Appalachia Genealogy

Remembering Hol Rose and Babe Burnett

old photo of two men standing by moonshine still

Charlie Beck and Hol Rose
Photo used with the permission of Hunter Library Special Collections:

On July 18, at 1 pm in the conference room of United Community Bank in Bryson City, NC (145 Slope Street), Friends of the Bryson City Cemetery (FBCC) will have a program to discuss the life and death of U.S. Prohibition Agent James Holland “Hol” Rose, who is buried in the Bryson City Cemetery.

With the possible exception of the formation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, no circumstance in Swain County in the first half of the 20th century received broader exposure than events related to the death of Rose at the hand of J.E. “Babe” Burnett. Rose died on October 25, 1920 from a shotgun blast to his chest on upper Brush Creek, near the Burnett barn. Burnett fled the scene, though wounded in the leg from either Rose or Charlie Beck, who was assisting Rose.

After successfully eluding pursuers by crossing the ridge to Lakey Creek and wading through that stream to confound bloodhounds put on his trail, Burnett hid out for several months, initially near the home of Frank and Etta Browning. Etta Browning’s mother was a first cousin to Babe. There were reports that he was sighted near Spokane, Washington a month later; that proved untrue. He finally turned himself in to the county sheriff almost seven months later, on May 15, 1921.

Dozens of newspapers, from Washington, DC to Tampa, Florida and Ogden, Utah reported on the death of Rose and the trials of Burnett.

The review of the life and death of Hol Rose will include Rose’s extended family, one of whom was the famous blockader and backwoodsman, Quill Rose – Hol’s uncle. Babe Burnett and his family, along with developments connected with the trials and strong local sympathy for Burnett will also be part of the discussion. That includes the strange marriage of Babe Burnett’s son Verlin to Hol Rose’s daughter, Ima – who met during Babe’s first trial. Descendants of both Hol Rose and Babe Burnett plan to attend and participate in the discussion, bringing a personal touch to the dialogue. Gary Reece, grandson of the Brownings, will recall their role in Babe’s flight and ultimate surrender.

This, like all FBCC meetings, is open to the public, and visitors are welcome.


A big thank you to Don Casada for sharing this press release about the event with us!


p.s. You can catch The Pressley Girls over the next few weeks at the following places:

July 14, 2019 @ 2:00 p.m. Festival on the Square – Hayesville NC

July 19, [email protected] 7:00 p.m. Historic Union County Courthouse – Blairsville GA

July 27, 2019 @ 8:00 p.m. Vogel State Park Blairsville – GA

August 3, 2019 @ 8:00 p.m. Mountain Dance and Folk Festival – Asheville NC

August 17, 2019 @ 2:10 p.m. Swain County Agriculture Fair – Bryson City NC

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  • Reply
    Kevin Barton
    July 22, 2019 at 10:03 am

    My mother was Audrey Rose Barton youngest daughter of Hol Rose.I am Kevin Barton ,(grandson of Holand Rose), I was in attendance for the meeting at FBCC.On July 18. Having known of the accounts for many years and statements made at trial.In todays courts I feel confident Burnett would have been convicted and not overturned.Charlie Becks testimony stated the only shot fired by Hol was in deaths throws as he fell from being struck by gunshot.If Hol had fired the first shot the Burnett would have been more than likely struck in the upper torso.Rose was known to be quiet a marksman. The gun that was brought to the meeting gave me even more reason to believe pre meditation.It was a double barrel shotgun handed down through the Burnett family thought to be the murder weapon.In its day would have been an expensive beautiful cherished piece that no one would have left out in a hay stack.Any reasonable person that has ever owned a gun would conclude premeditation for afore mentioned reasons alone.As to the not having a warrant the first contact that day established the illegal first steps in the process of alcohol were in plain sight.This alone gave reason for further investigation.After Beck and Rose departed the first time,not having found the still moved on to give Burnett time to realign his still.Upon returning and the fact that he ran also led officers to believe catching and taking him into custody would produce his still.The plan in Burnett’s mind was if they returned he would be ready for them.Not self defense but cold blooded murder not intending to be taken into custody. Ask yourselves now what would have happened if he had not ran. Can’t help but notice the same things happen in law enforcement even today.Look at almost every officer involved death or shooting.They almost always involve resisting stop or arrest.Instead trying to be law abiding citizens and having their day in court they choose to take a life.Many times they are killed and for what? So now you will make the argument they chased an un armed man with guns drawn.Anyone who knows any mountain history knows almost everyone carried a knife.And the hidden gun in the hay stack shows again they had good reason.Guess I have probably offended some of Burnett’s family I know about loyalty to family. But could you today gun down a law enforcement officer in pursuit of you.Why should you need to run in the first place unless you are guilty of a crime and fear jail time if caught.Even then would it be right to take a life for your cause.It was tragic all around.I lost a grandfather I would never meet.’Babe’ Burnett spent hard time in prison which probably hastened his death.My Mother and her older sisters were left without a father at a young age.A few short years later their mother passed away with cancer. The younger of the girls were moved to an orphans home. The home place and land was taken for Fontana Dam which is now National Park
    Remember the famous Road To Nowhere,it was to access the graves of our relatives buried across the lake.The only access being by boat.Have now and will to my departing this earth feel a great void of sorrow and loss for Grandfather,Grandmother and the home place that was taken from us. God bless and keep both family’s hope everyone has made preparation for that reunion in heaven.
    Again special thanks to Don Casada for all the hard work he does as he lays up many treasures in Heaven

  • Reply
    July 12, 2019 at 4:26 pm

    Fascinating history!
    We have a story in our family that my 3rd great grandfather made quite a fine brew and he was somehow licensed by the state of Tennessee to sell it legally. This would have been c. 1865-1885, Polk County.
    I sure wish I could go to the meeting on the 18th. Thanks for the info!

  • Reply
    Paula Rhodarmer
    July 12, 2019 at 12:20 pm

    Tipper, my grandmother’s father was William Nicholson and my grandmother’s mother was James Billingsley’s daughter. They were on opposite sides of this issue. Because my great grandfather married into the Billingsley family, he was pretty much disowned by his people who were strict Methodists. One of the Billingsley battles with the law over moonshine is remembered as the “Highlands Moonshine War.” The story behind it all is very interesting, I hope to write about it someday.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    July 12, 2019 at 11:35 am

    I hope someone in attendance will be there in defence of Babe Burnett as he was eventually acquitted of any crime. The case revolved around a law enforcement officer overstepping his authority and violating the constitutional rights of a citizen. Sounds like what we hear on the news today but was almost 100 years ago.
    John Enoch Alphus “Babe” Burnett was my 1st cousin 4 times removed. James Holland “Hol” Rose was the father in law of my 2nd cousin 3 times removed.

    • Reply
      Ed Ammons
      July 12, 2019 at 2:55 pm

      defense! Where is spell check when you need it?

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    July 12, 2019 at 10:28 am

    Fascinating story! The area I grew up in was famous for moonshiners & bootleggers–West Tn. Our little town had a Moonshine Festival at one time. My uncle and Daddy actually built a still in the one bedroom of the sharecropper’s house where we lived. My uncle was famous for his ability to escape from the Revenuers. One story is that they actually had a hold of his jacket but he shed the jacket & kept on running. When some of these men said they “ran” together it sometimes meant more than being friends. Nearly every man in the area had spent his six months in jail for those crimes–seem to remember they were sent out of state–maybe Alabama.

    • Reply
      aw griff
      July 12, 2019 at 4:15 pm

      Wanda I too think it was Alabama. I knew a man when I was a boy that was a moonshiner. I’m pretty sure that’s where they sent him and he was from E.KY. I heard there was a lot of moonshine recipes traded there.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    July 12, 2019 at 8:40 am

    I love the way Chitter and Chatter sing that “Bluebird Song.” Chitter mixes just enough Cagun type in her playing the fiddle, while Chatter plays the Guitar just like Paul.

    There is another couple that sings the “Bluebird Song” too. They’re Irish singers, Hugh P. and Maria Doughtery. They do a good job too. They are Father and Daughter couple on Youtube.

    Before the Trout Pond at Topton was built, Me and Harold would tie forks on a stick and go Frog Gigging. It was a swamp then, and the Bullrush was everywhere. Every now and then you’d hear or see a big Watersnake slither out of the way. We liked to go Gigging at night, because we could hear the Frogs better. Once we got 3 or 4 Frogs, we’d take ’em back home, clean ’em and try to cook them. Only they wouldn’t hold still without a lid on them and some legs would almost jump out of the pan. When they got done, I couldn’t eat a bite, thinking they might start jumping again in my belly. …Ken

  • Reply
    July 12, 2019 at 8:38 am

    This seems like a story that leaves one wanting to learn more. Sadly in those days communities were small, and there was always strong sentiments on both sides. Running moonshine was romanticized by the movie “Thunder Road”, and also from the families retelling of the stories through the years. The close knit communities had strong opinions on both sides depending on who was kin to who. Sometimes the “Revenue man” was related to the moonshine runner.
    Sadly, back in the 20s there were few jobs in the remote Wyoming County, WV, and transportation was mostly horseback or by foot in those days. Mostly jobs consisted of timbering or the deadly coal mines that took the lives of some of my ancestors. In this isolated area of West Virginia my grandfather walked many miles to work in timber for $1.00 per day to feed his family. His handsome younger brother chose instead making moonshine to keep starvation from the door. A thrown together team of officers raided a still one day, and one untrained deputy shot my great uncle in the back. A young wife and small child was left during a time when there was no government help for the indigent. A trial was held, and a deputy named Leffler was convicted of shooting an unarmed man in the back. The judge chastised the action of the local hospital that refused to give aid because nobody could stand good for the bill. The story has been told and retold through the years, and our family was left with sentiments strongly against a system that seemed to work against the a poor man. To realize how complicated everything becomes in small communities, I have a cousin whose grandfather was among the officers who performed the raids. We may not find saints among our ancestors, but I have learned to try to better understand the times they lived in were different.
    Thanks so much for an interesting post, and I will try to learn more about the life and death of Hol Rose.

  • Reply
    July 12, 2019 at 8:27 am

    And the legendary Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton from Maggie Valley, NC and Parrotsville, TN. Some believe the 2009 landslide on I-40 happened because his body was exhumed from its grave located atop a nearby, peaceful, family cemetery.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    July 12, 2019 at 8:18 am

    I just got an email in the last day or so from the East Tennessee Historical Society in Knoxville, TN about an exhibit on Mountain Dew, the soft drink. It got its name as a takeoff on moonshine. Lots of lore of various kinds surrounding that activity.

    In a real irony the former Brushy Mountain State Prison near Petros, TN (closed in 2009) now has a distillery in one of the buildings that makes nine different flavors. I expect many of the inmates were there for moonshining in its approximately 125 year history.

    When I worked in the woods I found lots of old still sites. i kinda wish I had kept count. Surviving evidence was just the rock ‘firebox’ the mash barrel sat on.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    July 12, 2019 at 7:08 am

    Yes, thank you Don! Moonshine was a big business…back in the day. Every settlement had their own Moonshine specialist. We had another famous one in Haywood County, at the moment I’ve forgotten his name. I also remember the famous Thunder Road that the Moonshiners used to transport their ware. It really was a different time!

    • Reply
      Ed Ammons
      July 12, 2019 at 9:14 am

      Popcorn Sutton?

      • Reply
        Earl Cagle
        July 12, 2019 at 12:10 pm

        POPCORN SUTTON!!! On you tube is a video of Mr. Sutton driving along a dirt mountain road in a T-Model. He is relating the effort it takes to find a location to set up a still site. All the while lamenting that this will be (his words) “his last damn still”. If you find it record it, better than Hollywood could produce for authenticity. I have it recorded and play it occasionally just for entertainment and hear Popcorn talk.
        As the waitress says, “‘enjoy”.

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