or more people in one day, raising as much as $65,000 to help support the Catholic elementary school in nearby Guttenberg.

But they’d been ordered into North Buena Vista by Iowa’s colorful Attorney General, Richard C. Turner. He had apparently been challenged by a Des Moines Register reporter, who was asking what Turner was going to be doing about the illegal gambling and drinking the Register reported was happening at the church picnic.

Robert Ludovissy, 64, now the mayor of North Buena Vista, recalled last week that the local people later heard that state agents were first sent into the north part of Buena Vista County, nearly 300 miles away in northwest Iowa. Then the authorities realized the picnic was happening in a little town named North Buena Vista that none of them had ever heard of.

Two weeks after the raid, Father Ruhland pleaded guilty to the charge in Clayton County District Court in Elkader and paid a $100 fine.

Enroute to Elkader that day, parishioners and other supporters formed a caravan of cars behind Father Ruhland’s car, which was topped with a big sign that said “Come to Buenie for Fun.” They packed the courthouse, the Register reported. They roared when, immediately after the legal proceedings. Father Ruhland stood up in front of the judge and yelled, “There will be free coffee for everyone at Angie’s,” a popular Elkader restaurant then.

A HUGE IMPACT ON THE STATE.  The future of Iowa was changed dramatically after what happened in North Buena Vista.

The idea of state agents raiding church picnics and charging priests was an outrage to most Iowans. Legislators had already began receiving pressure that the time had come to liberalize Iowa’s “blue laws,” which prohibited gambling anytime, beer and liquor sales on Sunday and other things we now take for granted.

After the Buenie raid, the Iowa Legislature in 1972 passed a joint resolution calling for a public vote to repeal the Constitutional ban on gambling. That repeal vote came in the 1972 general election, and in 1973, the Legislature legalized bingo, raffles and other low-stakes games of chance.

That opened the door. Three decades later, Iowa’s gambling industry has now grown to include 10 casino boats, three race tracks with pari-mutuel wagering, three Native American casinos and ubiquitous slot machines, as well as the Iowa Lottery “scratch ticket” games and the national Powerball game which is headquartered in Des Moines. Gaming receipts for the state government are nearing $200 million per year. Thousands of people are employed at the casinos and tracks. Gambling attracts millions of tourists to Iowa. Addiction treatment programs have sprung up.

Yes, the gambling industry is huge.

Many older Iowans are embarrassed today when they see the reports that there are more forms of gambling in Iowa than there are in Nevada, with Las Vegas, and New Jersey, with Atlantic City.

It was bound to start somewhere. And little North Buena Vista happened to be the place.

Why? How?

OH, THOSE REPORTERS!  “That son of a B turned us in, that’s how,” Father Ruhland, who is now 82 and retired in Dubuque, said with a laugh last week – and “son of a B” was the exact term he used.

He was talking about Veryl “Sandy” Sanderson, who is now 56, a former reporter for the Des Moines Register who is now managing editor of the weekly Press Citizen newspaper in Ankeny, just north of Des Moines.

Actually, Sanderson didn’t turn anybody in. He just wrote a story describing what was going on in front of him at the Buenie Picnic on Sunday, Sept. 5, 1971. Here is the top of his story, as it ran on page one of the Register the next morning, Labor Day:

“NORTH BUENA VISTA, IA. – Beer sales and gambling were included in the activities Sunday at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church’s annual parish picnic here.

“A plastic cup of beer sold for 25 cents.

“Plays on the games of chance costs from 25 cents to $2 a bet.

“Iowa law forbids the sale of beer on Sundays and forbids gambling at any time.

“However, the gamblers, who ranged from elderly grandmothers to teen-agers, and the beer drinkers did not seem to mind.”

What made Sanderson decide to go cover the Buenie Picnic on the Sunday of a holiday weekend?

“A Register photographer named Maury Horner and I had been to Wisconsin the week before the picnic on a story,” Sanderson recalled. “As we drove back to Des Moines, we decided to stop in Dubuque for a beer, and the guys in the bar were asking us if we were going to come back up on Sunday for this ‘Buenie Picnic.’ They said it was a great time – all kinds of beer and gambling in this tiny little town tucked away up on the Mississippi River north of Dubuque. I said something about, ‘That does sound like a good story, maybe we will.’

“As we drove on home, Maury said, ‘You know, Sandy, I’m not sure covering that story would be such a good idea. It sounds like it has trouble written all over it.’ He turned out to be right about that.”

SLIPPING INTO “BUENIE” FOR A STORY.  But Sanderson told his bosses at the Register about the big, wide-open picnic, and they thought it sounded like something that should be covered, too. So on that Sunday, Sanderson and photographer Larry Neibergall flew to Dubuque in a chartered airplane, arranged to borrow a car and drove to North Buena Vista.

The town sits in a deep valley in the bluffs right along the river. There were hundreds of cars already there by the time the Register duo flew over about 10:30 a.m., capturing the scene in an aerial photo. More people were arriving on their small boats at the local marina, then being hauled up the hill into town in a pick-up truck that had been dubbed on its sign, “Tijuana Taxi.”

“The town was teeming with people by the time we got there,” Sanderson said. “There was so much traffic they had deputy sheriffs out there directing traffic. They had great meals – I still remember how good the food was – and they had all kinds of drinking and gambling going on.”

He said he and Neibergall never identified themselves as being from the Register. Instead, they just observed what was happening and Neibergall shot photos as discreetly as he could. They left for Dubuque by 3 p.m.

“I quickly wrote up my story and I dictated it by phone back to the Register from the Dubuque airport,” Sanderson said. “Then we flew back to Des Moines so Larry could get his film processed and the photos ready for the paper.”

So, Sanderson’s story was written and published with no mention of the raid, or the arrest of the priest, which, remember, happened at 10:15 p.m. that Sunday night.

“I had no idea that happened,” Sanderson said. “When we got back to Des Moines, I probably checked with the Register to make sure my story was O.K., and then went home. I was headed back out of town the next day to go to New Orleans on a story, so I wanted to see my family and get some sleep.”

SO, WHAT WAS THE STATE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?  He now says that sometime late that Sunday afternoon or evening, another Register reporter read the draft of his story about the Buenie Picnic as it was being edited and prepared for the newspaper. Sanderson recalls that reporter being Michael Sorkin, who seeing mention of the illegal gambling and drinking, decided to pursue it a bit further.

“Sorkin called (Attorney General Richard) Turner,” Sanderson said. “He asked Turner what he was going to do about it.”

There was no mention of any call to Turner, or reaction from him, in Sanderson’s Monday story. However, in the Tuesday Register, Sorkin authored a page one story about the raid under a bold, banner headline across the top of the page: “CHARGE PRIEST IN GAMBLING.” It told the story about the two BCI agents going into North Buena Vista late Sunday night and confiscating the gambling equipment. Father Ruhland was formally charged the next morning in a “county attorney’s information” filed before a district court judge. No bond was required, as the judge released the priest on his own recognizance.

Sorkin is now an investigative reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he’s worked for the past 20 years. After he left the Register, he was hired to be an investigator in Attorney General Turner’s office, then later returned to newspapering in St. Louis.

I probed Sorkin’s memory last week about the North Buena Vista story, and whether he made the call to Turner on that long ago evening. But after hearing some details of the story, Sorkin said, “I have no recollection of that. It’s just not ringing any bells.” He couldn’t recall writing the second-day story that wound up with the banner headline, either.

Well, it has been 30 years ago.

Sanderson remembered that in the year after the raid, Turner “proceeded to close down all the gambling in the state – all the country club calcuttas, all the gambling at the county fairs.”

And that led to increasing pressure on legislators to change the Iowa laws.

INVITED BACK TO “BUENIE” AS SPECIAL GUESTS.  When it came time for the 1972 Buenie Picnic, Sanderson recalled, the local folks invited both he and Turner to attend as special guests. They did, making the trip separately.

“They had big signs up that day saying, ‘Buenie Picnic – Turner-Sanderson Style’,” Sanderson said. “There was no beer, no gambling, it was pretty subdued. They were not happy campers. Turner had quite an entourage of people with him, so when he left, I decided I better get out of town, too, because a bunch of those good ol’ boys were looking me over like they might do something. I wasn’t real popular there, of course.”

Turner served as attorney general until the end of 1978, went into private practice for a year and then was named U.S. Attorney in Des Moines. He served there about five years before his death in the middle 1980s.

Sanderson remembers that he received so many angry phone calls at his residence after the big story broke “that I had to get an unlisted phone number.”

Like most other Iowans, he is amazed at how big the gambling industry has become in Iowa, and that a long-ago story that he wrote helped launch it.

“I happen to like casinos as entertainment,” he said, “but I didn’t go into that story with the thought that it would lead to gambling being legalized, or anything like that. It just seemed like an interesting story to me, that we had all this illegal gambling going on that was being ignored by law enforcement because it was at church picnics. North Buenie just happened to be the one I heard about.

“That did teach me a real lesson about journalism. From little things like a story about a church picnic, the repercussions can be unforeseen. You have to be responsible and conscious of what can happen from your work.”

Sanderson is reflecting on his experience in North Buena Vista in his column in this Tuesday’s Ankeny Press Citizen.

NOW FOLKS CAN LAUGH ABOUT IT, SORT OF.  The retired Father Ruhland laughed frequently as he re-told his version of the story.

“Yes, I laugh at it,” he said. “That’s the best way to look at it. I have a clear conscience about it. I never felt like I did anything very seriously wrong. I gave people a little something to drink on a Sunday and let them gamble a little, and a lot of good came from the money. I could say to my good Lord, ‘I didn’t do anything against the Ten Commandments, and nobody got hurt.’ ”

He said when he was assigned to Immaculate Conception at North Buena Vista, “I was sent out there by the bishop to do something about the children’s schooling. There was no school there, and we were sending them to St. Mary’s in Guttenberg. We had to buy a bus, and the state wasn’t doing a damned thing about helping parochial school kids then. We had to raise money.”

He said the Buenie Picnic had been going on for years before he got involved. Church records indicate the first one was held in 1929.

“They were used to having a picnic,” he said. “I just helped them build it bigger and bigger.”

He said the two BCI agents who conducted the raid, “didn’t really want to be there. One of them later called me and said he felt bad about what they had to do and wanted to take me out to dinner. I said, ‘The hell you do!’ ”

This week the church and town prepare for another “Buenie Family Picnic,” as the events are called now.

It will begin on Sunday, Sept. 2, with the traditional Polka Mass at 10:30 a.m., feature the same great chicken and ham dinners as usual, and feature quilts, handcrafts, canned and baked goods. It will end in the early evening with the drawings for 160 prizes donated for the church raffle. It is expected to draw up to 3,000 people, and will probably raise about $30,000 – both numbers less than half what they were 20 to 30 years ago.

THEN AND NOW.  “Those times were then, and these times are now,” said Mayor Ludovissy. “Things were different then. People back then were really oriented to work and work and work for your church. Nobody wants to work that hard and that long anymore. When you think back on those times when the picnic would raise $60,000 or more, when you think about that, to accumulate that much money in one day in a little place like this was almost like a miracle.”

The huge crowds kept coming through the 1970s and ’80s. Beer was sold – with a license – in those years. There was limited, low-stakes, legal gambling. There was the great food.

But after two, post-picnic vehicle accidents in the late 1980s resulted in dram shop settlements by the picnic’s insurance carrier, the costs of the essential insurance became too high, Ludovissy said. Beer sales ended after the 1988 picnic, when Ludovissy recalls “we poured beer from 13 spigots and sold 248 kegs.”

Buenie residents now have to drive to Guttenberg or Dubuque to buy their lottery tickets.

Lucille Ludovissy, 62, the mayor’s wife and partner in their Someplace Else Bar and Grill, said she sometimes wonders “why’d we ever get raided in Buenie? Think about it. Now there’s gambling everywhere.”

She said that since the Buenie Picnic has tamed down, the town is now most famous for three things – “our cemetery up on the top of the bluff, my bloody marys and my stuffed shrimp dinners.”

So, if you want to go to next weekend’s picnic and gamble, just for old times’ sake, what are your options?

“We’ll have a bingo game – and, yes, we do have a license for it,” said Patty Errthum, whose husband Marvin is in charge of the organizing committee. “We probably wouldn’t even do that except that some of the older ladies like to play. And we’ll have a ‘Candy Wheel,’ where a winning number will get you a piece of candy, although I don’t know if that is even really gambling.”

There is the parish raffle, for which $1 chances are being sold in advance, with prizes ranging from handmade quilts, oil for your car, meals at area restaurants and small amounts of cash.

When I heard about the raffle, I bought five tickets – four in my name so that if I win I can go back and eat Lucille Ludovissy’s stuffed shrimp. The other one, just for fun, I put in the name of Veryl “Sandy” Sanderson, the reporter who gave North Buena Vista its place in Iowa history.

You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.



2 thoughts on “Where & how legalized gambling in Iowa was launched back in 1971

    • Hi Jim, I wish I had the answer on how people can sign up to receive notices of our new posts on Offenburger.com. We offered that service to readers earlier, but we somehow lost that feature along the way. Yet, we do have 106 readers who somehow are signed up and do receive notices! So, we’re working on how to re-activate that service. When we are ready to go with that, we will alert everybody that “free subscriptions” are now being encouraged; if you sign up with us, then you’ll receive an email notice that we have posted a new story and we will give you a direct link to it. I hope to have that plan in action early in 2024. –Chuck Offenburger

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