Monday, September 19, 2011

'Spirits of Just Men' lets the sun shine on moonshine in the Blue Ridge

Charles Thompson is a lecturer in cultural anthropology at Duke University in Durham and education and curriculum director at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies.  All that sounds pretty academic, and it is. But Thompson is this, too: a son of Franklin County, Va., and heir to an Appalachian tradition that federal and state revenuers tried to stamp out of existence with a punitive tax policy that aimed to tax unregulated alcoholic beverage makers during one of the worst economic crises in American history.
His new book, "Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World," (University of Illinois Press, 2011, $23.95) is a fascinating account of how remote mountain farmers revived their ancestors' Irish and Scottish whiskey-making skills and used the profits to keep their families together and on the farm.  They had to fight not only regional poverty, but also government policy bent on either taxing them heavily or, from time to time, putting moonshiners out of business.  These families had little use for a government that seemed to be happy to tax them without giving them much in return.

  Folks from around Wilkesboro, N.C. understand the longtime distrust of mountain folks for g-men. Wilkes County was a center of moonshine production and its transportation system -- using high-powered passenger cars with special tanks holding illicit booze to get the product to markets in big cities -- has been linked to the rise of auto racing and the eventual creation of what we now know as NASCAR. Junior Johnson is said to have learned how to drive fast while moving booze to market.
  But it was Franklin County, VA., that many have long called the moonshine capital of the world. And it was there that Charlie Thompson's forbears were involved in either trying to stop moonshining, hauling it, or selling supplies that helped moonshiners make whiskey.  He takes readers through the Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935, which helped publicize the far reach of the backwoods still industry, and also made it clearer that moonshining was mostly illegal for those moonshiners who refused to pay protection money to law enforcement officials whose job it was to bust up the industry.
 I was particularly struck with Charlie Thompson's accounting of how Appalachian farmers in remote areas with few opportunities to get products to market turned to moonshining for hard cash. While farm families could raise most of the food they needed to survive and could barter for some things, there were few ways to earn cash for other necessities such as shoes for the kids.  By the time of the Great Depression, almost every family in the rural enclave of Endicott "made money from whiskey, either from selling the ingredients to make it, providing the equipment to manufacture or haul it, or bootlegging or driving it to its destination. Most did so because of the pressures of having to live on too little land as the local population increased and income dwindled per farm. Making whiskey was the only reliable way to make money to allow one to stay in one place at least a while longer."
  You'd think someone in the government would have thought of ways to help out these farmers -- especially if they could make a good product, get some income out of it and lift a region that had struggled for decades. In fact, a few visionary souls had something like that in mind, Thompson reports, but their ideas were rejected. After Prohibition ended, big liquor squeezed little producers out of the market and took over manufacturing and production.  Of course, eventually small-batch producers of fine whiskey began to thrive, but it would be many decades before that happened, and now it looks like big liquor controls most of them, too.
On the other hand, Thompson writes, "No one has ever been able to eradicate moonshine from Franklin County." 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

More scorched trees down

One of the things we love most about these hills are the stout old trees -- mature oaks, maples, poplars and chestnut oaks that provide a verdant shade through the summer months and a raucous backdrop of color each fall before going into winter quarters, ranks on ranks of gray sentinels waiting out the cold season.  One of the things we hate most about the fire of June 2010 was the toll it has taken on this part of the forest. By my rough count we have lost 35 of the trees surrounding the house that burned down that evening.

This week we took down eight of them, including a beauty of a maple that measured 43 inches across its nearly heart-shaped stump.  The ground shook when these huge trees fell to Richard Boyd's chain saws, but he told us more than a year ago these trees might not make it.  We took down 22 before the builder began reconstruction last fall, and five or so more in mid-project.  But the ones we brought down this week we had hoped might find a way to survive.  In the spring it seemed possible. Each of the trees put out a strong early showing of leaves, and we hoped for a damp year to help them along.  Instead we had a moderately dry year on our hills, and by the time this fall's storms brought heavy rain our way, these trees were shedding bark almost as if they were molting.  The brown leaves told the story.

We may lose more. There's a badly-scorched poplar just off our bedroom steps.  Its leaves look healthy, but it was closest to the hot side of the first, and why it still stands I don't know.  Stubborn, I reckon.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Birds of summer

Living out here in a rural area has given us more things to see than in the city.  Just the other day two large turkeys were wobbling along in front of our deck.  Sadie barked them off before I could grab a camera. And up at the front gate, a bluebird would fly out from its box on a fencepost whenever we approached. That flash of brilliant blue with a distinctive orange marking would take my breath away. But I never got a photo of those, either.

Up closer to the house we've had quite a show this year. Some good friends gave us a goldfinch feeder with a spiral perch along the cylinder, and filled with thistle seed it does a terrific job attracting those impossibly bright finches.  Dave Bennett caught three of them on the feeder a couple weeks ago.

And my friend David Rice clued me in a couple years ago had to get hummingbirds to pick our feeder: Don't use that pre-packaged red stuff.  Just add a cup of sugar to four cups of water, microwave the stuff so it's clearly dissolved, and get ready to watch the hummingbird wars.  When we put out three feeders, our hummers love to buzz one another as others swoop in and out of the gnarled branches of a mountain laurel where we hang the feeders.  If you're not looking you can tell when they're around. The distinctive hum of these critters is addictive.  Dave Bennett got a nice picture of a hummingbird, too.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Buddy, can you spare a PTO auger?

A couple miles west of here and a mile or so north lies Rocky Knob, a well-known feature of the Blue Ridge Parkway and, long ago, an overnight stop for some on the Appalachian Trail before it was moved further west. I've been coming up to this part of Patrick County, VA,  and the Parkway since childhood days, when my family stayed just down the road at the Rocky Knob Housekeeping Cabins at the head of the Rock Castle Gorge. These are enchanted hills for me, places where my sister and I played with the will o' the wisps on foggy summer evenings half a century and more ago, and it's one of the few places on earth that would draw me from my native land of North Carolina.

But a smart fellow would have paid more attention to that "rock" in "Rocky Knob."  I don't know how these yeoman farmers carved out a living on the hillsides of this area, but I can tell you that one of their best crops had to be rocks. We've got ancient piles of them near every corner of our fields, put there long ago by the folks who farmed this land. All kinds of rocks. Big rocks. Little rocks. Heavy rocks, Quartz rocks. Some igneous stuff. And, I swear, the kind of granite they use to build monuments in Washington.

OK, it's been a long time since I took Geology 31 down at Chapel Hill. And maybe it wasn't granite. But I've been digging a hole for weeks for a corner 6x6 post for a wing on the tractor barn and the ratio of rocks to dirt appears to be about 80-20.  Maybe higher.  I was hoping to get down three feet for this post but I finally hit what looks like bedrock. And in contrast to the quartz and the layers of some gray upheavals that was shatter when struck with a sledge or hammered enough with a spud bar, this stuff just gives off sparks and sits there.

I thought I'd be digging these eight holes, as well as another eight or so for a new garage, with a borrowed auger that runs off the Power Take Off  shaft of a 35-horse Diesel tractor. First I thought a fellow was going to bring me one when he came to cut down four large trees, but he got a regular job and never showed. A contractor who was coming to do something else was going to bring his auger on his lowboy trailer, but he came and went without it.  I've looked through CraigsList trying to find a decent price on one, but none are 12 or 18-inch-bits.

We know something about augers on this farm. Years ago two friends and I went three ways on an Earthquake auger, a gas-powered handheld auger that will, in nice clean dirt, dig a posthole three feet deep in a matter of minutes.  But when it binds up on a big tree root or the wrong size rock, it can send one  of the two individuals it takes to properly run the thing on a head-over-heels trip, as it did to the former Party Doll Strickland the first time we used it back in 2004.  And with a lot of rocks in the ground, about the only thing that works is the spud bar.  If you've used one, you know what I mean. You can dig rocks out, pry them out, and sometimes chip them to pieces, but it's a lot of work.  And with two holes dug and at least 14 to go, I'm thinking about calling a well driller. I worked for Bainbridge and Dance Well Drilling in Guilford College during my youth, and those boys know right how to grind through layers of rock. And I don't recall ever seeing a spud bar on a drill rig.  Shoot, who knows? Might even hit water. Or oil.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Pix from the hills, after the the fire to the new place

September 2010, after the demolition of fire debris

October 2010, foundation and subfloor in

Oct. 24, 2010 -- timberframe up

A girl, her dog, a pickup, a trailer, a yard fire and a glass of wine.

Winter 2011

Sunrise in April 2011

Martha B. and Sadie in June 2011

Almost done. July 2011

Thursday, September 1, 2011

September in the Blue Ridge

Up here at about 3,200 feet altitude, autumn has been nudging at our heels for weeks now. The heat of July and early August has eased, the locusts have been turning rusty for a months and way up at their tips a few of our trees on Belcher Mountain have turned crimson among the heavy greens of late summer. The hayfields that gave up a fine crop of grass in June have dried up, and only the cabbage palm, thistle and locust shoots have thrived. Days are shorter, nights a little crisper, and each day we get closer to finishing a year-long rebuilding project prompted by a devastating fire in June of 2010 that burned to cinders the two-year-old long home we had planned for decades.

Yesterday Ed Erwin and Luis Izaquirre poured a concrete base for the stone walkway from our gravel drive to the front steps of a timberframe home covered with Hardieplank and Hardieshingle siding -- a material made of fiber and concrete that's reported to be much more resistant to fire than white pine logs soaked in two coats of oil.  Martha and I finished putting up the stovepipe for the Woodstock Soapstone Stove, and Tobie Blankenship got the over-sink pendant light in the kitchen going.  The list of to-dos is shorter: New wings on each side of the barn to store all the excess stuff we couldn't figure out how to get rid of; a two-car garage to be built before winter weather sets in; and more trees that were killed by the fire have to be taken down by the end of the year.  We lost dozens of mature shade trees in that devastating fire, but had hopes for a number of trees that leafed out in the spring. Alas four more of those on the field side of the house have dried up, and one of them is shedding bark every day.  And then there's a driveway -- torn up by fire trucks, demolition haulers, concrete trucks, cranes and a veritable mechanized division of pickup trucks driven by contractors, subcontractors and specialists of every sort. Even our ruts have ruts.  I may finally learn how to use that big heavy box blade behind the tractor.

But we've no complaints. After more than four decades of covering politics and public policy for the Greensboro Daily News, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Roanoke Times, Greensboro News & Record, N.C. Insight Magazine and The Charlotte Observer, I formally retired at the end of July. (see for a link to my last column at the Observer -- and all the other 755 or so writings on This Old State, the blog I wrote for the Observer for five years.)  Martha B. retired from the Wake County Department of Health and Human Services in April, and we moved up the hills in June with our 8-year-old French Brittany Spaniel named Sadie.  We talk of putting in an apple orchard next year and I'm looking for a bluegrass band to sit in with, soon as I find the sweet spots on the keyboard of an Englehart string bass that replaced my 1946 Kay school bass that perished in the fire.

And sometime this fall I'll go back to work for a couple of days each week -- no more, I hope -- doing research and writing for a few clients of Rocky Knob Writery LLC.  I'll split time between the mountains and a town house in Greensboro, but the plan is to take life at a slower pace and enjoy what sure are some of the prettiest mountains in all Creation.  We'll put up a few photos from time to time to help make the point, but for today, there are holes to dig for 6x6 posts through ground so tough that only a spud bar will make any kind of headway. I can feel the muscle aches now.