Bootleg Booze, Busted Legs An' Blasted Stills

Bootleg Booze, Busted Legs An' Blasted Stills

During the Great Depression Jimmie Lewallen led the pack struggling to extract himself from a life of poverty through risky bootlegging

Production | 18 Jul 2014 | Issue 121 | By Jim Leggett

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Talk to any Southerner on The Depression era moonshiners evading "the law" (never cops) and tales of bootleggers running whiskey in fast cars and motorcycles too, sometimes unfold.

Everyone, cops, revenue agents, sheriffs, judges too were in on the game as clandestine stills gleefully dispensed tsunamis of corn liquor. Barney Barnwell, who brewed memorable stuff himself, told me of jailers sneaking moonshiners out nights "So's they could cook likker on the sly, the law as usual makin' a fast buck."

Bootlegger Jimmie Lewallen (1919-1995) who ran white lightnin' in saddle bags astride a 1926 Indian Chief motorcycle, was just 14 when he saw his first motorcycle race. "So dealer Dennis Shepherd in High Point and I got together and built me a racing cycle." He also ran moonshine in farm trucks when he was too young if caught to be arrested.

Red Dirt Rising

Movie Red Dirt Rising, so named after N. C's red clay dirt roads, chronicles Lewallen's evading poverty by running corn whiskey during times desperate and bleak, when homemade liquor was pretty much the only cash crop.

Intrigued by the story I tracked down his son, retired police chief Garry Lewallen who had to go blow up a few moonshine stills, saying "I didn't take no pleasure in that…" Garry could have become a moonshiner, stock car driver or cop. "I chose the law as the pension plan looked better!"

Picture it; High Point NC 1938 and Jimmie guns a powerful 1,000 cc Indian Chief down Main Street, whiskey in the jars with the law hot on his tail.

Gary takes the story. "It was around 1938. Dad was known to make deliveries stuffed in his saddlebags for a fella by the name of T. B. Hyde.

"His misadventure with the motorcycle was in November, he was riding home to Trinity N. C. In those days rural American town streets were mostly hard packed dirt. In a hurry to get home wearing a leather jacket for warmth and protection, he'd set the throttle to run at a pretty fast speed. So he puts his gloved hands in the jacket pockets to keep warm, which was what riders did back then."

Just as he raced past a Dodge dealership a Tudor Sedan veered into his path…no time to get hands out of his pockets or grab the handlebars!

"Dad jumps up on the seat as the bike slams into the car, jumps straight up trying to clear the roof but his right boot snags the roofline, snapping his leg in two places. He slides a pretty good ways, jacket getting pretty intense from road burn, he rolls onto his back, busted bones sticking out of his boot."

An ambulance raced Jimmie to local Guilford General Hospital where he spends an impatient month as the leg mends. "Well, dad decided he'd been there long enough, so he limps on home leg in a cast on crutches." Having to provide for himself and his parents, soon as that motorcycle was fixed he's back in the saddle, booze, and crutches.

Sheriffs and the North Carolina's State Highway Patrol knew Jimmie ran moonshine. Trooper Gene Young had tried catching him a few times, then one night seeing Jimmie roar past, siren ablaze, Young gave chase.

"Even with crutches strapped to bike, dad managed to get a pretty good lead and then spying a handy field, he lays that bike sideways right into a forest of corn stalks." Young sweeps past vanishing down the road. Bike wrestled upright Jimmie guns the bike and peels off to make his whiskey run.

"Dad told me this story more than once, I even spoke to Gene about it in later years. Of course, he would never say he got outfoxed, but admitted dad sure could ride, no doubt about that. Gene, since passed away, retired as Captain or Major with the Highway Patrol. I've met Gene's son, he lives in his dad's home about a mile from where I live. I intend to go by and talk to him sometime about my dad and any

Depression time stories he cares to share with me about his dad - and hopefully mine."

The end of Prohibition in 1933 did little to discourage illegal whiskey distilling, a "God given" tradition in farmlands all over America. Folks still recall times when, it seems, everyone knew someone involved in moonshine. (Shhh - Mason jars of corn whiskey brought to me recently were purchased from a West Virginia cop! Untaxed whiskey, gin, rum and genuine hard cider, seems to me, still flows abundantly.)

Jimmie grew up loving stock car racing. Running over 140 dirt track events from1941 through 1972 he was one of the founders of what became NASCAR. With three flat tyres in one race, he still wouldn't let anybody pass him.

Lewallen's is among forgotten stories of daring bootleggers who invented the sport of stock car racing when all they had for protection was a helmet and goggles when racing was racing.

War hero

Only 19, Jimmie's bravado served him well. During World War II he was wounded two times, shrapnel in his back and frostbite, he was left for dead during the invasion of Normandy.

Captured and imprisoned twice he escaped both times. For bravery under fire he was awarded a bronze star and a bronze star with clusters.

They just don't make bootleggers, like Jimmie Lewallen anymore.


Given the current (June 2014) Irish tax and VAT take of €16.40 on a €24 litre of spirits, small wonder cross-border booze smuggling is on the rise and potcheen flourishes in Eire! Kinda makes Do Not Steal! The Government Does Not Like Competition bumper stickers attractive.
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