Moonshining During Prohibition

I HAVE recently returned from a visit to the mountains, where for many years I-like my father and my grandfather before me-made moonshine, Although approximately eight years have passed since I ran off my last liquor-thirty-six gallons of pure corn whisky-my still, which was my chief inheritance from my father, is even now seeing service, turning out more liquor and worse than in all the previous eighty years of its history. One of my second cousins makes his headquarters in the cave where for a number of years I and my companions defied discovery by prohibition agents and Revenue officers alike; and he, like every one else who is operating in the mountains to-day, has forgotten the old moonshining tradition.

In 1923, writing in The Outlook, I foretold that unless the Government altered its method of dealing with the mountain moonshiners, whisky-making in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee would increase to an almost irrepressible degree. On my visit I saw my prophecy abundantly fulfilled.

Before the prohibition era moonshining had never been a commercial proposition, It originated, as I think is generally known, as a gesture of defiance at a law which the majority of the inhabitants of that section considered as basically unjust as the Prohibition Act is considered by a large number of well-educated citizens. Rightly or wrongly, the mountaineer was never able to discriminate between corn turned into pork and corn turned into whisky. While a great deal of distilling undoubtedly did go on, it was of a very different sort. Liquor was mostly made for our home consumption. We made “settin’ hen” or peach brandy just as we preserved wild plums and made currant jell. Occasionally we might sell a bottle, but the trade was entirely retail and none was ever shipped outside. Bootleggers, blind tigers, and speak-easies were confined to the larger cities of the lowlands, and were despised by the mountaineer. Our liquor differed from that of the licensed distiller only in that it was seldom aged and still more infrequently colored. In purity and “authority” it compared favorably with the best-known brands of the regular trade. My brandies (peach, apple, and particularly plum and apricot) were compounded from a recipe handed down by my grandfather and jealously guarded, and when, after the beginning of prohibition and towards the end of my career as a moonshiner, I began selling liquor on a commercial scale, my brandy commanded such a deservedly high price that I made more money than I ever expect to make again. In those days the quality of our liquor was a source of real pride.

TIMES have changed, however, and the moonshiners of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee have changed with them. The old-time moonshiner, who despised adulterants and bootleggers as much as he hated the Revenue, has disappeared completely. The commercial element has entered in, and the moonshiner, who was an otherwise law-abiding citizen making whisky for the sake of a principle, has been transformed into the bootlegger, who is a criminal dealing in poison for the sake of a profit.

Even the most credulous drinker knows that industrial alcohol is poisonous and the liquors concocted therefrom deadly, but there is a widespread belief that moonshine is comparatively harmless because pure. Such, however, is no longer the fact. In his haste to get his product on the market, the moonshiner no longer removes the poisonous aldehydes and fusel oil by triple distilling. Twice is enough for the scrupulous minority, while the unscrupulous majority are content to run it through just once.

IN the two months of my stay, it seemed to me that I saw enough poison to kill every man, woman, and child in the United States. All this is a great pity-pitiful because it was unnecessary. Moonshiners of the old-type never approved of the saloon. If the object of prohibition had been set before them so that they had understood that the law applied to everybody alike, and was no longer a question of licensing or taxation, the moonshiners of my day would have been entirely willing to dismantle their stills. I know my people, and I am certain that, properly appealed to, they would have pledged themselves to observe the law. If their word had once been passed, the hillsides would no longer bristle with stills. But the time for explanation has gone by. A new generation knowing not the old gods is springing up. The curse of the rest of America is upon the mountains. The slogan, “Easy money and large profits.” has proved a siren song, so that a situation has arisen with which the entire United States Army, including the marines in Nicaragua, would find it difficult to cope.

I understand that Government figures show that two-thirds of the home-grown liquor in the United States comes from this region I have just been visiting. Well can I believe it! If the sole object of prohibition had been to make fifteen stills spring up where only one flourished before, it could not have been more successful. Moonshining-once a minor side-issue-has now attained the proportions of an industry second only to the coal business.

FOR many years this region, although the poorest as far as actual money in the pockets of its inhabitants went, was one of the richest in potential wealth. The development of its natural resources combined with the sudden enormous increase in illegitimate gain is having a most detrimental effect upon my people. We of the mountains were formerly reproached for our ignorance and backwardness, but it was generally conceded that virtues of a high order were peculiarly our own-scrupulous honesty, unfaltering loyalty, unfailing hospitality; our pledged word was better than a lowlander’s bonded oath; we were loyal to our friends though it was to our own hurt; we were aboveboard with our foes. 0 tempora! 0 mores! The old generation sits by the fireplaces helplessly watching the younger forsaking the old ways-exchanging wool stockings, protracted meetings, and song “ballets” for fiber silk, movies, and jazz. There is no longer so much drinking as in the old days, for we are too wise to drink the liquor we sell; but gambling and other dissipations are more prevalent than ever before. We are no longer poverty-stricken, but we are still ignorant-more dangerously so than before, since, in our ignorance, we have exchanged the patriarchal dignity and simplicity of the moonshiner for the sinister sophistication of the bootlegger.

Source: The Outlook, 20 July 1927