There were a few unmarked Mason jars floating around, particularly onstage with the storytellers. White lightning. Hooch. The original mountain dew. It's hard to talk about moonshine without evoking winks and smiles. It carries a mystique. If you own some, you whisper about it. If you don't, you can bet someone you know does. It's probably stored in the back of their freezer. Moonshine also carries a certain romance. Because the truth is, there's a story sealed in every Mason jar of the stuff. Those stories are still celebrated in Wilkes County.
Last week, old time bootleggers and retired revenuers met to swap tales. They told about fast car chases, witty judges, and big still busts. There was a lot of laughter. And rumor has it there was even some sipping.
Dean Combs raised his hand, because he had a story to tell. A sly grin crept across his face as he got to going about one of his neighbors who was arrested for bootlegging. In his story, Combs recounted, "So, he wound up going to court and everything, and the judge was going to give him time, and this man was pretty high strung, and the judge said, 'Well, we're gonna give you a year and a day.' And that dude just looked at him and said, 'You're crazy. I can do that standing on my head.' He said, 'Well, I'm gonna give you another year to get back on your feet.'"
An old, out-of-commission still sat on display by the creek. Combs gained a little notoriety as a NASCAR driver in the early 80s. He gained a little more in 2009 when his moonshine still was seized and blown up. But last week, with a microphone in his hand, he was a storyteller. One of 12, in fact. Six former moonshiners (well, at least they claimed they were former). And six retired ATF agents. They all drove the back roads and stalked the back woods here in Wilkes County in the 1950s and 60s. And they all came back here - sitting in a line of rocking chairs on a creek side stage - for the 3rd Annual Moonshiners and Revenuers Reunion.
One of the moonshiners was James Willard "Boots" Shew. Boots earned his nickname, because he always took off his Brogan boots when he went to his still. He knew if he was raided, he could escape faster barefooted.
Boots was speedy, but he eventually got caught. And the way he tells it, he wound up doing some time in prison with someone who later became an infamous killer.
"Well, I went to Greenlough, Virginia, and I met Charles Manson," he said. "I played horseshoes with him. I played ball with him. He was as good a feller as any of us was right then. A little later on, he changed."
Down the stage from Boots sat Agent Will Blocker. He got his own nickname - Possum - while chasing a moonshiner who was nicknamed Duck. Blocker spent a few days staking Duck out in the woods behind Duck's mailbox. When Blocker sneaked into his stakeout position one day, he noticed a dead possum sitting by the mailbox. He thought nothing of it. Duck apparently knew about the stakeout. So, when Duck came out of his house later that day, he marched right up and confronted Agent Blocker.
"Well, he walked right over to me and started cussing me, and said, 'Why in the hell did you put that dead possum in my mailbox?'" says Blocker.
"And, of course, we had a few choice words and his wife, who was with him, she calmed both of us down. But about two weeks later, we finally found his still and caught a couple of still hands. And one of 'em walked up to me and said, 'Hey, Possum Blocker, how you doing.'"
This is how the reunion went. A moonshiner told a story. A revenuer tossed one back. It was a friendly volley in the "Moonshine Capital of America." That moniker for Wilkes County actually came from a 1950 article in American Magazine entitled "Millions in Moonshine." Journalist Vance Packard made that claim as he profiled the way so much of the county's economy was tied up in illegal liquor. One example was that local merchants were making a lot of money selling things like canning jars, yeast, and sugar.
Actually, Wilkes County started to get its reputation as a moonshine hub in the late 19th century says UNC-Asheville History chair Dan Pierce. By the 1950s and 60s, it was just part of the culture. "You've got a situation where making whiskey is kind of deep in the DNA, I guess you'd say, of people in the region," says Pierce. It's something they brought with them from the British Isles. It was an important part of life and culture and the economic life. It was how people paid their taxes."
Location was key, too. Wilkes County was situated on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There was an abundance of remote corners for hiding stills. There were also several mill towns nearby with workers who wanted to drink. They flooded the moonshine market, especially during Prohibition.
These stories told by the moonshine runners and their chasers were entertaining. But the reality is that the policing of moonshine in North Carolina just isn't that big a deal anymore. Sure there's the occasional big bust. Like the 2,000-gallon seizure in Spartanburg County in July. But the North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement reports that just five to six stills are shut down statewide annually. And right here in Wilkes County, Sheriff Chris Shew has only seen two stills this year.
These days, the sheriff says moonshine is more of a novelty than a means of income. "I think some do it just because it's a part of the heritage here," says Shew. "They do it just to keep it alive."
Strawberry-flavored Midnight Moon, Junior Johnson's legal moonshine, was poured for guests at the event. A member of the audience digs for a taste of potent strawberries from the bottom of a jar of Midnight Moon. We know for a fact that one of the moonshiners who shared the stage is keeping it alive. But he's in the legal moonshine business, which is probably an oxymoron to these old timers.
Junior Johnson, the NASCAR Hall of Famer and a sponsor of the event, supplied bottles of Midnight Moon. And Jessie Meador served it up. "We've got three of our Midnight Moon flavors, which is Junior Johnson's family moonshine recipe," she said "They are all made with the corn mash. All triple-distilled to be really clean and smooth. " She went through about a case of liquor that afternoon.
But the point of this event was to capture these stories and celebrate them. It was organized by Junior Johnson and Terri Parsons, the widow of another NASCAR legend, Benny Parsons. They say the reunion is probably the last they'll host. The old moonshiners and revenuers just can't get out like they used to. That means the cat and mouse-type stories will just have to be remembered and retold. Luckily, there was an audience last week in that creek side clearing way back in the Wilkes County woods. The moonshiners caravanned to the event in classic cars from the 1940s and 50s.