This Franklin County (Va.) still, which was destroyed in 1972, is reputed to be the largest one ever destroyed. It contained 24 “black pot” stills, each containing 800 gallons of product.
Yes, TV shows like “Moonshiners” and now "Hatfields & McCoys: White Lightning" are fun and entertaining. But their relationship to the realities of illicit liquor-making is tenuous at best. Here’s a look at the heyday, the doomsday and the make-believe day of moonshine in its “capital” of Franklin County, Va., and beyond.
One way to think about the golden era of mountain moonshining – from the 1920s when Prohibition got it started through the 1950s and beyond, when the fast cars spawned a new sport – is to listen to a retired Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Virginia Bureau of Law Enforcement agent from Roanoke, Va., much of whose work took place in the Moonshine Capital of the World, Franklin County, Va.
Jack Powell, now 79, is talking about a man who was arrested for moonshining in the 1950s in Callaway, Va.
“At trial, this lanky stillhand had his family, his wife and several children, on the front bench of the courtroom,” says Powell. “He told the judge he wanted to testify in his own defense. He said ‘I’m guilty, Judge, and I want you to send me to prison so I can learn a trade.’
“His, family was crying, the prosecutor was crying, I was crying. Everybody in the courtroom was crying,” Powell goes on.
“The Judge said ‘If I sentence you to probation, will I see you in this courtroom again?’
“The stillhand said, ‘No Judge, you’ll never see me again.’
“And he meant it. I never saw him as a defendant again,” says Powell.
This was not the general rule. Powell cites a companion case, of a man who had been caught 18 times. Many stillhands were arrested again and again, in many cases because they had no other way to make a living.
At the same time, many people who financed the stills and materials were at least ostensibly solid citizens. They needed a business front to launder their ill-gotten money. Timber cutting was one of the most-used.
The transport of materials in and out of a still site was usually the reason moonshiners were caught. When federal agents found the source of the sugar, jars and other materials used at stills, they didn’t shut down the source, but instead followed the connection until they found the still. And when the finished product was ready to go out, there was often an undercover agent or a leak of information as to when the moonshiners would be on the road; and so the feds were waiting. Very few were caught at random traffic checks or by chance, on-the-road stops.
The combination of the illicit product, the daring of the perpetrators and the speed of their cars made the transporters heroes to many people – especially young people. These ferociously fast drivers out-drove and out-maneuvered the state and federal men who chased them, at least in the 1950s.
One result was that the government agents were so outmatched that the transporters became bored with outrunning them and decided instead to race each other. This was the beginning of the Southern racecar circuit which has grown exponentially into the NASCAR we know today.
The cars were fast and their drivers full of both bravado and strategy in those days of the 1950s, according to Powell.
“We were in the Five Mile Mountain [Va.] area waiting for a moonshine car that was supposed to pass that way,” he says. “It was about 1:30 at night and we could hear them coming up the mountain. Actually there were two cars; one was a blocker and the car carrying the moonshine. They had their lights off and we did also. As they passed, we fell in behind them. We were following along behind and they saw the reflection of the moon on our bumper. They took off with us right behind them. The moonshine car had passed the blocker and he was weaving side to side to block us. We ran off the road and took out part of a fence to get by. By this time the moonshine car was almost out of sight.”
But this time, the fast car didn’t get away.
“By the time we caught up with him, he was on the Blue Ridge Parkway,” continues Powell. “And he had wrecked his car - turned it over on top. Whiskey was everywhere. He ran and got away.”
The car he left behind?
“It was a ’55 Ford with a Cadillac Eldorado motor.”
These types of chases created the romance of moonshiners that entranced the population.
That early era of moonshining (which had of course occurred in varying scales for decades before), fell into two sub-eras:
• The Prohibition era (1920 – 1933), spawned by moralistic Protestant influence and women’s suffrage, vaulted moonshining into major illegal business, simply because demand was there with no legal way to fulfill it. People of all stripes began to make whiskey for huge profits. Rural people in the Appalachians saw a way to make much more money with less effort.
• The post-Prohibition era (1933-1998) saw an initial slowing of the practice, but it didn’t take long before federal taxes imposed on liquor spurred a strong comeback. Illegal whiskey could cost one-fifth to one-tenth as much as the sanctioned product.
And while violence has always been part of the moonshine business because of the money involved, in rural areas such as the Southern Appalachians, there was no mob influence, and so the violence was primarily personal in nature, often between family moonshine businesses. Almost without exception, there was little interference from outside the region from racketeers from the big city.
The people who made moonshine in the period 1920-1998 were entrepreneurs in an illegal business. The still hands were uneducated and hard-working. The work was hard and very physical, and their wage was small compared to the profit of the people who financed a still or stills.
At least as far as Franklin County is concerned, that era – of fast cars, general leniency in court and a sort of romantic affection for the practice – began to come to an end in 1999. From the capital in Richmond came something called “Operation Lightning Strike,” a federal program focusing not just on Franklin County but on other states’ moonshining hotspots. In short, according to Powell, the decision was to stop the general leniency toward moonshiners and instead treat them as drug dealers. This meant confiscating money and property of the perpetrators.
Operation Lightning Strike was implemented from 1999-2001. One result: A local business was found to have sold 500 tons of sugar to moonshiners and 125,000 gallon plastic jugs over the three-year period.
Operation Lightning Strike revealed a multi-million-dollar ring supplying sugar and materials to make thousands of gallons of moonshine. Thirty people were charged and the local business source – reported to have sold enough sugar and materials to make 1.5 million gallons of illicit whiskey – was shut down.
This broke the back of large major whiskey moonshiners in Franklin County. Property and bank accounts were seized. This seizing of personal worth of the moonshiners was different and more harsh than the penalties they were used to and some of the accused committed suicide as a result.
Yes, whiskey is still made there and along the Blue Ridge, but only in smaller operations. The risk of a major undertaking is obviously not worth it.
“The stills in the old times were made to produce 100 times the whiskey of any still of today,” says Powell. In fact we may never see the whiskey making again to rival the whiskey of the stills of yesterday.”
Operation Lightning Strike also has stopped major moonshine making in all areas of the United States. Texas claims to have not had a case of moonshining in years. Judge George Jones, General District Court Judge of Franklin County says he’s only seen “a couple of cases” in the last decade.
The methods of tracing money and materials in today’s world does not allow the big time business of moonshining that it once was.
Or as Jack Powell puts it: “What moonshining? It doesn’t exist in the form it did in the old days. Stills of today are small and they can’t make enough whiskey to cause major problems. Most serious moonshiners have gone into drugs, quit or do a little of both.”
Tune in to the Discovery Channel some Wednesday night and you (and about 4 million others), can get a taste of “Moonshiners,” which the channel’s website says “tells the story of those who brew their shine – often in the woods near their homes using camouflaged equipment – and the local authorities who try to keep them honest. Viewers will witness practices rarely, if ever, seen on television including the sacred rite of passage for a moonshiner – firing up the still for the first time.”
Perhaps the key word in the promo is “story,” as Powell and virtually everyone else knowledgeable in the realm verifies the unreality of the reality series. Powell, who has been in documentaries involving moonshining and has been used as a consultant in reality shows’ casting of characters – telling what they should look like and how to act – says there is no script to the show, but sequences are staged to look like spontaneous acts.
He says those portraying the moonshiners are people who have never made moonshine and have only a limited understanding of the art.
“Moonshiners” and other such efforts are, simply, entertainment rather than documentaries.
Left with just a bit of egg on its face is the Richmond-based Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which agreed to help with the filming of the series, only to have the finished product make it appear that illegal activity is going on in Virginia without ABC intervention.
Last November the Virginia ABC issued a statement that the show is a dramatization, and no illegal liquor is actually being produced. “If illegal activity was actually taking place,” the statement said, “the Virginia ABC Bureau of Law Enforcement would have taken action.”
Virginia ABC also said it would not have participated in the filming had they known how the show would turn out: “Virginia ABC agreed to participate in an informative piece that documents the history of moonshine and moonshine investigations in Virginia. Virginia ABC did not participate nor was aware of the false depiction of moonshine manufacturing, distribution and/or transportation in the filming, and would not have participated in the ‘documentary’ had it known of this portrayal.”
Our collective romance with moonshining lives on, even if it’s just Jim Tom and Tickle pretending on TV.