Moonshining as a Fine Art: The Foxfire Americana Library - Foxfire Students (2011)
FINDING THE HIDDEN STILL
Law officers have used many methods for finding hidden stills. Each time one became popular, the blockaders countered by hiding it in a different way. Here, however, are some of the methods used.
1. They are always alert for signs. A brick dropped in the middle of the woods is an obvious one. Why would it be there except for a furnace? Spilled meal or sugar on the side of a road is suspicious. A ladder left at the top of a high cut in the road is an obvious signal; probably it is used to load and unload supplies from the back of a pickup. Other signs include an empty sugar bag, a broken jar, a place in the woods where trees have been cut, a pile of charcoal, an empty cement bag, a broken shovel handle, a barrel stave, a burlap sack.
2. With an officer on either side of a backwoods dirt road—each two hundred yards away from the road, walking parallel to it—they search for a place where a trail begins.
3. With a boat, they search the edges of a lake. They look for signs of activity near a place where a branch empties into the lake. Such signs might be places where a boat has been pulled up on shore or slick trails made by dragging heavy feed bags.
4. They stake out a road and watch for signs of unusual activity in the early morning hours. They follow any cars heading up little-used roads. Or an officer might stake out a section of woods and listen for sounds such as a hammer against metal, the sound of a thump barrel, etc.
5. Usually areas where moonshine is being made have a distinctive smell. Law officers may detect that while walking through forest.
Many stills are found by people like hunters who spend much time in the woods and merely stumble across one by accident. Others are found by searching small branches that flow from hillsides through heavy growth.
The most prevalent means of finding stills, however, remains the informer. Often, they are people with a grudge or an axe to grind. One moonshiner characterized them as people, “who don’t have enough of their own business to mind, and so they feel obligated to mind th’ business of other people. Th’ lowest man I know,” he continued, “is one who wins your confidence, buys your liquor, and then turns you in. I believe there’s a special place for people like that after they die.”
Some informers hardly deserve such criticism. A mother whose young son comes in drunk and inadvertently tells her where he got the whiskey might well try to do something about it. A man who finds a blockader operating on his property without his permission has a right to ask the sheriff to remove him.
A more common motive, however, is jealousy. Sheriffs told us story after story in which a man whose still had just been cut down would turn in another out of spite. “They’ve cut mine. I’ll fix it so they’ll get some others too. If I can’t be running, I don’t want them running either.”
Another ex-sheriff told us the following story. “While I was in office, a man who owned a still invited a neighbor to come in with him and make a run of apple brandy. When the run was finished, they ended up with thirty-nine gallons. The owner of the still took twenty, and gave his neighbor nineteen. The more the neighbor thought about it, the madder he got. What really irked him was that the owner of the still already had a buyer for his twenty gallons; he had none.
“They took their brandy and hid it in separate places. That night, the neighbor came to me and told me that he knew where twenty gallons of fresh brandy was hidden and wanted me to do something about it. So I got out of bed and went and poured the brandy out, like I’m supposed to do.
“Later I found out that when the buyer came to get his twenty gallons, the neighbor stopped him, told him that the sheriff had already found it and poured it out, and then sold him his nineteen. I found out all about it from the owner of the still who came in here as mad as any man I ever saw. I just did keep him from going and killing that neighbor.”
Sometimes the stories take surreal twists. The same officer also told us this story, and swore that it really happened. “A man that lived around here while I was in office knew of an underground still that was a beautiful thing to look at. He wanted the rig himself, so one night he broke the lock on the trap door, got into the underground room, and took it. The next day he came to me saying he knew where a still was that I should cut down, and he’d even come with me to show me where it was. I was suspicious, but I went.
“When we got there, I saw right away that the lock on the door was broken, and when I got inside, I saw that the still was gone too. Well, I broke up what was left in there and then came back out and told the man that the still wasn’t there. He really carried on when I said that, but I knew right away what was up. He had taken it, and wanted me to bust up the place so that the owner would think that I had gotten his still during my raid.
“I went back to the office, and not too long after that, the owner showed up and asked if I had gotten his still. When I told him I hadn’t, he wanted to know who had stolen it. I knew all the time, but I never said anything. I never once let anyone know who I had gotten information from. It just would have caused trouble.
“Finally the man who owned it asked me if I would just keep my eyes open for it. He didn’t want it back necessarily—just wanted to know when it showed up out of curiosity. Then he told me how he had dropped it one day and broken a piece of the collar. Said he had put a “V”-shaped patch on the broken place, and that’s how I’d know it was his.
“Well, I found out later that the man who had taken it in the first place had taken it home and put it in the loft of his barn. Two boys working for him loading hay found it up there, and they stole it from him.
“Several days later, there was a robbery in town, and that night I was in there looking around to see if I could pick up a clue or something. Just keeping my eyes open. While I was in there, these two boys came along. I got back out of the way out of sight, and these two sat down on some steps not far from me. I could hear everything they were saying. Turns out they were still laughing about this new still they had gotten and wondering where they could set it up and when they could get it running. You won’t believe this, but they finally decided to set it up on a vacant piece of land that I owned—said I’d never look for it there in a hundred years. They’d make four or five runs and then they’d move it somewhere else.
“The next day I went up on the land where the boys had talked about setting it up—in some laurels up there—and sure enough, there it was, and there was the patch. I got it and took it into town to the office.
“When I saw the original owner again, I called him over. Said I had something to show him. Boys, his eyes popped right out of his head. That was it all right. I didn’t tell him how I got it, but we had many a good laugh over that later on.”
The fact that hogs love the corn mash that whiskey is made out of is legend. Often moonshiners were forced to put fences around their stills to keep hogs, who were kept on “open range” then, from falling into the mash boxes and drowning. Once a two hundred-pound sow fell into a mash box where she drowned. The men running the still found her body in there several days later, but went on and made whiskey from the same mash anyway. From then on, if whiskey was too strong, the man drinking it would say, “That must’a had a dead hog in it.”