Once upon a time,moonshine was big business,and the American South played out a daily game of cat and mouse as fast cars raced for the border. Jim Leggett goes in search of an American institution
The Dukes of Hazzard TV series may be relegated to reruns, but a new ‘Dukes’ movie introduced a fresh generation of fans to moonshine, rustic humour and gleeful car chases. In search of former moonshiners whose real-life adventures inspired ‘Hazzard’ story lines, I headed for the Cherokee foothills bordering the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee.Even today family ties bind many to the old whiskey cult. I found one enterprising exdistiller holding a foot-stompin’ ‘Moonshiner Reunion’ in tribute to ‘good ol’ boys an’ good ol’ moonshine’.Here old-timers who once tuned bootleggers’ cars meet for a beer, and recall adventures and high-speed car chases. Often as not, talk turns to fine corn whiskey made here since these valleys were settled by Scots- Irish during the 18th century, their secrets of distilling ‘white lightnin’ handed down.Alcohol has attracted the interest of taxmen since the Civil War ended the South’s political aspirations, and formerly tax-exempt whiskey and resentment to liquor taxation lives on. A decade ago a Mooresville, N.C., judge barked to an arrested moonshiner: “State can sell it, so can you!Case dismissed.” On a rural S. C. farm once known for cotton, peaches and excellent corn whiskey moonshiner Barney Barnwell (retired, of course) greets legions of old friends and fans to his annual Moonshiners Reunion.Sporting a full grey beard, battered Stetson hat, blue denim overalls, boots with soles are held together with tape, he has the look of a genuine mountain man. His eyes sadden whenever he reminisces on hard times when corn wouldn’t sell for a profit – and corn whiskey did.“Hell, moonshine was the only way a feller could survive and feed his family! Why everybody was in on it back then, even the law. A local prison had a still hidden in the woods out back an’ fellers in jail for makin’ illegal ‘shine was allowed out at night to run it an’ the likker was transported in police cars to Georgia, to Tennessee, all over. ‘Course the cops, they was in on the take.” Barney plays a mean fiddle, with pet possum ‘George’ occasionally perched on his shoulder.A talented wood carver and prolific song writer he admits, “I never could make an album without putting at least one “haulin’ white likker, and runnin’ from the law” song on it.” This year he landed a starring movie role in ATale About Moonshine, a subject Barney is real familiar with.“My Daddy, his daddy and his daddy before him all knew the makins’ of fine corn likker. Whiskey was the only cash crop when folks couldn’t get corn to market, or drought dried their fields. Poor people had no money to pay to get crops to market.“Moonshine served medicinal purposes treating flu and colic, even keeping some alive when winter storms closed highland roads.” Rumour has it that at one time anyone seen driving a car in the rural South almost had to be in the moonshine business.“The first time a fellow passed me a halfgallon Mason jar full of wild peaches and wild dirty moonshine, I would have resisted if I’d known how much I’d end up liking it,” laughs Barney as we head down a tangled gully in search of a wrecked still once used by his late daddy.An invisible trail threads through dense undergrowth and he remembers a sultry summer night in 1949 when the revenue posse raided the farm. Rusty barrels half covered in red mud and peppered with bullet holes lie abandoned in the water.“There she is, just as daddy left her!” Barney whispers, grabbing at one of the drums.“As them revenuers came swarming over the farm, daddy forgot which way he was a runnin’ – by mistake goes crashin’ right down this here gully and led the law right to this still! If daddy hadn’t run the wrong way, those fellers would never have found her. They dumped gallons of precious corn likker that night.” Daddy, a resourceful soul, built a new still downstream a week or so later.Fifty years ago rural backwoods from Atlanta to Asheville in the Blue Ridge Mountains were the hotbed of illicit corn likker. Wisps of smoke could be spied spiralling heavenward in most every county, if a man knew where to look.‘Trippers’ transported illegal hooch to city buyers, often as not leading to high speed car chases.Outrunning the law was portrayed in The Dukes of Hazzard and Robert Mitchum’s 1958 moonshine classic Thunder Road.(Mitchum’s bootlegger lead role was offered to Elvis Presley who showed interest, however the idea was nixed by Presley’s manager, Col.Tom Parker).Mountain Spirits and More Mountain Spirit two splendid books by Joseph Earl Dabney document a fascinating segment of vanishing Americana to the delight of eager readers. Country museums, too, have exhibits on moonshine, some with a still on display; most illicit stills were destroyed on site.Bootleggers – guys who drove the stuff from stills to gin joints – are credited with inventing multimillion dollar NASCAR racing. Flamboyant racer and hooch driver Lloyd Seay of Dawsonville won the 1941 National Stock Car Championship only to be killed the next day by a cousin in a feud over sugar to make moonshine. Lloyd’s tombstone is engraved with a bas relief of his 1939 Ford Coupe bearing Number 7, a photo of the ill-fated speed demon in its window.NASCAR legend Junior Johnson learned his racing skills hauling moonshine during his adventuresome youth. ‘Tanker’ cars boasted highly-tuned engines, good for 130 miles an hour in second gear!Fitted with extra heavy duty shocks to level liquid loads, some also had tear-off rear bumpers – in the event the law hooked them from behind; others could lay down dense smoke screens, or spray oil slicks on roads and evade capture, in days before cops had car radios.Favourite among trippers were 1939-41 Ford Coupes. They were sleek, manoeuverable at high speed, ideal for hauling liquor and sought out as eagerly by early stock car racers as by collectors of today.Later came the General Lee.“Of course there never was just one General Lee,” Dukes TV series star John Schneider told me. “Heck we smashed up so many of ‘em doing those bone-jarring stunts we kept the factory churning out 1969 Dodge Chargers trying to keep up!” Schneider and co-star Tom Wopat did many dust-churning car stunts themselves.Barney’s 50-acre woodland spread in the foothills of South Carolina attracts interesting characters. Some 1500 showed up this year, some as heavily bearded as Barney. Vintage hot rods rumble down to park on dusty fields; rickety old trucks follow.Barney drives a sad looking 1936 Chevy truck, rusted, no roof, dangling headlamps aimed anywhere but ahead.Groucho Marx rode in this same Chevy with Barney’s grandpa.“They’d get drunk together,” he recalls.ASpartanburg Deputy Sheriff’s car stops at the farm gate.“I can’t drive down in there without at least 20 folks yelling, ‘Hey Sheriff, want a beer?’ I tell them I don’t get off till 11!” the deputy continues, “Let me tell you something about Barney – when 9/11 happened he got on the stage an’ told folks those New York firefighters’ and cops’ families needed more than prayers; they need cash. Then he and a couple of police volunteers passed five gallon pails among the fans collecting over $6,000 in under 30 minutes.” Barney keeps an old still on show – well almost. (Federal law deems stills illegal and violators face a $10,000 fine or 10 years in jail!) “It’s a mock-up ‘steamer’, the kind used hereabouts,” he confides, asking, “Did you know George Washington made corn likker at Mount Vernon? A Scot name of James Anderson showed him how, had a five pot distillery in 1797; his first year netted him 83 pounds (Sterling) with 155 gallons of whiskey left over.” Fans visit Plum Hollow by the hundreds, there to cook by evening campfires, play banjos, fiddles or guitars, enjoy iced tea or a beer or two. Some sip something more potent from Mason jars, probably in the 100º proof range and certainly deserving of the name white lightnin.’ One can tell moonshine quality by shaking the jar, then observing shape and size of the bubbles; tiny and regular denotes “good stuff!” The Plum Hollow Band – with 30 years “pickin” experience – warms up the laid-back atmosphere with Duelin’Banjos.“College kids and bootleggers seem to mix real well together,” Barney says, “We’ve got the youngest of the young, and the oldest of the old. There was always a tolerant relationship – a fraternity of sorts, between lawmen and folks who broke it – that’s how we like to remember it.” The saying ‘Bootleg or perish’ is credited to regional bootlegger and outlaw Lewis Redmond whose post-Civil War defiance of the law helped poor mountain people survive, earning him the nickname ‘The Jesse James of the Mountains’ Redmond’s humanitarian corn liquor trade of the late 1800s landed him in jail.However such was the outcry from those he’d helped, he was released, then hired as manager for the federal distillery. His story, subject of a new play by storyteller Gary Carden and called The Prince of Dark Corners, proves the ongoing interest in moonshine, bootleggers and the ghosts of revenue agents from a vanished but not so distant past
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