The picture above is a Moonshine Still available from “The Whiskey Still Co. WWW.Whiskeystill.net
By H. Jerome Chapman
Many people know about the term “Moonshining”. It conjures different images to different people. To some, it is a sinister group of thugs like in the movie “Walking Tall”. To others it is a glamorized version where the moonshiners are good ole boys just trying to make a dollar. They don’t mean anyone any harm. Probably both pictures are correct.
People have been making “moonshine” for many years in this country. Almost since the beginning. Moonshine refers to liquor that is bottled straight from the still and not aged in barrels, like say, Jack Daniels. The word “still” is a short version of “distillery”.
Things went along just fine until the Federal Government decided to put a tax on all alcohol. This was in 1791 and was the first federal tax on a domestic product. That did not sit well with a lot of people who felt the US Government had no business messing with their liquor. That led to a liquor rebellion.
But the US Government smelled cash for the coffers and they needed to fight some wars and raise some cash and nothing would stop them on their quest. A tax it was.
Then, it was decided that all liquor was bad and the Federal Government made another big decision: forget the tax income, prohibit all liquor. No making and no selling, but worst of all, no drinking of liquor. Prohibition was in place in the US from 1919-1933. A move to control the way society lived was under way. It would not be the last effort to legislate people to live the way the government wanted them to.
The small time liquor makers, the “moonshiners” who made their spirits by the light of the moon, could now make their liquor and there would be plenty of people ready to buy it. But there was another group of highly organized, heavily armed, criminal types that set out to capitalize on filling the now outlawed demand for alcohol. The Al Capone’s and, some say, the Kennedy’s, all sought to make, distribute, import, and sell alcohol of all types, including moonshine to supply the speakeasy’s and underground clubs.
In a mountainside cave in Tennessee I stood where hundreds came to drink moonshine liquor and listen to hillbilly music during that period. Alcohol was now big business! A big, organized crime, business. One of those unintended consequences of what many saw as a “good thing” for society: eliminating the scourge of alcohol. Now there was a scourge of organized crime involved.
An army of federal agents and Elliott Ness were empowered to stop the manufacture and sale of alcohol. Ness became the stuff of legends. It is much like the DEA today trying to arrest more and more thousands of people in the ever increasing wave of drug trafficking coming to our shores from all over the world seeking to fulfill the demand and make billions doing so.
It was just another unintended consequence. Again, the government was making a product more and more profitable by increasing the risks. So profitable that the most dangerous people on the planet are in control of it!
In the end, prohibition was repealed, taxes were assessed and collected and big liquor manufacturers set about supplying the demand for alcohol in the US. The Federal government could now go about finding all the non-tax paying local liquor stills, arrest the small time operators and stop the loss of tax revenue. If you ever thought the Feds were worried about anything other than the money, well, there you go.
The organized crime elements moved on to the next big, outlawed business: Narcotics and hallucinogenic drugs. Do you see a pattern here? They also took control of the “legal” liquor distribution in many areas.
We are now seeing some states defying the federal government and setting up state managed stores and the word is they have become the major source for marijuana and similar drugs in Georgia. We’ll see where that all goes.
And, there are some people that just like the taste of moonshine liquor. And with that in mind, a few companies have sprung up, licensed and approved by the Federal Government, and yes, taxed, that are providing “moonshine”.
Today, there are a number of legal brands of moonshine and some articles have even been written rating who has the best ones. One website has over 50 moonshine flavors that you can buy online! Elliott Ness has probably rolled over. But, I’m sure the taxes are being collected and everyone is happy!
On the Internet, there are several companies that will sell you a beautiful factory built copper still ranging from a capacity of a gallon or two up to about 15 gallons. If you have a hankering and about $1000, go for it. There are some commercial units there as well.
But, back in the day, a lot of moonshining was going on, to hear everyone tell it. Whether there was more going on than the rumors indicated or less, well, we may never know! If someone considered to be poor got a new car or truck, the word was “he must be making licker”.
Now, I have never seen a moonshine still in the woods. I have traipsed around in woods all over central and north Georgia. I know I must have been where some were but wasn’t alert enough to see them, maybe. I do know several people that were involved in the business back in the day. Most are dead and gone now.
A former acquaintance of mine never produced any moonshine but he drove for several different “moonshiners” and told me stories, some no doubt embellished, of his escapades in avoiding getting caught. He did not have a ’40 Ford with a Cadillac motor. He was not out trying to outrun the sheriff. He was trying to outsmart them.
In his young days when he was single, he said he always had a girl in the car, snuggled up, and looking like they were on a date. On one such run he was actually flagged down by the local sheriff and asked for a ride. The sheriff claimed his car was broken down and he needed to go to a local “juke joint” where his deputy was waiting. He just happened to flag this guy down when he had a trunk load of moonshine!
As they were driving to where the deputy was waiting, the sheriff asked him if he was one of the guys who had been hauling moonshine in his county. The sheriff said he had heard that he was.
Of course my acquaintance said, “Oh no, not me. I wouldn’t think of hauling moonshine.”
The sheriff replied that that was great and that he had better never catch him with any. My acquaintance put him out at the juke joint and laughed all evening about what an old fool the sheriff was. He had really pulled the wool over his eyes.
The next week, when he was making a run through the county, he was stopped by the sheriff and his deputy. They arrested him, destroyed his load, and then worked him over pretty good. The sheriff said, “You didn’t get my message last week, I see. I knew you had a load of liquor in the car last week but I wanted to give you a chance.”
The old fool was not as much a fool as the guy thought. This cost him a trip to the magistrate, a big fine and probation. He was warned that if the sheriff caught him again in his county there would be big jail time. He did not get caught again.
The sheriff in the rural counties was a pretty powerful official back in those days. They also had to be somewhat practical in how they enforced the law. Arrest too many relatives and you did not get reelected. Arresting no one and you got the same results. So the local sheriff had to use judgement and reason as well as a gun.
Sheriff Lucius O’Neal, Sr. served in the county from 1941-1960. His son, Lucius, Jr. served from 1961-1983 and died in office, having previously served as deputy. About 42 years of service by one family!
Kay O’Neal, another of Lucius Sr.’s sons, was killed in the line of duty. This family gave everything to the people of the county and the County apparently thought they did a good job.
Who got arrested mostly were the drivers and the still workers. It was usually poor black guys or poor white guys with no money for lawyers and no money period. The guys making the money were likely somewhere playing cards or the church chicken supper and putting money in the offering plate. Again, just rumors.
You could go by the sheriff’s house and see the cars they had confiscated carrying the moonshine that belonged to the big moonshiners. Souped up ’40 Fords and Chevy’s and later it was ’55 Chevy’s and Oldsmobile’s. Sometimes Studebakers and Hudson’s. All with modified engines or some Cadillac motor squeezed in to make it faster than the average sheriff’s car. Extra thick treads on the tires, and built up springs to take the extra weight without squatting down too much in the rear. While some may think this was folklore, you could see them sitting at the sheriff’s house. And, most people knew the people that were building them. Some had bullet holes in them!
1940 Ford Coupe “A Moonshiner’s Favorite”
The car builders did not haul. They provided the cars. The producers, except the very poor independent operator, did not drive the car or work the still. The expendable low level guys did that. So it was a game of cat and mouse. It was when the “revenuers”, the federal law officers came that things were tougher. Tougher sentences, fewer walk-away’s and more and heftier fines and sentences. Less “slaps on the wrist”.
Lucius O’Neal, Jr. bought a black 1958 Chevrolet Biscayne with triple carburetors and it was a very fast car in its day and probably could hold its own with most haulers. He put a lot of hard and fast miles on it and wore out the shifter mechanism in the steering column. Since he had to pay all of his expenses then, he asked me to see if I could fix it without having a big repair bill. I was a kid and tried to make the repair but had no idea what I was doing. I don’t know if he ever got it fixed.
Kay O’Neal bought an original model Plymouth Fury with what then was a Chrysler motor and two four barrel carburetors. This preceded the 426 Hemi Cars that made MoPar famous. The Fury was a very fast car on top end. He and his brother could catch about anything in those days! A few times they tried them out on 341 South to see just which one was fastest. Again, just a rumor. They were both capable of driving with the best of the moonshiners!
One night, we were coming home from the movies in Macon. We were in Lizella, Ga. at about 11:00 and we came up on three or four cars stopped on the shoulder of the road. There were several young black men standing around one car that had a flat tire and they were trying to wave me down.
I wasn’t sure that stopping was safe but the situation looked like someone with a legitimate need. I stopped, with the doors locked, the car in gear ready to go in a hurry if necessary, and I let my window down as one of the young men walked over to my driver’s side window. He was very nicely dressed and I recognized him as being from a well-known black family in the county.
He said, “Thank you for stopping. We have a flat tire on the car there and none of us has a jack that will work to lift the car so we can change it. We really need to get the tire fixed and get going. Do you by chance have a jack?”
I did not feel we were in any danger so I got out, got my jack out and they made fast work of the tire change. He brought the jack back and put it in my car. Then, he asked if I would walk up to his car, he had something that he wanted me to see.
Thinking back, I guess I was not too smart but I walked over to his car. He opened the trunk and it was full of quart jars of clear liquid! He said; “Get you a couple of quarts! It’s the best ‘shine you’ll ever see and I want to repay you for your kindness.”
I thanked him, shook his hand and told him that I did not drink but I was glad I could be of help. With that, he waved goodbye and took off. He did not seem like a gangster to me. I guess I was aiding and abetting.
Now, in the 1920’s, my grandfather was having it tough. He was a farmer and my grandmother was sick. They were married in 1915.
They had run up a pile of doctor bills, according to the story he told me, and he did not have the cash money to pay. His brother in law was also having some money problems. So they decided to become temporary moonshiners.
My grandfather said the plan was to go over to the Vining Place (Property my grandfather owned) and put up a small still by Sweetwater Creek. They would produce enough moonshine to make themselves enough money to cover the doctor bills and what his brother in law needed to catch up and that would be it. No long term career but a “short” venture to solve a “case of the shorts”. They weren’t being greedy.
So, they embarked on their venture. The still was constructed and fired up.
They were at the still when my grandfather saw someone coming. It was the revenuer!
Apparently, someone had turned them in and it was time to run and that’s what they did but my grandfather’s brother in law did not have good eye sight, did not run well and got hung in the barbed wire fence long enough for the revenuer to grab him. There was no shoot out, car chase or knock down drag outs! They were caught before they ever ran off the first batch. Things were not going well.
They were taken to the magistrate in Macon and since it was their first offence and they had not actually sold any, they were let off with a fine. The fines were, yep you guessed it, $250!
Now, my grandfather still had the $250 in doctor bills (about $3500 in today’s money and with no Obamacare), and had to pay back the $250 he had to borrow to pay the fine. So, they did the only logical thing they could do. They fired up the still, produced enough moonshine to pay back the doctor bill and the magistrate fines.
My grandfather said they broke the still down and his life of crime was over. He pointed out once where they had hollowed out a spot near the Sweetwater Creek to locate the still. There was not much to see.
If we learn nothing else from this history, we learn that most things can get the OK from the Federal Government if they can tax it. Even moonshine liquor. We also learn that when things are made illegal, particularly extremely popular things, there won’t be enough jails and enough G men but there will be plenty of people willing to take the risks to supply them due to the potentially huge financial rewards. And, the beat goes on. Wait until guns are outlawed! You ain’t seen nothing yet!
© 2015 SPT