Author: Alvira, Marco

The State of the Still

Charlie, my cousin, and I had just finished a good morning of frogging. Our buckets were full of the large green, twitching amphibians just waiting to be delegged and eaten for dinner. We had ridden our bicycles for, what seemed to our eleven year old legs, a marathon that would challenge the Tour de France in difficulty. The Ozark’s convoluted dirt roads rose and fell with the deep, back wood hills like a boardwalk roller coaster. Dark verdant tress crowded the edges of the narrow roads, and the buzzing of the June bugs was constant. The thick humid Missouri air made the work hot and sticky, so the two streams that crossed our way were indeed welcomed as we hopped off the bikes and waded across. (I learned then that the old saying, “God willing and the creek don’t rise” was more than a euphemism to these folks) The large legs on the beauties we had caught that morning, by themselves, made the journey worth the effort.

As we hung the galvanized pails from our handlebars readying to leave, I noticed a slight bluish haze rising from some distance behind the dilapidated Civil War era barn that stood at the crest of the hill on which we stood. (Exploring the old barns in these dells was an adventure. To this day, our family has a box of Indian artifacts and fossils we uncovered every time we ventured into the wood and fields.) Curious as always, I told Charlie that we ought to investigate the source. We’d probably stumble onto some farmer’s smoke house I suspected. Charlie was clear in his response, “Naw, we gotta stay outa that halluh. Joe said (he always called his father by his first name) ta stay away from ol’ Frank’s still.” He turned to get on his bike, not even thinking twice about what he had just said…as if he had said something like “ Don’t touch them biscuits, were saving them for dinner.”

“Aw, come on Charlie,” I pleaded, “we gotta check it out!”

“You can if you wanna, but I’m going home. It’s getting time for chores.”

That was it. I was defeated in my effort to persuade Charlie to do the impossible: break Joe’s rules and, most importantly, shirking his chores. Joe’s was a real farm…of the old school variety. To this day, I can only imagine what we might have found had we taken the chance. It’s something I think of every time I drive a narrow rural road. Even more recently, I watched a video of two ol’ timers putting together a still from scratch. One fellow in particular shared a couple of stories about how folks would gather together to have a snort and play music, or how his mother would hand out liquor—for medicinal purposes I suppose. All the while, in the background of the video, there were musicians picking, bowing and singing some great old time music. While this seemed all very quaint and nostalgic, it got me to wondering about the state of moonshining in the mountain culture today.

The image of the hillbilly moonshiner is iconic in American culture. It epitomizes the southern/ Appalachian rural lifestyle which to many a northern bias, signifies anything from rustic charm to ignorance and, in the worse case, barbarism. The images in the media speak for themselves: the long-bearded hillbillies feuding in a Warner Brother cartoon, the perverted hillbillies in a very tense scene in the movie Deliverance, or the simple, jug playing Briscoe Darling, patriarch of the fictional Darlings on the Andy Griffith Show. To another mind, the moonshiner embodies the classic American virtues of independence and determination against larger, more powerful forces: be it the bumbling sheriff of Hazard County or the dreaded federal revenuers of the prohibition era.

The great Foxfire Book, edited by Eliot Washington and his students, credit the industry of moonshining to the Scotch-Irish immigrants of the early and mid 18th century. These folks from Ulster, Ireland fled high taxes, drought, and political upheaval in the 1700’s for the freedom ad opportunity of America. The nearest land available to them, however, was in Appalachia and western Pennsylvania, the hinterlands of their time. Back in Ireland, they had developed the art of clandestinely distilling liquor to avoid stiff excises and harsh search and seizures. These activities were best conducted at night under the light of the moon for concealment, thus becoming known as moonlighting. They brought these skills and art with them to their new home. Here in America, the moonlighters later came to be called moonshiners.

Soon these Scotch -Irish and their children found themselves embroiled in an armed conflict with the U.S. government known as the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. These western farmers found it more profitable to turn many of their agricultural products in to distilled beverages. Liquor didn’t spoil, was easier to transport, and was insulated against the wild fluctuation of farm products of the time. Alexander Hamilton, however, also found it profitable to tax this whiskey in order to pay off the national debt. The tax was as much as the price of the Whiskey. These hard working folks, no strangers to defending their property by force from the British or the Indians on the frontier, resisted with arms. This is the only time in U.S. history that a sitting President has led troops on the field. It must have been a chilling surprise, indeed, to the Scotch-Irish farmers that General George Washington himself was fielding 13,000 troops directed at them. They soon disbanded. This promulgated the production of whiskey under the cover of night. The U.S. government, since, has lost millions of dollars to illegal whiskey production. According to The Foxfire Book and other sources, the small independent moonshiner with his copper tulip still is on the decline today. The reasons are varied; one being improved law enforcement techniques and stiffer penalties; another is that the need for the alcohol for home remedies has declined as the pharmaceutical industry has grown. The greatest cause is that modern moonshiners have improved distilling technology so that they can make more liquor cheaply and quickly. The old timers add that such liquor has lost its quality as the care and attention to technique wanes.

For an interesting glimpse of moonshiners actually making a still, check out the link: Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton is featured prominently on several videos and a documentary about moonshining. He has been portrayed in videos, books and in popular culture as the last of his kind. He is of Scotch-Irish background and he, like so many other folks from the Appalachians, is fiercely independent. Though his physical appearance, demeanor, and speech reflect a bygone era, he was caught with more than 800 gallons of whiskey—more than the small potato, ol’ time ‘shiner distilling for his own use image that some are trying to present, but certainly less than the 3,000 gallon mega stills that are in bootlegging production today. He was sentenced to two consecutive 18 month prison terms and then three years of probation. Rather than face incarceration, he apparently committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. A survey of the literature surrounding Popcorn reveals an interesting aspect of the American psyche that is reflected in political debate today. For many, Sutton represents the individual exercising his liberty contrary to the will of a government determined to restrict individual freedom. If one takes even a cursory glance at his life, there is certainly a level of carefree, self-determinism that is to be at least secretly coveted by those of us living under the clock on our employer’s wall. On the other hand, if we are to avoid anarchy, laws need be obeyed and the government must be allowed to fulfill the mandates stated in the Constitution’s preamble. With extreme positions being staked out in public discourse today, it seems like this would be a good time for all sides to come to the table and practice some good ol’ moonshine diplo
Posted:  9/6/2009

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