Sunday, May 14, 2006
Imagine my surprise when I first found out that making moonshine, or corn likker, was against the law. I guess I was pert near grown. It was as much a way of life as frying chicken in lard. My papa and my uncles dearly loved to sample the brew. Sometimes they did a little more than “sample” and it was pretty hard to live with them when the sampling became more like emptying the jug. Granny mixed it with honey and made a cough medicine. She would add a few more herbs and things and make a poultice to lay on your chest when you had a chest cold. I remember her rubbing it on my feet and then covering them with a pair of wool socks when I had the sore throat.
Although I can truly say I have never tasted more than a tip of the tongue of the real stuff, I was blessed to have experienced the trust of some truly great distillers back when. Granny detested the stuff, so it was a secret when I got to go, usually with Uncle Ed, to the far reaches of the hollers to “see a man about a dog”. Uncle Ed told me that the stuff was called “moonshine” because it was usually cooked at night so the smoke from the fire wouldn’t be seen and attract the attention. When it was sold and traveled to Tennessee or Georgia or wherever the buyers were, it would be driven in specially souped up cars that traveled at night to escape detection.
It seemed we would travel for hours (hours in the eyes of a child might be 10 minutes of course). Then we would park the car and walk for hours, up hills and across meadows and just when I thought we had reached the end of the world, there opened up this wondrous place where coils and kettles, mason jars and shotguns abounded. The hound dogs had already started barking when we got out of the car and started walking, and by the time we got to the clearing, they were all primed and ready to take someone’s leg off. One command from their owner and they immediately calmed down, lay down and began wagging their tails. Of course, their owner knew who we were long before we got to that point. Being the animal lover that I am, I was drawn to pet them, but sternly reprimanded not to do so. “Them ain’t the kind of dogs you pet”, I was told. They acted like they wanted petting to me, but what did I know. After howdies were dispensed with, the men would hunker down and begin to talk and sometimes whittle. Hunkering down is something you don’t see folks do nowadays. Hunkering is just standing in one place and bending at the knees until you get just as close to the ground as you can get without just settin’ right down on your behind. I couldn’t understand why they just hunkered down and didn’t just sit on something, like a stump or rock, but they just hunkered down and talked….and talked….and talked.
This place is so deeply ingrained in my memory. The smells...a mixture of wood smoke, fermented corn, fresh spring water right out of the mountain. There were horses, usually tied or hobbled, with a wagon nearby to haul the bounty to wherever it might be going. Most of all, I remember the people. Friends. Friends of my papa. Friends of my Uncle Ed. Friends of mine, or else they would never have allowed me into their sanctuary. To be included in their circle of friends was an honor, a blessing and a privilege few have ever known. These people and I say people, because a few women were present, were deeply rooted mountain people, true to their ancestors, true to their land and true to themselves. Their trust was hard earned a valued treasure. They were earning a living the best they knew how. Living that high up in the mountains, hard scratch farming was about all they had known. Sometimes they grew their own corn, sometimes they had traded from some of the lower lying farms. The sugar and yeast were bought in quantity in either Marshall or Greeneville. Time was when Madison County sold more sugar per capita than any other county in either North Carolina or Tennessee, the sugar of course being added to hasten the fermenting process of the corn. Sometimes the brew was made from just fermented corn. They would just crack the corn, put it in a wooden barrel and add the pure water right out of the mountain, cover it and let it ferment. This was what they called the “beer”. I remember breaking the top of the mixture like you do ice on a frozen pond, dipping out the beer into the cooking vat and watching them start a slow fire underneath. I was told you had to get the fire hot enough to boil, but not scorch the beer. The steam off the mixture then traveled through the corkscrew so it would cool down and turn back to liquid when it reached the end of the pipe. This was usually 200 proof alcohol called the single. Then fresh water was added to this to bring the alcohol content down a little, so the bite would be a little more mellow.
Then after a time, the men would get up. They would slowly make their way to the corkscrew part of the still and Uncle Ed would take his finger and stick it to the end of the copper tubing and a small drop would fall down thereupon. He would slowly take his finger and put it to his mouth and hold it there with his eyes closed while first his ears turned red, then his whole face, and then he would shake his head and smile. It seemed to be a few minutes before he could begin to talk above a whisper. The men would then amble over to a huge rock sticking out of the mountain and from behind the rock bring a quart mason jar of the clear liquid. As all gathered round, one would vigorously shake the jar and watch as the contents made beads or bubbles at the surface. If the alcohol was 100 proof or above, the bead would stay intact. Papa said “always watch and see if the bead burst too quickly. If it does, the likker has been watered down too much, but to not go back and ask for your money back if it did. It was a sight to behold, all those quart and half gallon jars with the old zinc lids. Then they would open it up and take out a spoonful and light a match to it to see the most beautiful blue flame rise up.
Goods in tow, we would say our goodbyes and slowly make our way back down the mountain, with promises and cross your hearts and hope to die, stick a needle in your eye threats of horrible things to come if I told anyone about anything I had seen or anywhere we had gone. Granny, of course, knew where we had gone and what we had done, but never questioned us about it, or at least she didn’t me. She never approved of her boy’s drinking, but didn’t chastise them either. Her second husband, Oscar, whom she married after grandpa died when papa was 8 years old, only drank beer. I never knew of him drinking the “hard” stuff. He would give us kids a shiny new 50 cent piece if we would go out to the spring house and get him a cold beer. We would watch him drink it and wait for him to finish one, so he would send us after another. One of the times when Oscar really became inebriated and Granny was giving him what for with that Cook temper of hers. Oscar left the house and went to the barn and was sitting on a stump crying. Seeing him so upset, my sister ran back to the house and told granny that Oscar was down at the barn crying. “Let him cry” says granny “the more he cries, the less he p…..es”.
Papa loved to tell the story about him and the undertaker. It seems a new undertaker came into the county and him and papa became fast friends. The undertaker, knowing papa was a connoisseur of the “brew”, was going to a National Undertaker’s Convention and wanted to take some of the product that the county was famous for. On a set day, the undertaker came by and picked papa up and off they went to the place of the “brew master”. When they pulled up, papa told the undertaker he would go up to the house and talk to the man, so he got out of the car and went up to the house. The man met papa at the end of the porch. They made their formalities and howdies all around, but the man kept looking out of the corner of his eye at the long black shiny car at the end of the driveway and the man in the black suit with the black shiny shoes standing beside it. After a while, papa broached the subject of why he had come to see him. The man looked at papa and then at the man at the black shiny car and said real loud “why son, there ain’t been none of that stuff made around here in years…what with the price of sugar going out of sight and all, I doubt there’s any even left in the county.” It took a lot of introductions and promises and assurances for the man to finally believe the man in the black shiny car was indeed the county undertaker and not a “revenuer”. After a while, he did let his guard down and led them across the field to where an old fencerow started up the mountain. It had been abandoned for many a year and the honeysuckle vine had taken over so that it was a solid line of tent shaped honeysuckle winding its way up the side of the mountain. The man took his walking stick, reached down next to the ground and raised up the vine, revealing row upon row of jars and jugs of all descriptions full of the brew all shining and sparkling in the sun. When they started to pay him, the man said “oh, there ain’t no charge, I just make some now and agin for medicinal purposes, but be sure and stop by the springhouse on your way out and get youn’s a good cold drink of water.” So papa and the undertaker went on back toward the car and stopped and the springhouse, where the same cold water that had helped make the brew was flowing cold and clear through the springhouse. They each drank a big dipper full of the water and as they left, papa lifted up this big rock beside the springhouse next to the path and deposited a handful of bills in the tin can that had been buried underneath the rock.
Needless to say, the undertaker was the star of the show at the National Undertaker’s Convention.
The movie “Thunder Road” with Robert Mitchum was made here in the mountains. It was about running the bootleg whiskey out of the county to the bordering counties and states to be sold. There is a lot of truth to the movie and it would be well worth renting if you are nostalgic about how it was done back then.
The pictures contained in this article are used with permission from the Earl Palmer Collection at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Written by: Judy Ricker
More About the Practical Uses of Corn on the farm.