Modern-Day Moonshiners

Date: April 7, 2007

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Locals know that there is a place, a little bar set up inside a double-wide trailer perched on a hillside far from the main roads in the mountains of east Tennessee, where you can still get moonshine by the shot (in a small plastic Dixie cup) or by the quart jar. The proprietors of the establishment are a wary but quietly hospitable couple just passing middle age who open the doors of their trailer-home-turned-moonshine bar seven nights a week. To be sure, Clayton and Beth* are more than happy to oblige the surprising number of out-of-towners who find their way here for a taste of the “white brandy” that makes the area famous. But you have to know to ask for it, and even if you do it might not “be available” depending on whether you or anyone else in the place raises their suspicion.

Making moonshine is no longer illegal in and of itself as it was in the Thunder Road era of the 1940s and ‘50s, but selling it without paying taxes is still a crime. The little moonshine bar in the Tennessee hills has been hit with major fines that forced the proprietors to keep a low profile for a while, but soon they were back in business. Far from being relegated to a culture fair or museum exhibit, moonshine is still sought-after for more than just the attractive price and, though you may not be able to exchange money for whiskey by way of a hollow tree stump these days, the legendary elixir is still in good supply. But in these modern times, when alcohol is fairly cheap and available almost everywhere, why are bootleggers in the mountains still making moonshine? The answer reveals much about Appalachian culture and the region’s powerful hold on American imagination and identity.

The allure of moonshine is both illicit and homespun, combining the danger of breaking the law with a type of comfort akin to eating homegrown tomatoes or eggs from your own backyard. Moonshiners are often portrayed as being at the same time enterprising individualists and dangerous criminals, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, but at the expense of decent morals and not a few lives. In short, moonshining is a microcosm of two warring aspects of American identity: the God-fearing patriot and the cutthroat opportunist, chafing against the rules of the state. “America” is built on both of these notions, and therefore, oddly enough, the moonshiner can be considered the ideal American.

The roots of moonshine’s contribution to Appalachian, and ultimately American, culture and identity can be traced back to the origin of Appalachia’s earliest European settlers. In the early 17th century, the English crown instituted a tax on whiskey produced in the Ulster region of Northern Ireland in order to finance the suppression of civil wars provoked by the crown’s own imperialist activities. As soon as the tax was instituted, if course, whiskey makers started devising ways to avoid paying it. In this way, what was once a way of making a perfectly respectable living became a crime overnight. It is no surprise, then, that enforcement of this tax was exceedingly difficult. As Joseph Earl Dabney writes in his book Mountain Spirits, “No crime was so respectable as ‘fair trading’, none was so widely spread. The smuggler of Scotland…became a highly respected citizen and not only had the sympathy of the people but their total cooperation.” It is no coincidence that by 1776 as many as 400,000 Scotch-Irish ‘Ulstermen’ had emigrated to the new world, many of them to the southern Appalachian region. With the migrants came their tradition of making whiskey and fighting authority.

The tradition of taxing whiskey to finance war, however, continued in the New World. The Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 prompted temporary taxes on whiskey, but after reinstating the tax for support of Union armies in the Civil War, the tax was never again repealed. These taxes were particularly hard on whiskey makers. Currency was already in such short supply in the relatively isolated Appalachian mountains that bills were often paid in whiskey instead of cash, and transporting corn to eastern ports for sale was much more economical in this high value, low volume liquid form. The tension that arose from the constant battle over whiskey taxes eventually erupted in the famed Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 when whiskey makers threatened to burn down the city of Philadelphia.

Today, many of these tensions persist. Though there are far fewer people making moonshine, many of the social conditions that modern moonshiners face are reminiscent of those early days. According to current and former moonshiners of Creek County, Tennessee, the main reason that they, their parents, and/or grandparents made (or still make) moonshine is because “there was nothing else to do.” Moonshining was one of the more common vocations in this rugged county, and it even supported many “legitimate” local businesses. One local resident said, “When I was a toddler and up until I was in the 7th grade my father ran a restaurant here in town, right downtown, and they kept it open 24 hours a day. But if you think of a little town in east Tennessee back in those days, who was there at 2 o’clock in the morning? That place would be sitting full. There would be cars parked all over the place down there. An awful lot of that was people leaving out on runs hauling liquor somewhere and they stopped there to eat before they left. … See all the effects on the economy? You had the people that made the stills, you had the people that fixed the cars, all these different things.”

Today, however, there are many more “straight” jobs here than there used to be. Though economics remains a major motivating factor for modern moonshiners due to severely depressed wages in this area, there is more to it than just money. Family heritage and culture are important factors as well. When asked why he continues to make moonshine, one man answered, “To keep it going, you know, to keep up the family name.” It is no secret that moonshining is a dying art (in the words of one bootlegger, “it’s about dead”) but among many moonshiners today there is a strong commitment to tradition, or sometimes a more ambiguous sense that a fellow makes moonshine because that’s what his family has always done.

This is not to say, however, that these moonshiners expect or necessarily even want the next generation of their families to keep the old recipes alive. Many of the same men who make whiskey out of obligation to family tradition swear that they would never allow their children to follow in their footsteps. While the constant threat of being caught by the law is a major source of stress that these folks would not wish on their children, it is by no means the biggest danger.

Lee, a former moonshiner in his seventies who spent time in prison in the nineteen fifties for making whiskey and now works as a school bus mechanic, only stopped making liquor after his still exploded and inflicted third degree burns over half of his body. Despite popular caricatures of moonshiners as lazy drunks, moonshining is hard and dangerous work. Some say that moonshiners are growing scarce because of the laziness of youth. As one moonshiner puts it, kids don’t do it because “they don’t want to work that hard. Its easier to get a job in the plants.” The reality, however, is that even if their children were interested in continuing the family business, many parents would discourage it.

This ambivalence is just one of the many ways in which the relations of moonshining in this area are very complicated. Another arises from the dual history of Christian temperance and the economic importance of even legally produced liquor all over the South. This is played out at the most immediate level in Creek County. Clayton the bootlegger, put it most poignantly when he described his reservations about his vocation in deeply personal terms. “One day this is all going to catch up with me,” he said. When asked if he meant getting caught by the police, he clarified: “No, I mean when I meet my maker I know where I’m bound.”

If the moonshiners themselves are dubious about their final reward, one can imagine that the church in this heavily Baptist region would take a strong position and implore its members to eschew the “evil spirits.” On the contrary, Clayton said. “They basically just leave us alone. The only time they complain is when you’re trying to open a joint [bar, or other establishment where liquor is sold by the drink] too close to a church.” In the old days, a farmer who didn’t make whiskey was a rarity. These folks, Clayton explained, “went to church. They didn’t believe in making liquor.” Still, it is clear that it is difficult for the church, and even local law enforcement, to persecute a man like Clayton for trying to make a living. Had moonshining dominated an area with greater economic opportunity, it may not have been so readily tolerated by the community.

When asked about their relationship with local police, many moonshiners and bootleggers, and even a county judge, brushed off the question. Why would they care? The local community doesn’t benefit from the taxes that are collected, and from the perspective of many in the community, as long as no one is getting hurt, no real crime is being committed. One former county sheriff can point to specific instances where local police have gone to great lengths to appear to uphold the letter of the law while preserving a friend’s moonshine operation. The famed federal “revenuers” of mid-century could rarely count on local law enforcement to inform on moonshiners who were oftentimes their neighbors and friends.

This goes back to the ‘fair trading’ tradition that originated in the embattled region of Northern Ireland. Making whiskey was considered to be an honest living, and this sentiment persisted even after the activity was criminalized by the federal government. While the families who carried on the tradition of making whiskey largely failed to internalize the illegality of moonshining, they did develop a healthy resentment for the federal government for, in their view, making their lives even more difficult than they already were. Legends of mutually respectful but sometimes deadly games of cat and mouse played in the rhododendron forests and winding mountain roads of the Southern Appalachians abound in Creek County, and whether they are fact or fiction matters less than their contribution to identity and place.

Today, mainstream America isn’t sure what to make of someone who knows where to get moonshine, even less someone who knows how to make it. Moonshining is a powerful legend in the scope of American history and, true or not, what is known or believed about moonshining has contributed to the widespread perception of Appalachia as a region separate from the rest of America, a place that is simultaneously ridiculed and romanticized for the ideals that the moonshiner symbolizes. Indeed, the legacy of white lightning lives on in some of the South’s most well-known institutions, such as NASCAR, which is a direct descendant of mid-century moonshine runs in souped-up 1940 Ford Coupes as drivers swiftly and skillfully eluded revenuers through narrow, winding mountain roads.

But moonshining is not just our history. Moonshining is indeed alive and well in tucked-away corners all over the country and, in some places, it is still big business. Despite dire predictions of its demise, the entrepreneurial spirit prevails in Appalachia as strongly as on Wall Street, and as long as there are thirsty customers, there will be moonshiners. Clayton and Beth will testify to that.

*All names of people and places in this article have been changed.

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