Appalachia Appalachian Writers Profiles of Mountain People

An Innocent Moonshiner

Appalachian Grammar Lesson 11 2

Today’s guest post is written by Ed Myers (Bryson City, NC)

AN INNOCENT MOONSHINER

By way of background and to establish at least half of my bonifides, I hail from Oak Ridge, TN, a modest little scientific community created by the U.S. government in a previously unoccupied hollow of the southern Appalachian mountain range (is there any other?), and known far and wide (at least to its residents) as Atomic City, USA. To place the place, Oak Ridgers were once proud to be a part of the Manhattan project and number five on the Soviet Union’s hit list.

Still, despite having been raised in this culturally bizarre setting, in my heart, I have always been a mountain boy, one with deep roots and bare feet in Union County, TN, an equally radioactive place in its own right known more for the explosiveness of its shine than its U-235.

My mother’s people were and are from there, and at the age of 12, she introduced me to a few of these proud and crafty miscreants via the unlikely route of the Southern Appalachian Regional Science Fair held, at least then, in Knoxville.

Our junior high school (as such were known in the sixties; never got used to “middle school”) was allowed one contestant for the annual title of “Best in Regional Science”. I was the one selected that year, not because I had any particular scientific bent, but because I could (and as my close uncles did for a living) sell vacuum cleaners and shoes to folks who had yet to join the grid.

My “science” project was The History of Moonshine, which beat out a kid who made a primitive computer by making magnets dance on a red-hot frying pan (go figure). He won the thing the next year with the same project, but in his defense, he didn’t have the opportunity, as I did, to live…albeit all too briefly…amongst a flamboyant tribe of outright and rightly pleasing liars who possessed only a passing familiarity with the law.

So, I won the pre-competition and had to deliver. My father’s people were Church of Christ from middle Tennessee, so no help there. But, my mother’s were straight up hillbillies and artists of liquor-ish ways, as I was to learn only too (alright, not too much “too”) well.

They knew how to make it from potatoes, from store-bought sugar, from molasses, from peaches and plain old bleached flour if need be. But, their open air “secret”, at least in those parts, was to make it from the hardest, ugliest, most indigestible mule corn they could find.  They taught me how.

The long and short of it was you got some burlap bags, soaked them in water and laid them on a single layer of corn, right by a warm place. Then you waited for sign.

Some said it was a hollow moon rising just above the peaks. To others, it was the chirping of spring robins as they gathered on the land to feed. To my people, however, it was the first sign of life, the swelling of the corn until it just barely cracked its shell and its natural sugars were most concentrated. No sooner; no later.

Perhaps this is why some people call moonshine “the breath of life.” Of course, they may be thinking of something else.

When the sprouts had sprung, as it were, you gathered up all the corn, even those kernels that were a little late in the game, tossed them into a hollow log shaped for the purpose, and mashed them plenty with a two-handled hickory maul to make, well, mash.

You then stole your mother’s clay butter churn (for very small batches), put the mess inside with varying amounts of warm water (about a four-to-one ratio), threw in a cake of yeast, covered it up tight (except for a small hole in the lid) and waited…and waited (about three weeks)…for the resulting “beer” to ferment. I well remember the smell of sour yeast and young liquor that coated your lungs and everything else in the neighborhood.

When the yeast stopped digesting all that sweet corn syrup (in the process “making” grain alcohol), you waited some more…and more (again, about three weeks, unless you “clayed” it the fermented beer)…until it settled to the bottom of the churn. Then, you poured off the refined beer on top, strained it through the burlap sacks you used before, and put it in the still.

The other open secret, aside from the use of bastard corn, was to cook the beer under a very low heat so that most of the alcohol vapors rose ahead of the steaming water into a cooling coil and condensed into the bottle beneath it.

At this point, and depending on the skill of the maker, the white liquor was about 160-180 proof. With practice, you could tell the proof by the size and number of the beads that danced on the surface when you dropped a drop, or by just burning it and judging its purity by the color of the flame. Or, you could drink it and hope you survived enough to croak an opinion.

If you were careful, and took pains to sop up the little bead of poison oil that develops on the beer (another secret step that eliminated most hangovers, or so I’ve been told), what remained was a good quart to quart-and-a-half of undiluted zing, or what has justly become known as “sweet white lightening.”

I know, because I did it, fermenting the beer in my mother’s bedroom (which was unfortunate as the churn cracked and we had to keep my grandmother from my father’s side away for a while).

To shorten the tale, I didn’t win the cup, or ribbon, or whatever, but I made the cover of the local newspaper, and my exhibit was by far the most popular in the place, particularly amongst the other contestants who otherwise wasted their time with such endeavors as mapping variable enzyme levels in cow udders.

And truth be told, I have to ask and thereby answer, who needs dancing computers, when you could be the one dancing?

###

——————–

Now that was a story! Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did-leave Ed a comment and I’ll make sure he reads it!

Tipper

 

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26 Comments

  • Reply
    Brandi Nabors
    March 18, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    i so love this blog! and i loved this post! my daddy is from oak ridge – born and raised, but moved to ga and met my mama.
    i’m all the time tellin’ him i want to shine with him – it’s on my bucket list.
    thanks for sharing

  • Reply
    Becky
    March 14, 2011 at 10:05 am

    LOVED THIS STORY, Tipper!!!
    My great Uncle made shine and I have wished many times that I had been around to watch him and learn from him. Not that I would make it, but I just think it would have been an interesting learning experience.

  • Reply
    Joey @ Big Teeth & Clouds
    March 13, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    That was quite a story. I’ve never visited a blog like this. You’ve transported me to a place more than any other!

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    March 13, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    Now that’s a tale. Thank you, Mr Myers, you’ve made my day!

  • Reply
    kat
    March 13, 2011 at 10:33 am

    Enjoyed the moonshine making story. Remember hearing my folks tell of bootleggers in this part of the country. They are all dead now but wouldn’t be surprised if it’s still being made.

  • Reply
    Mary
    March 13, 2011 at 8:09 am

    Loved this, there is history of moonshine makers in our family tree too.

  • Reply
    janet pressley
    March 13, 2011 at 3:06 am

    To all the moonshiners out there – I think it is an art to be able to make. I love the fire cherries! Thank you for the stories. Nana

  • Reply
    Suzi Phillips
    March 12, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    Tipper-Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have a conversation about likker without bringing Popcorn into it? I have known other moonshiners who were fine people. Popcorn wasn’t. Nuff said.

  • Reply
    Eva M. Wike, Ph. D.
    March 12, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    Hey Ed: I have spent fifty years in Oak Ridge and never knew such went on in this ‘educated’ town in those early days! Where I come from in NC, making white lighting was just as common as planting taters! In addition to your ‘famous’ name you will now be known as a consultant in the ‘shine’ making business! You would enjoy visiting the GEORGIA MOUNTAIN FAIR and see how my cousin as he sets up his still and talks to folks about the best way to make the ‘shine’ – the LAW makes him do this – instead of serving time!!! Wish I had known you when I was writing the HISTORY OF MY MOONSHINING ANCESTORS!
    Cheers,
    Eva Wike,Ph.D.
    Oak Ridge, TN
    Author
    “The Matheson Cove – In the Shadow of the Devil’s Post Office” 2007

  • Reply
    Ken
    March 12, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Tipper,
    I enjoyed Ed’s method of making
    ‘shine’ and can relate to those
    times. My daddy was Superintendent
    at our church and a deacon for as
    long as I can remember. He didn’t
    fool with liqueur at all, but our
    neighbors did. They made ‘shine’
    on our property cause they knew the Sheriff respected my dad. One
    day my brother and I found two
    steals while looking for grapevines to swing on and they
    were a long ways from our house.
    They only worked on rainy, foggy
    days to hide the smoke. We never
    told daddy but did tell a friend
    of one of my older brothers. He
    stole that sucker, carried it one
    piece at a time to his house
    through the mountains. Then he
    came back and got 10 gallons from
    the other steal. Well, the moon-
    shiners never said a word to daddy
    about their whisky or steals, they
    were afraid of losing a friendship
    of a neighbor…Ken

  • Reply
    Bradley
    March 12, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    Ed,
    Now this story is superb! This is the type of reading that would best be read on a rainy day with a hot cup of coffee ( or beverage of choice)! I could read stories like this all day and never tire; I know I speak for everyone when I say that I hope Tipper gets you to do another story for us.
    Bradley

  • Reply
    Brenda Kay Ledford
    March 12, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    This was a great story. I enjoyed it a lot. We sure remember the old-time moonshiners of Appalachia.

  • Reply
    Sheila Bergeron
    March 12, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    I think you’re an old hand at swapping stories. I enjoyed it very much.

  • Reply
    Tipper
    March 12, 2011 at 11:44 am

    Jim-you have a good eye-that is Popcorn Sutton. The photo is courtesy of Charles Fletcher. The effect used on the photo is courtesy of me : )
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Music, Giveaways, Mountain Folk
    All at http://www.blindpigandtheacorn.com

  • Reply
    B.Ruth
    March 12, 2011 at 11:33 am

    Loved this story! Great Job! Hits close to home..Not counting that I had cousins that knew where and when you could see Popcorn Sutton..ha
    I am realizing more and more how many folks from the Secret City are readers and commentors of the Blind Pig..like a reunion! ha
    People you really have to understand how serious “The Secret City” school marms and ones on the higher civic ladder took to these real fancy and sometimes far advanced, for the students, Science Fair projects…for obvious reasons!…After all the scientific communities reputation was at stake!..ha
    Took a mountain boy to change it up!
    I loved this story Ed…Well told and brought back so many memories, eventhough you are a lot younger than I am..we came to OR in ’43..I graduated in the ’50’s, from ORHS…
    Thanks Tipper

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    March 12, 2011 at 11:21 am

    Tipper–I enjoyed the story. Where did you, or Ed Myers, get the photo which goes with it. Unless I’m badly mistaken, the bearded guy is the late Popcorn Sutton. I knew Popcorn and still have a jar of his “cherries” (i. e., a jar of peartin’ juice crammed full of maraschino cherries) here somewhere.
    For good or bad–and there’s some of both in my opinion–moonshining is a deeply ingrained part of the mountain way of life.
    Jim Casada
    http://www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com

  • Reply
    Charline
    March 12, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Ed,
    Your tale is delightful enough, but all the more, for me, from a fellow Oak Ridge native!
    A certain ‘clear as water’ concoction could be purchased of a Saturday at the bus station,or so I was told. At the age of nine, while spending the day with some relatives,I ate something distasteful and jerked the refrigerator door open to swig down a very full and heavy jug of water – only it wasn’t water. Before swallowing the burning liquid, I spit the contents back into the jug – floaties and all! I replaced the cap and spent the rest of the day on the side porch of the ‘D’ house, fearing I would be found out. I was well into my forties before finding out that it had been purchased to make ‘Purple Passion’ for a party elsewhere – and that the floaties didn’t hurt it a bit.

  • Reply
    Garland Davis
    March 12, 2011 at 10:39 am

    I maintain that my Grandfather wasn’t a bootlegger. He was a pioneer in the Ethanol Industry!

  • Reply
    Sallie Covolo
    March 12, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Great Story

  • Reply
    Douglas
    March 12, 2011 at 9:59 am

    We all know “shine” is illegal but some where in there is an allowance to make a litte homebrew for one’s own consumption. Growing up in my small town in Kentucky I was still always amazed at my cattey corner neighbor who was such a character who worked very hard at farming and had a bit of mysterious past (at least mysterious to me at 11,12 years old). He was good friends with the police chief and they often sat together visiting under the shade in his front yard on hot summer afternoons after work. Usually, on the flat arm of that old wood rocking chair, there sat a quart fruit jar of some clear liquid.

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    March 12, 2011 at 9:19 am

    Great story. I was born in Oak Ridge, but moved to nearby Roane County at age 3. Never was involved in the likker trade, but I can claim distant kinship through my Allison line to Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, a famous moonshiner who died in 2009. Never met him, but all indications are that he was a pretty shocking character…

  • Reply
    Wayne Newton
    March 12, 2011 at 8:50 am

    Great story, made all the better in the telling!!!
    If there were any moonshiners in my family, it was kept a secret from me.
    Some of the men who farmed on our place, though, always had some concoction under a croker sack, their ingenuity was evidenced by the places where they hid it on the farm.
    From them and my cousin, the sheriff, who was always a step or two behind them, I saw all kinds of, liquor, and tasted a few of them.
    Brings back so many memories.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    March 12, 2011 at 8:44 am

    Great story, it kept a big smile on my face the entire time I was reading! Thank you

  • Reply
    Sue Crane
    March 12, 2011 at 8:22 am

    my grandparents bought a house once owned by a supplier of home made spirits and it was said when you went there he would ask you to wait and he would walk around house and when he came back he would have a bottle of “shine”. There was a somewhat makeshif room at the back of the house that Grandmother and Granddaddy wanted to convert to a bedroom — and in the outer wall, accessed through the window base which lifted up was a tank with a spout extending out the floor!

  • Reply
    Nancy @ A Rural Journal
    March 12, 2011 at 7:53 am

    Precious story and delightfully told. Kudos, Ed. You made my day. 🙂

  • Reply
    dolores
    March 12, 2011 at 7:52 am

    That was rather interesting. I’m glad that your project was the history of Moonshine and that you didn’t produce some, especially at a middle school age. I enjoyed the story!

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