Moonshine – Blue Ridge Style

//Moonshine – Blue Ridge Style
Moonshine – Blue Ridge Style2018-07-16T18:54:36+00:00

Moonshine – Blue Ridge Style

The History and Culture of Untaxed Liquor in the Mountains of Virginia

Produced by the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum of Ferrum College with funding and support from John Redd Smith, Jr., Martinsville, Virginia, and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

“Some people believe that everything in moonshining boils down to the almighty dollar and who is going to get it – the government or the moonshiner. Some question which is the greedier of the two.”
-Sara Quinn Hambrick in The Quinn Clan, 1993

An Introductory Taste

Sign for the F. DeHart Distilling Company.
Patrick County, Virginia, circa 1900.

Over the years hundreds of travel articles and books have been written about the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Many of those offhandedly refer to the region’s history of moonshining–the production and sale of untaxed liquor–without giving any sense of the reality of the illegal liquor-making industry. The image of the moonshiner put forth by pop culture and the mass media makes good press regardless of its accuracy. (The Blue Ridge Institute & Museum itself is located in a county where one of the bestselling t-shirts depicts stereotypical jug-toting hillbillies under the banner “Moonshine Capital of the World.”) Not surprisingly, the public’s understanding of moonshining is more myth than fact, and few people grasp the scope of the Blue Ridge moonshining industry over the last 150 years. Most moonshiners would not so boldly pose for a photographer while putting whiskey in jars at

Most moonshiners would not so boldly pose for a photographer while putting whiskey in jars at their still. Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1970s.

The Blue Ridge moonshining trade has changed significantly in the last century. Far fewer people are involved in it now, though today’s bootlegger is able to distill more alcohol with less work than his counterpart of the early 1900s. Modern moonshine is made with vast quantities of sugar and relatively little grain. Contemporary bootleggers have little or no experience with the apple or peach brandy so common in the late 1800s. Stills are now often hidden under roof rather than in fields or mountain hollows. Today’s moonshine buyer is far more likely to live in a major eastern city than in the small southern mill towns and coal camps of the past. Even so, the old-time mystique of the Blue Ridge moonshiner prevails.

Old Spirits in a New World

Like all still sites, Joel Quinn’s is a jumble of equipment. Franklin County, Virginia, circa 1930.

Man learned to make alcoholic beverages several thousand years ago, but the first such drinks were fermented without heat. Distilling–the technique of boiling a fermented “mash” and then cooling the alcohol-laden steam back into a liquid–was practiced in Asia at least 1,000 years before the birth of Christ. By 500 B. C. the Greeks were using stills. Distilling know-how spread throughout Europe long before Columbus saw the New World. By 1620, just 13 years after the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia colonists were distilling corn on the James River.

Before the era of the automobile, the horse and wagon were essential to moonshining. Franklin County, circa 1905.

The English, Germans, and Scots-Irish who settled the western Virginia backcountry in the 1700s all brought with them traditions of turning fruit into brandy and grains into whiskey. In addition their farming techniques, foodways, social customs, medical beliefs, business talents, and attitudes toward government affected the making and use of alcohol. These beliefs and customs were already well in place when the United States government set its first tax on alcohol in order to help pay the costs of the Revolutionary War.

From the time of early settlement to the industrial boom of the late 1800s, small farm and community distilleries were a natural marriage to the agricultural character of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Roads were rough in rural areas, and farmers often faced difficulties getting crops to market in a timely manner. Ripe fruit was especially apt to spoil in transit. Thus distilling was one way to condense and preserve grains and fruits.

Curiously the photographer set out a display of his work to the left of this turnip still operation. The cow is presumably eating “slop,” the leftover mash that was sometimes fed to livestock. Franklin or Floyd Counties, Virginia, circa 1910.

Using a copper turnip-type still and wooden barrels for mixing mash and storing whiskey, a farmer could produce enough liquor to meet family and local community needs. Three bushels of dried corn or seven bushels of apples could be distilled into about two gallons of alcohol. The whiskey had a higher cash value and took up less space than the raw ingredients. The “slop” left in the still after the distilling process could be fed to livestock. (Old-timers talk of Blue Ridge farmers selling their corn to moonshiners and then buying back the post-distillation slop at a lower cost for hog feed.) Middle- and upper-class farmsteads of the pre-Civil War era sometimes featured dedicated stillhouses. Even George Washington made liquor commercially at Mount Vernon.

Turning Distillers into Moonshiners

Before he opened the Roanoke, Virginia, liquor store pictured here, Burger B. Dillard owned the Opera House Saloon in nearby Rocky Mount. He sold the bar in 1903 to Turner Rakes, and that branch of the Rakes family built the dominant legal alcohol business in Franklin County. Roanoke, circa early 1900s.

This whiskey label from the F. DeHart Distilling Company mentions purity three times and further reinforces the message with a waterfall image. Franklin County, Virginia, circa 1900.

The difference between a legal distiller and a moonshiner is basic: The moonshiner chooses not to license his distilling operation or pay taxes on his whiskey. The British and Scottish began taxing whiskey in the mid-1600s, and by 1700 the British were calling brandy smugglers on the coast of England “moonlighters.” In the Virginia Blue Ridge the illegal distiller came to called a “moonshiner” or a “bootlegger.”

In the early 1900s Roanoke was a young rapidly growing city, and the Casper Company was one of several legal alcohol producers serving the area. Roanoke, Virginia, circa 1900.

The United States collected an excise tax on alcohol from 1791 to 1802 and then again from 1813 to 1817. Alcohol went untaxed for the next 45 years, but in the midst of the Civil War, Congress again passed a whiskey tax. By 1865 the tax was two dollars per gallon, up to 12 times the actual cost of making a gallon of liquor.

Though some people avoided taxes by running illegal stills, by the 1880s dozens of Blue Ridge distillers were operating under state licenses. With improved roads and railroads, alcohol could be shipped from the Blue Ridge to coal camps, factory towns, and larger cities. In 1893-94 Franklin County alone had 77 legal distilleries. Most of these were producing brandy from apples or peaches under three-month licenses after the fruit harvest.

As the 1800s drew to a close, the national stance against alcohol was gaining ground. Around the turn of the century, laws were passed making it illegal to run a distillery in a rural area, and through the early 1900s, one by one, Virginia counties banned the sale and production of alcohol. When North Carolina outlawed the making (though not the selling) of whiskey, some Carolina distilleries moved into Virginia. By 1909 most of Virginia and about half of the Blue Ridge was “dry.” Licensed distilleries were forced to close. In 1914 the Commonwealth voted to ban alcohol statewide. (The Blue Ridge county of Franklin consistently voted against the ban.) Prohibition was enforced nationwide in 1920, and not surprisingly in hindsight, the market for moonshine, which had been growing steadily over the years, exploded.

Numerous Virginia Blue Ridge distilleries, such as Patrick County’s F. DeHart Distillery, operated under legal licenses in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Money, of course, has always driven the Blue Ridge moonshining industry. Over the past century some people made fortunes in the trade. The big earners were the men providing the operating money and supplies for large operations. In the southern Virginia Blue Ridge local history tells of a few such bootleggers having tens of thousands of dollars in cash in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s. One wealthy Franklin County moonshiner bought an airplane so his son could fly over and see if their still sites were well hidden from the air.

Today a gallon of moonshine costs just over half the retail price of a gallon of the cheapest legal whiskey sold in Virginia’s state-run liquor stores. Obviously there is still money to made in dodging the tax.

In 1916, Patrick County distiller J. H. de-Hart warned Virginia customers to stock up on liquor before the Prohibition laws went into effect.

Still Types and Techniques

Moonshining has often been a family operation with skills passed from one generation to another. The Ingram family proudly posed with their turnip still as liquor ran out of the condenser. Franklin County, Virginia, 1929.

When the cap of foam has disappeared, mash is ready to distill. The moonshiner can tell how far along the fermentation process has gone by feeling the foam or “breaking up the cap.” Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1970s.

The Turnip Still

Named for its squatty turnip-shaped boiler (often called the “pot”), the turnip still dates back centuries. In the Blue Ridge it was used into the 1930s, but few, if any, area bootleggers today have ever seen a turnip still in operation. American turnip boilers were traditionally made of copper sheets hammered into shape and riveted and soldered together. Making such boilers, the caps, and the coiled copper “worm” condensers in the old styles calls for skilled metalwork.

In producing whiskey with a turnip still, mash barrels or wooden boxes are filled with some recipe of ground grain (such as corn, rye, or wheat), water, barley malt (or ground sprouted corn), yeast, and/or sugar. During fermentation of the mash, bacteria eat sugar and excrete alcohol. Depending upon the outside temperature and the amount of yeast and sugar added, the fermentation process in the barrels takes three or four days or more. Corn mash in cool weather may take up to two weeks to ferment.

Joel Quinn and his family posed at their mountain still site during the Depression. The turnip-style boiler sits directly behind the mash barrel in the foreground. The flake stand, the box on the right, is filled with water and holds the copper worm in which the alcohol condenses. Franklin County, Virginia, circa 1930.

A foam, called the “cap,” forms during fermentation. When the cap disappears, the remaining sour mixture, called “beer,” measures between 6% and 12% alcohol. (This concoction is quite different from store-bought beer, but some people do drink it.) The beer is poured into the turnip-shaped “pot,” and the distiller starts his fire.

The mash is stirred while it heats. When the temperature approaches the boiling point of alcohol (173°F), the metal top to the still, also called the “cap,” is secured onto the pot. A constant cooking temperature is vital. If the fire is too hot, the mash may scorch, or it may “puke” into the cap and run into the worm.

Alcohol-laden steam condenses in the water-cooled worm and flows into a bucket from the “money piece.” Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, circa 1960s.

The coiled copper worm sits in the “flake stand,” a box of cool water. The steaming alcohol vapors move from the boiler, through the cap, and into the worm. The vapors then condense back into liquid form and trickle out the “money piece,” the end of the worm sticking out the bottom of the flake stand. The moonshine is caught in a jar, jug, or bucket.

The alcohol from a first “run” through the still is a rough-tasting product called “singlings.” A second run of the singlings mellows the taste. The moonshiner then “proofs” his whiskey, mixing weak and strong liquor to get the desired strength. To remove any impurities, the whiskey is poured through hardwood ashes or a felt filter.

When run in the blackpot style, the large submarine still eliminates the need for mash barrels or boxes. Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, circa 1960s.

The Blackpot Submarine Still
The submarine-type still was in use by the 1920s, and in a few years it became the moonshiner’s favorite. Nailed together from boards and sheets of metal (usually galvanized steel, but sometimes copper or stainless steel), the submarine still is easily made. A large submarine pot (or “boiler”) can hold 800 or more gallons of mash, far more than a turnip still. The general principle of distilling–boiling fermented mash to release the alcohol in steam form and then cooling the steam back into a liquid–is the same for the submarine still as it is for the turnip still.

However, in operating a submarine still in the modern “blackpot” method, the moonshiner mixes the ingredients for the mash directly in the boiler. A typical mash recipe for an 800-gallon blackpot still includes 50 pounds of rye meal, 50 pounds of barley meal, 800 pounds of sugar, and water. Two 80-pound sacks of wheat bran are poured on top of the mixture to hold in the heat of fermentation.

The operators of this small submarine still placed a rock on top of the cap to keep the steam from pushing off the cap and escaping. If a cap blows off or a boiler bursts, nearby still hands can be scalded by the steam and flying mash. Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, circa 1960s.

After the mash has fermented into “beer,” the bootlegger heats the boiler, usually with gas or oil burners, and stirs the mash. When the mash approaches distillation temperature, the cap is secured atop the boiler with a chain, wire, or weight. The alcohol vapors travel from the boiler through the cap and into a “doubler” (also called a “thumper”), a barrel which has been filled with weak whiskey or mash beer. The alcohol vapors from the boiler heat the beer in the doubler. Thus the alcohol originally contained in the still goes through a second distillation, smoothing the taste of the liquor and saving the moonshiner the time and labor of running “singlings” through the still again. From the doubler the alcohol vapor runs into the traditional water-cooled worm, condenses, and flows as a liquid out the money piece. (In rare instances well-cleaned car radiators have served as condensers rather than worms.)

Once the blackpot still has been run once, more sugar is added to the mash that is leftover in the boiler, and the entire process begins again. The quality of the whiskey goes down with each run. Old-timers say six or seven runs is the limit of getting acceptable liquor out of one batch of mash.

Submarine stills operated in the blackpot technique efficiently produce large quantities of low-quality whiskey. The sugar added to the mash recipe hastens the fermentation and produces a higher alcohol content, and the moonshiner gets more whiskey for his efforts. Blackpot stills reflect the modern bootlegger’s emphasis on high output.

Steam boilers could be built taller than either turnip or submarine stills because the mash in a steam outfit would not scorch. Patrick County, Virginia, circa 1900.

The Steam Still
Though never as common as the turnip and submarine stills, the steam still has also been used by Blue Ridge moonshiners. Steam stills come in varying designs, but the idea is the same in each. A boiler containing water is heated, and the resulting steam is either released directly into fermented mash or is piped through the mash. The mash boils, and the alcohol vapors pass into a water-cooled worm (or a thumper keg and then a worm).

One important advantage of a steam outfit is that the mash never scorches. The flame is under the water boiler, not the pot containing the mash, and the temperature of the steam is constant. Stirring the mash is unnecessary. Steam stills also work much faster than the other still types.

Some moonshine drinkers say liquor made in a steam still has a superior taste. Here revenue agents are destroying the worm and flake stand in a steam outfit. When running the still, the moonshiners boiled water in the horizontal boiler (far left), forcing steam through two pipes into the mash-filled “pot” (center left). Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, 1982.

A 1980s Mash Recipe for Corn Liquor

These ingredients are for one 55-gallon mash barrel. (Most moonshiners use a 48”x48”x32” wooden mash box, and recipe amounts are adjusted accordingly.)

Moonshiners judge the strength of alcohol by the bead of bubbles that forms after the liquor is shaken.

  • 50 lbs. of plain white cornmeal. (The meal should not be self-rising, and it should be ground slowly at the mill so the meal does not get too hot.)
  • 25 lbs. of rye meal.
  • 12.5 lbs. of ground barley malt.
  • 25 lbs. of sugar. (The sugar is only used if the weather is too hot.)
  • 2 packages of yeast.

Heat 18 gallons of water to 172 degrees and pour into the barrel. Add the corn meal to the water and mix until fine–no lumps. Add the rye meal and mix until fine. Let mixture sit for 1.5 hours. Transfer a few gallons of the mixture into a separate bucket and stir in 11 lbs. of malt. Mix well and pour back into the barrel. Again mix well.

Sprinkle 1.5 lbs of malt on the top surface of the barrel mixture and let sit for 45 minutes. When the malt on the surface cracks, begin stirring the mash, working gradually to the bottom of the barrel. Stir until the temperature of the mash drops to the point you can stir with your bare hand. Fill the remainder of the barrel with water, keeping the mash between 85 and 90 degrees. (If the weather is too hot, add the sugar to keep the mash temperature in the proper range.)

Put a small amount of mash in a separate bucket and mix in two packages of yeast. When the mixture begins foaming up, pour it back into the mash barrel. Stir well and cover, but not tightly. In about three hours the entire barrel will be fermenting. In about three days the mash will be ready to distill.

Building the Moonshine Industry

Historically the thickets of the Blue Ridge Mountains were ideal for hiding small still operations. Patrick County, Virginia, 1912.

The building of an illegal industry that could reach customers as far away as New York and Philadelphia took nearly a century, and it began in earnest in the late 1800s. The business involved a host of players–farmers, sugar and grain suppliers, container suppliers, still hands, still owners, liquor haulers, financial partners, law enforcement agents, and “retail” whiskey sellers. Their individual roles changed as moonshining itself changed.

From the late 1800s to Prohibition (1920), moonshining centered around wood-fired turnip stills making apple brandy or corn whiskey. The bootlegger typically set up in a secluded wooded area beside a stream or spring. He bought grain from local mills and fruit from local orchards.

After a distilling run, moonshiners using the large submarine stills take their caps and worms with them in case the still site is discovered. Patrick County, circa 1970s.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, liquor was hauled by wagon to its market destination or a railroad stop. (Oral history in Franklin County tells of individuals making day trips by train to Roanoke with suitcases filled with jars of whiskey.) By the time Virginia voted to become a dry state (1914), moonshiners were using cars and trucks to deliver their whiskey. In that era the primary markets were regional industrial towns and cities–Danville, Lynchburg, Roanoke, etc.–and coal camps in Virginia and West Virginia.

Around World War I, Blue Ridge moonshining saw the rise of the large submarine-type still. More gallons of whiskey could be made with one still, and the bootlegger could increase his output dramatically. By the time Prohibition ended (1933), moonshining was a dynamic economic force in the southern Virginia mountains, and its vitality did not lag with the reintroduction of legal alcohol sales.

Barrels and casks were hardly suitable for hauling liquor in cars, and Blue Ridge moonshiners switched to five-gallon cans. Glass jars then replaced the cans during the metal rationing of World War II. Today the jar remains the icon of the moonshine trade even though since the 1970s most moonshine has been transported in plastic jugs. Patrick County, Virginia, circa 1970s.

When World War II rationing made sugar difficult to obtain, bootleggers distilled with molasses and more grain. At the same time they packaged their whiskey in glass jars instead of metal cans, turning the canning jar into the symbol of the trade. “Nip joints”–stores, houses, and bars where people could buy untaxed liquor by the glass, jar, or jug–were numerous in some Blue Ridge communities, but the real market remained in factory towns. Nevertheless, the nation was changing, and so too would the work of the moonshiner and the revenue agent charged with catching him.

In the 1970s the blackpot tradition took over Blue Ridge moonshining. The bootlegger saw that the big money was in producing sugar liquor, alcohol made by repeatedly adding pure sugar to leftover mash. Blackpot sites often had several submarine pots going at once, some filled with fermenting sugar and mash, others being heated. Revenuers had begun using airplanes to spot still sites in the 1950s, but having switched to oil or propane burners, the bootlegger could set up his operation under roof or even underground. In 1993 Pittsylvania County agents found Virginia’s largest blackpot site–36 800-gallon stills–inside a building.

According to old-timers today, the quality of liquor was abandoned for quantity with the introduction of blackpot distilling techniques. The bootlegger’s current market, however, is no longer the southern factory town, and contemporary moonshine customers apparently do not care too much about taste. Today’s blackpot sugar liquor goes to low-income neighborhoods in large urban areas such as Tidewater Virginia, Philadelphia, New York, and the District of Columbia.

By necessity, the largest blackpot still operations have had something of an assembly-line orderliness. This site included 24 800-gallon submarine stills. Each row of 12 pots had two caps, two thumpers, and two condensers. Franklin County, Virginia, circa 1972.

The Cat and the Mouse

A simple way to render a still useless is to cut holes in the sheet metal with an ax. Revenue Agent V. K. Stoneman watches as a moonshiner reluctantly destroys his own submarine still. Franklin County, Virginia, 1969.

These idle stills were camouflaged with sticks and leaves so they could not be seen from the air. Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1970s.

Once whiskey taxes were created, government agents had to both monitor legal distilleries and stop illegal whiskey makers. The moonshiner and the revenue agent each knew the other’s tricks fairly well. In fact, they sometimes knew one another on a first name basis from previous encounters.

Typically a moonshiner would set up a well-hidden still, the law officers would learn about it from an informant (even the bootlegger’s own competitor), and the agents would watch and finally raid the still site. Officers used axes or dynamite to destroy the still parts and containers. The hope was to catch the moonshiner at the still site. If a moonshiner ran, the agents would chase him, but when caught red-handed at the still, the moonshiner often simply accepted his fate. Rarely was there any violence during a raid.

Traditionally revenue agents most often used axes to destroy illegal distilling equipment. Franklin County, Virginia, 1975.

Over the years the players involved in Blue Ridge moonshining developed many ways to avoid being caught. In the age of outdoor still sites, some bootleggers stretched thread across paths; a broken thread meant agents might be waiting near the still. When loading and unloading, the moonshiner could stop his truck in the road beside a steep bank, lay a board from the truck bed to the top of the bank, and carry supplies in and out without leaving a noticeable path.

In the era when cash-wage jobs were scarce and people with small mountain farms had few options for earning money, neighbors kept an eye out for revenue agents. When law officials adopted two-way radios, the bootleggers purchased illegal scanners to monitor police traffic.

The owners of this still tried to camouflage their outfit with spray paint. Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1970s.

Efforts to hide stills became more innovative after propane and oil burners replaced wood fires and stills no longer had to be outdoors. Some buildings featured false walls to hide production or storage areas. However, most indoor stills were simply set up in a shed, garage, or barn.

In several instances stills were also set up in underground chambers covered with sod. Perhaps the most infamous of these was set up in Franklin County in the late 1970s. Moonshiners bulldozed a room-sized hole in a field, covered it with a sod roof, placed painted cinderblocks on top as fake headstones, mowed the “cemetery” regularly, and put flowers on some “graves.” Raiding the still in 1979, revenue agents estimated it ran for one or two years before they discovered it.

In recent years agents have set up motion-triggered cameras at still sites. When the moonshiner returns to run his outfit, the camera records his presence. The agents have no need to be on hand when the still is operating.

Liquor Cars & Liquor Haulers

Stacked nearly flush with the truck bed, the half load of liquor pictured here weighed over a 1,000 pounds, even in light plastic jugs. Franklin County, Virginia, 1979.

As immortalized in the film “Thunder Road,” revenue agents have long gone after moonshine as it is being transported to market. Historically the trip from still to buyer was uneventful in most cases. Yet if agents had a tip as to when and where a load of whiskey was being moved, revenuers might set up a roadblock or simply wait along the route for the “hauler” or “runner” to pass by.

Suspension enhancements, such as the extra leaf springs shown here on a 1951 Ford pickup truck, held vehicles level even when carrying a full load of whiskey. This particular truck was used to haul moonshine out of Franklin County, Virginia, for many years.

In the era prior to police two-way radios, a hauler could possibly outrun officers with a fast vehicle. Some of the resulting chases are the stuff of Blue Ridge legend. Officers at times did shoot at the tires of their prey, and revenuers and liquor haulers alike suffered car crashes. If the hauler was spotted, he might lose his pursuer on dark country roads. Some skilled drivers perfected the “bootleg turn,” a technique of spinning 180 degrees in a quick skid. With the flick of a special switch, a hauler could turn off his taillights, and occasionally vehicles were fitted with bright rear-facing lights to blind pursuing revenuers. If the hauler could not shake the agents, he might jump out the car and run on foot into the woods, avoiding arrest but losing both the vehicle and the liquor.

Haulers had no desire to draw attention to themselves by speeding or driving a conspicuous vehicle. Special springs and shocks were installed on cars and trucks to hold the vehicles level when loaded. At times drivers switched license plates to avoid identification. Packed with up to 132 gallons of whiskey, the 1940 Ford coupe was the “runner’s” vehicle of choice into the 1950s. Since the 1970s haulers have switched to vans or pickup trucks with camper shells.

Much has been made in popular culture of the connection between liquor haulers and NASCAR auto racing, but in truth few Blue Ridge moonshine drivers dabbled in organized racing. The real ties between the two activities took place in local garages where mechanics modified engines for speed and suspensions for handling. The mechanic’s skills were useful to both stock car racers and moonshine runners.


At Ferrum College’s 2004 Blue Ridge Folklife Festival, retired moonshiners and revenue agents gathered onstage to share memories. Click here for liquor hauler Paul Radford’s account of a wild ride and a narrow escape.

 

 

 

 

Equipped with three two-barrel carburetors, the Edelbrock manifold shown here was fitted to a Cadillac motor in a 1955 Ford “liquor car.” The carburetors had to be shortened in order to close the hood of the car. The Ford was confiscated in 1968 after the driver jumped out and escaped into the Franklin County, Virginia, woods during a police chase. Seven cases of moonshine were found in the vehicle.

The Franklin County Conspiracy

Deputy Jeff Richards, the alleged treasurer in Franklin County’s moonshine conspiracy, was murdered in his car with his 38 revolver, shown here, in his hand. Jim Smith, a prisoner Richards was transporting to the county jail at the time, was also killed, but Smith had nothing to do with the conspiracy.

Blue Ridge moonshining found itself in the national spotlight with the so-called Conspiracy Trial of 1935.  Despite scores of busts by revenuers in the 1920s and early 1930s, the moonshining industry continued to thrive.  In Franklin County officials were accepting protection fees from moonshiners, and the Sheriff himself oversaw the complex bribery system.  Small-time bootleggers were squeezed out as money and power were consolidated.

Between 1930 and 1935 local still operators and their business partners sold a volume of whiskey that would have generated $5,500,000 in excise taxes at the old 1920 tax rate.  A federal investigation resulted in 34 people being indicted.  Those charged included 19 moonshiners, one corporation, and nine government officials.

Hired still hands take some of the greatest risks for a share of the profits from making illegal alcohol. Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1960s.

In a community atmosphere of threats and jury tampering, a key government witness (the man who served as treasurer of the Sheriff’s “granny fee” operation) was gunned down in his car on a country road along with a prisoner he was taking to jail on unrelated business.  Two West Virginia men with connections to the illegal liquor trade were eventually convicted of the murders.  Oral history tells of another witness dying under suspicious medical circumstances before he could testify.

At the time, the tense trial was the longest in Virginia history.  The murders, the high-profile defendants, and the mystique of moonshining made the conspiracy trial front page news.  Newspaper readers loved the tales of whiskey making and hauling, including those of Mrs. Willie Carter Sharpe, “queen of Roanoke rum runners.”

Thirty-one people were finally found guilty.  The resulting jail sentences were relatively light (two years or less), and 13 conspirators only received probation.  The fines levied were minuscule compared to the earnings of the major conspiracy participants.  Even the short-term impact of the trial on Blue Ridge moonshining is difficult to judge.  The industry certainly continued.  Over 70 years later some old-timers voice strong opinions about the men who were acquitted.  Adding to the mystery, parts of the trial records disappeared from courthouse files for decades.

Lincoln Gusler, Copper Still Maker

Lincoln Gusler, Ferrum, Virginia, circa 1970s.

Abraham Lincoln Gusler (1899-1978) was one of several makers of copper still parts in the southern Virginia Blue Ridge.  As a teenager, Gusler began turning out copper buckets for his own use.  During his life he also farmed and did carpentry work.  Lincoln Gusler liked doing things the old-time way.  Indeed, as a farmer, he never even bought a tractor.

Gusler’s coppersmithing shop adjoined his house near the small Franklin County community of Ferrum.  Shop equipment included various wooden patterns, hammers, metal shears, and soldering equipment–everything necessary to shape copper into still parts.  His core business was in fashioning still caps and worms, but Gusler’s son remembers his father making a turnip still pot.  Lincoln’s caps and worms were standardized in size and were stored behind a false wall in the attic of his home.  When customers dropped by, Gusler usually had a few suitable pieces already prepared.

After the death of his wife in 1968, Gusler began crafting a wider assortment of copper items, including cups, pots, a pair of shoes, a hat, and musical instruments.  He was quite the local character, riding around in his Model A coupe and wearing his copper derby.  Gusler participated in local festivals, and not surprisingly his most popular products were miniature replicas of moonshine stills.

Sipping in the Blue Ridge

“Fruit liquor” (four jars on the left) is made by filling a jar with fruit and then adding sugar and moonshine. Medicinal “bitters” (right) can include a variety of herbs, barks, and spices..

Obviously not all the moonshine produced in the Blue Ridge has been shipped out of the mountains to urban areas.  During Prohibition locally made liquor was understandably the main form of alcohol consumed in western Virginia, but even today a jar of moonshine sometimes appears at local parties and dances.  Yet beyond such social drinking, homemade whiskey has also played a role in Blue Ridge foodways and medicinal traditions.

Old-timers talk of starting the day with a “coffee lace,” a shot of moonshine in a cup of coffee.  Another drink mentioned today is “fruit liquor”–a combination of fruit (or berries), one cup of sugar, and moonshine mixed in a half-gallon jar.  Damsons, peaches, fox grapes, and strawberries are the favored fruits.  Fruit liquor is allowed to sit for a few weeks so the flavors blend.

Blue Ridge folk medicine also incorporates moonshine in several homemade remedies.  Liquor-based tinctures supposedly relieve ailments ranging from chest congestion to arthritis.  Recipes for these so-called “bitters” mix moonshine with such things as sassafras bark, ginseng, and wild cherry bark.  Moonshine mixed with honey, lemon juice, ginger, and/or sugar is taken as a cough syrup.

Common Blue Ridge Moonshining Terms

Unlike the large submarine pots, the turnip still boiler was small enough for one person to carry. Franklin County, circa 1920s.

  • Backins – Weak whiskey produced at the end of a double run or at the end of a run through a thumper.
  • Bead – The bubbles that form on the surface of shaken whiskey and reflect the alcoholic content.
  • Beading Oil – An oil dripped into low-quality whiskey by Prohibition-era moonshiners to make the alcohol bead like quality whiskey.
  • Beer – The liquid part of fermented mash.  Beer, also called “teedum,” was often made for its own sake rather than for distilling.
  • Blackpot – A submarine still in which the mash is allowed to ferment directly in the still rather than in barrels or boxes.
  • Boiler – Also called a “pot,” the container in which mash is initially cooked or heated.
  • Bootleg Turn – A whiskey-hauler’s technique of turning a car around in a sudden controlled skid.
  • Cap – The removable top of a still.  Caps are named by their shapes.
  • Charge – The act of filling the still or the thumper with beer or pumice.
  • Condenser – The part of the still, typically a copper coil, in which the steam condenses into liquid alcohol.
  • Corn – Whiskey made primarily from corn mash.
  • Dropping the Bead – Also called “cutting” or “proofing,” the process of lowering the strength of liquor by mixing it with weaker alcohol or water.
  • Double Run – The technique of running alcohol through a still twice.
  • Flake Stand – The wooden water-filled box in which the condenser is cooled.
  • Gauger – A revenue agent in the pre-Prohibition era.
  • Granny Fee – Bribery or payoff money paid by moonshiners to law enforcement officers.
  • Liquor Car – A car modified to haul illegal alcohol to market.
  • Malt – Barley malt for mixing in mash.  Corn that is sprouted and then ground can be used in place of barley malt.
  • Mash – Some combination of water, grain, malt, yeast, and sugar that is allowed to ferment before being distilled into alcohol.
  • Peckin’ the Cap – A technique of rapping on the cap to tell by the hollow sound if the mash has boiled into the cap.
  • Pot-Tail – The “slop” of fruit or grain left over after the alcohol has been distilled out of it.  Also called “thumper tails.”

Any moonshiner can put together a submarine-type boiler, but he goes to a coppersmith or some other type of sheet metal worker to make still caps. Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1970s.

  • Puke – The boiling over of a still.
  • Pumice – Crushed fermented fruit and sugar used to make brandy.
  • Revenuer – A government agent whose job is to catch people involved in moonshining.
  • Runner – A person who hauls moonshine.
  • Singlings – Un-proofed whiskey that has gone through one distilling and will be distilled again.
  • Steam Outfit – A still which uses steam rather than a direct flame to heat the mash inside the pot.
  • Still – The combination of the cap and boiler in which the mash is initially distilled.  “Still” is also used to describe the entire distilling setup.
  • Still Hand – A person who works at a still site.
  • Stillhouse – Historically a small permanent building constructed specifically for distilling.
  • Stir Stick – A stick with a fork at the end used to stir mash.  Wire is commonly stretched back and forth across the fork.
  • Submarine Still – A large-capacity style of still in common use since the 1920s.  Shaped like a low box with two curved ends, the submarine still usually has two wooden sides.
  • Swab Stick – A bristled wooden stick used to clean out a still.
  • Thumper – The part between the boiler and the coil that distills mash and redistills the alcohol coming out of the boiler.  Also called a “doubler,” “thumper keg,” or “thump barrel.”
  • Turnip Still – An old style of still pot that has a round, squat shape.
  • Worm – A coil submerged in a water-filled container.  Alcohol-laden steam condenses to a liquid in the coil.

An Industry in Decline?

Obviously not all these men were on hand to work this brandy-making still. An apple mill for crushing apples into pumice sits to the left. Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1920.

No one can estimate how many gallons of illegal alcohol have left the Virginia Blue Ridge unnoticed over the years, but various government and business records point to a gigantic whiskey trade in moonshining’s heyday.  For instance, during the 13 years of Prohibition (1920 to 1933) agents in Franklin County alone destroyed 3,909 stills, made 1,669 arrests, and seized over 716 vehicles along with 130,717 gallons of alcohol.  In 1926 Agent L. E. Bridges reported the following from raids in Franklin, Floyd, and Patrick Counties over 14 months:

Captured and destroyed – 337 stills; 1,713 fermenters; 334 wood doublers; 333 flake stands; 563 metal wash tubs; 493 buckets; 153 hoes; 28 mattocks; 249,750 gallons beer; 3,773 gallons whiskey; 90 gallons brandy. Confiscated – 19 automobiles, 4 wagons, 5 horses, 3 mules, 4 sets double harness.

The number of stills per site has risen since moonshiners have adopted the blackpot technique of mixing mash directly in the large submarine boilers. Here revenue officers pose with 20 800-gallon submarine stills before destroying them. Franklin County, Virginia, circa 1970s.

Evidence gathered for the Franklin County moonshine conspiracy trial of 1935 showed that from 1930 to 1935 more than 1,000,000 five-gallon whiskey storage cans were sold in the county.  During that same period the county used 37 tons of yeast (nine times what the city of Richmond used) and 16,920 tons of sugar.

With the rise of the submarine still and then blackpot distilling techniques, fewer moonshiners were needed to make significant amounts of alcohol.  Raids by agents have dropped steadily since the 1940s, but the number of boilers found per still site has risen.  In recent years agents in Franklin County have rarely raided more than ten still sites per year.

Though once a large industry, moonshining has been shrinking in the Virginia Blue Ridge.  Operation Lightning Strike, a major bust centered in Franklin County from 1999 to 2001, revealed that the primary local company selling bootleggers their supplies annually bought more than 500 tons of sugar and 125,000 one-gallon plastic jugs over a four-year span in the 1990s.  However, even these amounts show a decline in moonshining; the same company had purchased 2,500 tons of sugar per year in the 1980s.

This steam operation ran in the lower level of a dairy barn until it was raided. Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1970s.

Only a few moonshine-related arrests have been made in the region since Operation Lightning Strike.  The application of conspiracy laws, the use of electronic surveillance techniques, and improved methods for tracking the flow of money have made illegal distilling a riskier business.  Large-scale moonshining may never return to the Virginia Blue Ridge.  However, some local officials feel that the shift in law enforcement priorities toward other areas of crime over the last few years may be setting the stage for the moonshine industry to grow once again.

The Stuff of Legends

“Moonshine Capitol of the World” t-shirts are sold in several stores in Franklin County, Virginia. The graphics on such shirts usually feature various stereotypes of mountain life, including scantily clad women and bearded men drinking from whiskey jugs.

In the Blue Ridge, as a legendary character rather than as a known individual, the moonshiner holds a folk hero status.  Historically he has been portrayed as a poor man simply trying to make a living, and indeed years ago making bootleg whiskey was arguably the most sensible way for some families to keep food on the table during hard times.

When factories brought jobs to the Blue Ridge and economic circumstances became easier, the bootlegger was still seen as a free man “beating the system.”  The hypocrisy of the Prohibition era, when everyone from politicians to field laborers continued to drink, only added to the moonshiner’s image.  As stock car racing became popular in the 1940s and ‘50s, the liquor hauler’s driving skills also became part of racing folklore (even though liquor haulers rarely became race car drivers).

“Tag toppers” are among the moonshine-related items sold in Franklin County, Virginia.

Today the celebration of Blue Ridge moonshining shows up in the region’s cultural expressions.  Musicians write songs about the trade.  Craftsmen build detailed models of stills.  Local stores sell t-shirts emblazoned with phrases such as “Moonshine Capital of the World.”  National magazines and newspapers continue to publish major stories on Blue Ridge moonshining.  At least one Virginia town puts on a community event called the “Moonshine Festival.”

The reality of the illegal whiskey trade, however, is far from pleasant.  The work has always been hard manual labor, and today’s sugar liquor must be hauled in a risky trip to large urban centers.  If he does not get caught, the moonshiner must still hide the money he earns—a trick that grows harder every day.  Penalties for illegal distilling can include jail time and the loss of vehicles and real estate.  Yet the tradition goes on, smaller than it once was but apparently intriguing enough for some to continue trying.

The moonshine mystique is reflected in various souvenirs produced for the tourist market over the years. With its vague location, this mid-twentieth century postcard was generic enough to be sold anywhere in the Blue Ridge or Appalachia.
Still models, such as this one by Oscar Turner, reflect the region’s fascination with its moonshining heritage. Patrick County, circa 1996.
Many people in the Blue Ridge take pride in its moonshining heritage. Whitey Taylor, a local stock car racing promoter, put up this billboard on a major four-lane highway through the region. Franklin County, Virginia, circa 1980s.

Acknowledgements & Further Reading

Selected Readings

Carr, Jess. The Second Oldest Profession; An Informal History of Moonshining in America. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972.
Doss, Rodger. Shine. Roanoke, VA: Doss & Langston, 1996.
Dabney, Joseph Earl. Mountain Spirits: A Chronicle of Corn Whiskey from King James’ Ulster Plantation to America’s Appalachians and the Moonshine Life. Asheville, NC: Bright Mountain Books, 1974.
Dabney, Joseph Earl. More Mountain Spirits: The Continuing Chronicle of Moonshine Life and Corn Whiskey, Wines, Ciders & Beers in American’s Appalachians. Fairview, NC: Bright Mountain Books, 1980.
Greer, T. K. The Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935. Rocky Mount, VA: History House Press, 2002.
Higgins, Tom and Steve Waid. Junior Johnson: Brave in Life. Phoenix, AZ: David Bull Publishing, 1999.
Kephart, Horace. Our Southern Highlanders. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1976.
Powell, Jack Allen. A Dying Art II. Martinsville, IN: Bookman Publishing and Marketing, 2004.

Acknowledgements

The Moonshine, Blue Ridge Style exhibition has been made possible through the support of John Redd Smith, Jr., and a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Other generous supporters of the exhibition and the Blue Ridge Institute’s research into Blue Ridge moonshine include:

Jim Woltz
C. L. Radford
Virginia Historical Society
The Roanoke Times
The Franklin News-Post
Cy Dillon
Keister Greer
Thomas Hubbard
Morris Stevenson
Jack Powell
Roy Hambrick
Jason Hambrick
Felicia Woods
June Shively
Gary Thompson
B. A. Moore
Ralph Watts
B. I. Whitmer, Jr.
Charlie Adkins
Mandell Quinn
Mike Quinn
Chester Rakes
Mrs. V. K. Stoneman
Laura Drake Davis
George Gusler
Oscar Turner
Ken Dudley
Jimmie Boyd
Dan and Geneva Hodges
Gary Thompson
Bobby Worley
Buddy Worley
James Eavey
Sue Justice
Eddie Handy
“Cat” Nichols
Tony Powell
Evelyn Nolen
Bonnie Quinn
Bunyan Quinn
“Dub” Scott
Daniel Young
Francis and Laquida Amos
John Rinehart
The Library of Virginia
The Roanoke City Library

 

About Ferrum College and the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum
Founded in 1913, Ferrum College is a four-year, private, co-educational, liberal arts college affiliated with the United Methodist Church.  Ferrum offers a choice of nationally recognized bachelor’s degree programs at a cost well below the national average for private colleges.  Visit www.ferrum.edu for more information.

A major venue on the Crooked Road Music Trail, Ferrum College’s Blue Ridge Institute & Museum promotes the understanding of regional folkways through the documentation of traditional culture and innovative programming for all ages. Adding a unique element to Ferrum’s modern academic programs as well as to its historical identity, Institute programs include gallery exhibits, a living history farm museum, an archive, an annual folklife festival, and various outreach programs. The Institute is Virginia’s State Center for Blue Ridge Folklore.

About the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities
The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy was established in 1974 to develop and support public programs, education, and research in the humanities and to relate the humanities to public issues.  The VFH is nonprofit and nonpartisan and receives support from private gifts, grants, and contributions, and from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Visit www.virginiahumanities.org for more information.

About John Redd Smith, Jr.
The son of a Martinsville Commonwealth’s Attorney who prosecuted bootleggers during the infamous 1935 Moonshine Conspiracy trial, John Redd Smith, Jr., knows well the people, tales, and temptations surrounding Franklin County’s most famous beverage. Once joking, “I never knew that liquor came in anything but a Mason jar until I was grown [because bootleggers would pay his father in homemade brandy],” John Redd, as he is known to friends, decided to share his history by underwriting the Moonshine – Blue Ridge Style exhibition. Moonshine shaped some of John Redd’s earliest experiences, and his generous support will preserve an accurate understanding of the region’s white liquor industry for generations to come.