Moonshining as a Fine Art: The Foxfire Americana Library - Foxfire Students (2011)
THE LAW vs. THE BLOCKADER
The reasons for the continuous feud implied in this heading should be obvious by now. The government is losing money that it feels rightfully belongs to it. This has always been the case. In the report from the Commissioner of Internal Revenue for 1877-78, the following appeared:
The illicit manufacture of spirits has been carried on for a number of years, and I am satisfied that the annual loss to the Government from this source has been very nearly, if not quite, equal to the annual appropriation for the collection of the internal revenue tax throughout the whole country. In [the southern Appalachian states from West Virginia through Georgia and including Alabama] there are known to exist 5,000 copper stills.
It’s different now? Clearly not, as seen in an article in the May 3, 1968 Atlanta Constitution on the interim report of the Governor’s Crime Commission. In October, 1967, there were around 750 illicit stills in Georgia, operating at a mash capacity of over 750,000 gallons. This amounts to approximately $52 million in annual federal excise tax fraud, and almost $19 million in state fraud. The article quotes the Commission, placing the blame for Georgia’s ranking as the leading producer of moonshine in the United States on “corrupt officials, a misinformed and sometimes uninterested public, and the climate created by Georgia’s 129 dry counties.”
Originally arrests had been made by government officials (“Feds” or “Revenuers”), but during Prohibition much of the enforcement was left up to the local sheriffs. This put many of them in a peculiar position, for the moonshiners they were being told to arrest were, in many cases, people they had known all their lives. As it turned out, however, most of the lawbreakers were reserving their hostility for the federal agents and the volunteers (called “Revenue Dogs”) who helped them. They had nothing against their sheriff friends who, they understood, were simply doing their jobs. The sheriffs, for their part, understood the economic plight of the moonshiners. For many of these people, making moonshine was the only way they had at the time of feeding their families. As one told us, “I felt like I was making an honest dollar, and if it hadn’t’a been for that stuff, we’d a had an empty table around here.”
The situation resulted in a strange, friendly rivalry in most cases. As one moonshiner said, “I never gave an officer trouble except catchin’ me. After I’uz caught, I’uz his pickaninny.”
The same man told us of a time when he was caught by a local official who was as friendly a man as he had ever met. He wasn’t treated like a criminal or an animal, but treated with respect as another man making a living for a large family—which he was. After it was all over, the local official had made a friend instead of an enemy, and the two are still fast friends today.
During the same period of time, there was another sheriff whom he often encountered on the streets of a little town in North Carolina. The sheriff would always come up to him, greet him, and ask him what he was up to down in Georgia. The other would usually reply, “Oh, not much goin’ on down there.” If, however, the sheriff had gotten a report about one of his stills, he would follow that reply with, “I hear you’re farmin’ in th’ woods.” The moonshiner would know that that was a warning for him to watch his step. Despite the warnings, the sheriff was able to catch him and cut down his stills on three separate occasions, but they remained fast friends.
We talked to several retired sheriffs (one of whom, Luther Rickman, was the first sheriff to raid a still in Rabun County), and they agreed completely. Most of the blockaders that they had encountered ran small operations, and the whiskey they made was in the best traditions of cleanliness. Besides, times were hard, and a man had to eat. Despite the fact that the sheriffs at that time were paid on the “fee system,” and thus their entire salary depended on the number of arrests they made, they did not go out looking for stills. They made arrests only after reports had been turned in voluntarily by informers who, as we shall see later, usually had personal reasons for reporting the stills. They were never hired to do so.
Operating on the fee system, the local officials got $10 just for a still. If they were able to catch the operator also, they received between $40 and $60. Extra money was given them if they brought in witnesses who could help convict. For the blockader’s car, they received approximately half the price the blockader had to pay to get it back which was usually the cash value of the car. And they were allowed to keep any money they could get from selling the copper out of which the still had been made.
Confiscated moonshine, beer, and the like were poured out. The sugar was often donated to an institution like a school or hospital.
The number of stills actually uncovered varied drastically from month to month. Some months, twenty or thirty would be caught and “cut down,” but other months, none at all would be discovered. Hardest of all was catching the men actually making a run. In almost all cases they had lookouts who were armed with bells, horns, or rifles, and who invariably sounded the alarm at the first sign of danger. By the time the sheriff could get to the still, the men would have all fled into the surrounding hills. We were told about one man who was paid a hundred dollars a week just as a sentry. Another still was guarded by the operator’s wife who simply sat in her home with a walkie-talkie that connected her with her husband while he was working. The still, which sat against a cliff behind the house, could only be reached by one route, and that route passed directly in front of the house. The operator was never caught at work. On those occasions when the sheriffs did manage to catch the men red-handed, they usually resigned themselves to the fact that they had been caught by a better man, and wound up laughing about it. On one raid, a sheriff caught four men single-handedly. There was no struggle. They helped the official cut their still apart; and when the job was done, everyone sat down and had lunch together. When they had finished, the sheriff told the men to come down to the courthouse within the next few days and post bond, and then he left.
The same sheriff told us that only rarely did he bring a man in. He almost always told them to show up at their convenience, and they always did. To run would simply have shown their lack of honor and integrity, and they would have ultimately lost face with their community and their customers. They simply paid their fines like men, and went on about their business.
It was a rivalry that often led to friendships that are maintained today. One of the sheriffs, for example, spent two evenings introducing us to retired moonshiners, some of whom he had arrested himself. It was obvious that they bore no grudges, and we spent some of the most entertaining evenings listening to a blockader tell a sheriff about the times he got away, and how; and naturally, about the times when he was not so lucky.
Today federal agents have largely taken over again, and so the character of the struggle has changed. The agents actively stalk their quarry, sometimes even resorting to light planes in which they fly over the hills, always watching. In the opinion of some people, this is just as it should be. One said, “The operations are so much bigger now, and sloppier. If the Feds can’t get’em, the Pure Food and Drugs ought to try. That stuff they’re makin’ now’ll kill a man.” And another said, “People used to take great pride in their work, but the pride has left and the dollar’s come in, by th’ way.”
We was stillin’ one day away up on a side of a hill away from everything, mindin’ our own business, just gettin’ ready t’make a run when my partner all of a sudden sees somethin’ move in a pasture one hill over. Couldn’t tell who he was. Too far away. I couldn’t see him at all, stuck away behind a fence post like that. We went on workin’, keepin’ one eye out, and after we was through, and whatever that was over yonder had gone on, we went over to see. It was somebody there all right. I seed that checkedy sole print in th’ soft ground and we moved her out that night. It was a revenuer all right. I know because I ran into him again later and he asked me about it. But know how I knew before that? Because of that boot print, and because he didn’t come down and say hello. A friend of ours would have.