Sunday, July 21, 2013

Appalachian Moonshine - In the Pale Moonlight


Appalachian Moonshine – In the Pale Moonlight

"you'll just lay beneath the junipers, as the moonshine's bright....watchin' those jugs a fillin'...'neath the pale moonlight."  refrain from the song Copper Kettle.

I'm a big fan of the TV show “24” with +kiefer Sutherland . The reason I like that show (other than Kiefer Sutherland always out of breath, getting into and out of trouble saving the country) is because I use the concept of the show and apply it to history.  The show is created to reflect what is called, “real time”. Meaning at the same time there are different scenarios of occurrences happening with different people. Events occurring parallel, happening all at once, that make up the history of our lives that effect society as a whole. That is the way I look at history. There are individual people and parts that make up a whole story.
Johnny Witt and my father, Donald Bowling.
Dad gives his version of working for
moon shiners in the audio video on this blog.
Later these two would join the Army together.
My dad would make a long career out of the military.

I only speak about my own family history for the most part on this blog. We are only one very small, tiny part, of a very large story. Getting as many of those tiny parts put together as possible, gives us a better view of the Appalachia we know and love.
The current trend is to reinvent our history by being so ashamed of certain stereotypes to want to leave certain stories or different parts out. To avoid time periods or events in history that can be or have been stereotyped, instead of confronting that history with the truth, has the effect to leave gaps in our history. We have allowed the creation of a skewed misunderstood version in the story of the Appalachian people. As a historian, I just can't abide by that, nor take a shine to it.
The worst for me is stereotypes of the moonshiner, who is portrayed as a back woods, hooligan of Hollywood that inhabited Appalachia. Some would have fit the stereotype. Most though in my family held other jobs. It was not every one's story to be a part of the illegal whiskey making tradition in Appalachia though alcohol manufacturing, legal and illegal was a part of a long history in our mountains.
I have found to get anyone to speak about the moonshiners in their families comes with a great deal of “anxiety and “shame”. Is that shame left over from the days of local preacher's condemnations, like our area's famous Robert Sheffey laying down his black sheepskin prayer rug in the road when he came across a moonshine still and praying for the moonshiner's destruction (which I'm told he did to a relative or two), or is it the broad stereotype of moonshine ruination with the run down shack, overgrown fields, dirty kids, all because daddy's drunk making moonshine?  The profession today is met with disdain and many mountain folk are cautious about even telling the moonshiner tales. But moonshine was a business occupation and the stereotype of total lawless disregard doesn't fit my family though the occupation was one very entrenched in our family history.

I don't understand why a family history of moonshiners causes so much concern. Why it is with even some of our tourism initiatives there is a conscious effort in many circles to try to evade the alcohol story at all that is a part of our history?

As an example, recently they moved my cousin's beer joint building to Crab Orchard museum to use as a display and meeting place. It was a pretty famous place in our area just for the politicians that would show up. I will have to write that story later. I was unaware of the building being moved until I visited the museum and I asked the director, "Why did they moved Cousin Jr.'s beer joint?" She went, “Sshhh! We don't call it a beer joint!”

Yes, it had the nickname of the Frog Level Yacht club, and it was sort of a "store" that 30 years ago was a gas station (which is what they prefer to call it). It boasted the oldest tavern license in Virginia, handed down through the family for over 150 years until June died, but being corrected not to call it a beer joint or tavern which is really what we knew it as? You just have to shake your head and say, "OK, if you say so."

Junior did not sell many groceries but sold nabs, soda pop and beer...tons of BEER!. When it was a gas station there just was not enough parking and a patron would have to come in to ask someone to move away from the pumps so he could get gas.  In all the times I visited Junior we never bought gas. It was always too hard to get to the pumps.

But June Bowling had the best conversations of the day and could easily relate history and issues of the past with the present. There was hardly any local historical subject, whether it be politics, events, people or places, he didn't know something about. Add the best cooler's in the county to keep that brew icy and that is what made this place special.

It's the attitude of getting away from the alcohol part, which other than June, is what made Junior's place what it was, I'm having trouble with. Call it a store/service station, but we who were patrons of the place did not think of it in those terms. If it cleans it up for "their" perceptions from a beer joint/tavern to sell it and preserves the building...go for it. But something is getting lost in the translation.
I have all my life heard so many stories of our family and their participation in the moonshine and alcohol business. As you can see, I have a hard time in general dealing with the animosity towards those stories by other family members as well as now members in our community actually wanting to suppress or change the view of actual events or original perceptions of places. I write this post because I believe to get the whole picture, those stories need to be told. With that in mind, let's talk about Moonshine.

My first encounter with moonshine was in the mid 60's. I was at an aunt's house playing with some cousins. I remember you could get shrimp cocktail in these individual small glass containers and my family would save those as glasses for us kids. Kind of the pre sippy cup. You asked for a drink of water and they would give you one of these hour glass small glasses. If it was broken it was just a junk jar not one of the good matching glasses.

My cousins and I had been chasing each other playing whatever games kids played. I had been given a glass of water during this and I left it on the table and ran back outside. In the meantime, I had not realized that my father and my uncle had pulled two of these glasses to raise a drink of shine to each other. When I ran back in and grabbed what I thought was my glass off the table, before my father could stop me, I took a large gulp! I was probably 6 years of age. It burnt all the way down and all the way back up!! I couldn't breath, my eyes teared up, I was throwing up, it was awful. Needless to say I never did ever like moonshine. That one encounter broke me of ever having the habit.

Through the years the tales of moonshiner exploits of the family would leak out. Usually in hushed tones. No one actually came out or discussed often that there were moonshiners among us. It came out in rifts and stories. I became aware of a big rift between my grand mother's Hazel Burress's family and my grand father's Wesley Bane Boyle's family. I wrote about my grandfather and his participation at the Bristol Sessions with the West Virginia Coon Hunters in an earlier article.

Bane's side of the family said he would have made the big time had he not ran across my other grandfather Stewart Burress. Stewart Burress was a kind, good, hardworking and honest man. I remember him as a soft spoken storyteller and have written of him in other stories in this blog. Even when he was mad he never sounded loud at all. His official trade was as a black smith making hand forged tools. But he like others in the mountains had another profession. As a matter of fact, his daughter Callie said her pappy had told her he could not remember a time his side of the family did not make corn whiskey. Stewart Burress was known as a moonshiner of quality liquor in the hills of Bland, Tazewell and Mercer Counties.

Now this is where the story gets hard to tell, because it WAS A BUSINESS. Grand Daddy Burress worked for and distributed his liquor through mainly one man, the Sheriff of a local county. I believe this is one reason why there is silence in the telling of the moonshiner tales. There were many business men and elected officials also in the trade network. And many of their descendants are still elected officials and businessmen.

It's not something you want known that your upstanding family ancestor might have walked a little on the wrong side of the laws. But with hundreds if not thousands of gallons of liquor being produced on a weekly basis you know it had to have a distribution network for that much shine. It happened and is as much a part of the mountain history as anything else. Dave Tabler displayed this in his story of Congressmen John Wesley Langley and his wife Katherine Langley. John's wife Katherine was elected to his seat while he was in prison serving a sentence for violating the Volstad Act.
In an interview in 1992 with Stewart Burress's daughter, Callie Burress Boyles, (Callie married Bane's brother, David Brown Boyles), her greatest hate and worst memories growing up were worrying about a barking dog. Where she lived as a girl it meant sometimes customers who knew her daddy but more often the dreaded revenuers. She remembered that when customers came they were kept in the house until someone would fetch a jug from the hiding place usually hidden in the creek or the spring in mason jars.

Callie and her sister Hazel, my grandmother, met Bane and Brown Boyles because their father, Granddaddy Stewart, hired them to run the liquor to the distribution points for the sheriff. The liquor was usually hid in a wagon hauling coal or a truck hauling other goods.


Late in 1927, Stewart Burress told Bane he was getting out of the liquor business. Federal revenuers were descending upon the mountains. He had been warned by the sheriff that even the High local sheriff could not protect them against the federal government. He warned Granddaddy Bane not to run or deliver any more. He was right. While searching through newspapers of 1927 between January and August, 136 moonshine stills had been busted up in the areas around Mercer County.

In those records, I learned how much of an extended family business it was. There in news accounts were Uncle Sid, Uncle Hiram, Uncle Fred, Cousin Farley, (who was preacher on Sunday). All those news notices of arrested men relatives. (I was going to share excerpts of those actual articles but I've misplaced my file. Means maybe another article in the future when I find it.)  Makes the song, "Copper Kettle", a family anthem!

Granddaddy Bane didn't listen as most of the young men did not listen. Shortly after recording at the Bristol Sessions he too was caught transporting illegal liquor and sent to prison. It did end any chances he had of a recording career.

Thus the rift in the family. My Aunt Mable, Granddaddy Bane's sister, more than once told me, "that if Bane had not met that Stewart Burress and got caught with that illegal shine, he would have made it."

I don't believe that was true as he took his own chances. Everyone knew someone in the business or participated somehow for it to go on as long as it did. My father in the video above relates the campaigning that was done at the polls with moonshine and related a time that when he was 17, he was hired as a lookout. He was always real happy when the run was through because if they would have caught him it would have been the same 3 years in a Georgia prison just for being a lookout. First guard duty he ever had he said and it prepared him well for guard duty in World War II.
Now were some family members still in it after the 20's and 30's? I don't really know. But there was this 1950's Ford in the family. I remember it well because my mother absolutely LOVED that car. We came, “Up home” for one of our usual visits when my dad was in the military in Texas and my Granddaddy Bane told my mother someone had a great deal on a car. We had an old blue station wagon we had traveled in but I remember she bought this Ford very cheap.

I also remember riding in it following the station wagon back to Texas thinking how big inside it was. In later years, my mother talked about that car. It was her favorite she said of all the cars we had owned. I was a grown adult before she told me what was so special about that car.

It was a moonshiners car. She told me it had a clear title, she even stayed an extra day to make sure of that by putting it in her name before she left. She thinks it was just being, "looked for". When she bought it in the early 60s, they would have had to, "look for it", in Texas.

It was a special car. First, the sound of the motor wasn't like any other motor I have ever heard in a car since. A low rumble that sounded like it was saying in a bass voice, blub, blub, blub. The back seats were so odd because they had hinges on both sides that flipped up on the top and the bottom creating hidden compartments.
Though I can't remember how, she said the springs under it were reinforced to haul heavy loads but didn't have an over amount of extra springs under it. My mother told me extra springs on a car were the first thing law enforcement looked for during that time. Instead the front fender's and bumper of this car were weighted with lead molded into them. When I asked her who did the modification on the car she matter of fact said,  "this was courtesy of some kith who worked in the railroad machine shops." An old moonshiner's trick so that when there was a load in the back, the motor end didn't rise up.

My mother's favorite car had a lot of power to fly down the road and in the same way it was made for hauling a heavy load of moonshine, also worked well for hauling 5 children around. I was amazed she knew so much about this subject. When I asked whose car it was and whether it was family. She cut her eyes at me in a way that said, I wasn't to ask, she wasn't telling and she never did. I don't know of any family members today that carry on or even talk about the tradition. Somehow it just died out like so many of our older traditions. I think about it though when I make Dandelion wine.
In the history of my family and extended family, there were people of all types of occupations, miners, railroaders, teachers, laborers etc. In that group were also saloon keepers, owners of beer joints and moonshiners. Alcohol is a staple throughout our American history and though it has had it's bad historic reputation of being the cause of ruination, it was also a builder of personal fortunes and empires, whether legal or not. That's part of the American story and in my opinion we should not hide it in our Appalachian story either.

Copyright 2007-2016 Denise A. Smith