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." 

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