Moonshine flows - and feds crack down

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Tim Smith is a mechanic, not a moonshiner. That's not to say he didn't have a chance: Using recipes dating back centuries, both his father and brother tended "black pot" stills here in the bottom of Appalachia's eastern foothills.

Today, Mr. Smith is more interested in the heritage of the moonshiners than in their hard-knuckled brew. In an outdoor museum of sorts, the former Army intelligence officer has recreated several rusty stills complete with "mash boxes," "doublers," distilling "worms," and "axe gashes." A few weeks ago, the Third Annual Moonshiners Jamboree drew 700 people to this cornfield near Danville, Va.

Making and selling alcohol without a license is illegal. But even under centuries of federal surveillance, the moonshine industry has evolved from an illegal folk art to a big business involving dozens of suppliers, distillers, and distributors from Roanoke, Va., to Johnston County, N.C. Instead of small nailed-together tubs, today's mega-moonshiners use huge stainless stills that take up entire barns and produce hundreds of gallons of whiskey a day.

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"I've maintained there's 50,000 gallons of untaxed liquor leaving southwest Virginia every year, and nobody's ever disputed that," says Jack Allen Powell, a retired revenuer who wrote a book about the business called "A Dying Art."

Law enforcement efforts have intensified to keep up with the burgeoning production. These verdant hills are now the scene of a significant strike against these Southern bootleggers.

This week, as part of the biggest moonshine bust in US history, alcohol-control agents are wrapping up Operation Lightning Strike, an eight-year sweep that netted 27 bootleggers running a corn liquor conspiracy from Philadelphia to Raleigh. The don of the operation is Ralph Hale Sr., the elder of a vast family network based out of Franklin County, Va., just a crow's flight from Smith's cornfield.

Steeped in history

A gallon milk jug full of home brew costs about $35 - half the price of legal whiskey. Besides the low cost, many people just like saying they drink "shine," says Mr. Powell.

Since before the US began taxing liquor in 1791, descendants of independent-minded Scots and Irishmen have holed up in the crags of Appalachia, brewing surplus corn, sugar, and "crick" water into a potent spirit, usually under cover of the moon.

They've survived through the Civil War, the teetotalling Rutherford B. Hayes years, the "revenuers" of the Prohibition, and even the advent of "wet" Southern cities in the 1960s and 1970s, which allowed the legal sale of alcohol and put many small stills out of business.

"One of the ways you could market agricultural surplus in an area with difficult communication and bad roads is to convert it to brandy or whiskey," says John Williams, a history professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. "This has been customary among several of the groups that settled the Appalachians, especially from the northern part of the British Isles, where they had a tradition of defying government regulation," he says.

For Troy, an aging moonshiner who doesn't want his last name used, distilling spirits was a way to make ends meet: "We did it so we could send our kids to school and put a piece of bacon on the table." He claims that the high tariffs on spirits make it impossible for most farmers to ply the trade legitimately.

Today, a new style of family-based operations has supplanted the small stills and developed into real money-making propositions.

As far as the Hale gang, alcohol-control agents estimate that they produced 1.5 million gallons of liquor from 1992 to 1999, ducking some $19.6 million in taxes. When the law caught up with Climax local Paul Henson a few years ago, officers found this new kind of operation. - a 36-pot behemoth set up just a few miles from here at Smith Mountain Lake. It was the biggest still ever wrecked by federal agents.

Still, even such high-rolling rumrunners don't exactly live the Riviera lifestyle. A small-time operator may bring in $30,000 a year, while paying still hands $150 a day under the table. One pick-up truck full of spirits may bring in about $5,000 for a distiller.

A 'sinister' business

To be sure, many see the distilling and running of "white lightning" through these mountains as a sinister business. Teetotalling wives were often the first to call the law on their husbands. Even today, Smith has received bad publicity over the appropriateness of his Jamboree. Similarly, Asheville, N.C., recently changed the name of its baseball team from the Moonshiners to the Tourists.

The first reaction of a moonshiner to scrutiny is to run. In Pittsylvania County, Va., the late Aubrey Adkins was as much known for his sprints as his spirits. Usually, the agents would wait at the still as Mr. Adkins crashed through the woods - to soon return.

At the same time, Agent Bart McEntire knows it's tough to ferret out these close-knit mountain communities. Over the years, agents have employed citizens to get the scoop on moonshiners' whereabouts.

But it can be a tough sell. Indeed, the reason Franklin County became known as the "Moonshine Capital" in the 1930s is that federal agents arrested nearly every judge and lawyer in the district for sheltering bootleggers. Even today, fines and penalties at local courts tend to be lenient.

For now, law officials say the flow of "white lightning" from this region has largely been stemmed, as Mr. Hale faces a possible life sentence and many of his 26 lieutenants settle in for what will likely be a few years in the federal pen.

"This was one of those situations grown to the magnitude where it was time for somebody to basically shut it down," Mr. McEntire says. "It's not fair to a common citizen who goes to work eight hours a day while another guy is bringing in $4,000 a week with illegal activity," he adds.

Still, a growing number now celebrate the heritage of the moonshiners, if not the moonshine: New Prospect, S.C., hosts a Moonshiners Reunion every October, and, around the same time, Dawsonville, Ga., celebrates the Moonshine Festival.

Indeed, the moonshiners' gruff legacy has caused even ex-revenuers to grow nostalgic.

When Mr. Powell, for instance, came to Climax to help shoot a documentary on moonshiners, he ran into Mr. Henson, the famed distiller. Powell was so excited, he got Henson a part in the documentary - as a still hand who takes off into the woods when the agents show up.

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