Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
Our Southern Highlanders
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter
Kellscraft Studio Logo




Our terms moonshiner and moonshining are not used in the mountains. Here an illicit distiller is called a blockader, his business is blockading, and the product is blockade liquor. Just as the smugglers of old Britain called themselves free-traders, thereby proclaiming that they risked and fought for a principle, so the moonshiner considers himself simply a blockade-runner dealing in contraband. His offense is only malum prohibitum, not malum in se.

There are two kinds of blockaders, big and little. The big blockader makes unlicensed whiskey on a fairly large scale. He may have several stills, operating alternately in different places, so as to avert suspicion. In any case, the still is large and the output is quite profitable. The owner himself may not actively engage in the work, but may furnish the capital and hire confederates to do the distilling for him, so that personally he shuns the appearance of evil. These big fellows are rare. They are the ones who seek collusion with the small-fry of Government officialdom, or, failing in that, instruct their minions to “kill on sight.”

The little moonshiner is a more interesting character, if for no other reason than that he fights fair, according to his code, and single-handed against tremendous odds. He is innocent of graft. There is nothing between him and the whole power of the Federal Government, except his own wits and a well-worn Winchester or muzzleloader. He is very poor; he is very ignorant; he has no friends at court; his apparatus is crude in the extreme, and his output is miserably small. This man is usually a good enough citizen in other ways, of decent standing in his own community, and a right good fellow toward all the world, save revenue officers. Although a criminal in the eyes of the law, he is soundly convinced that the law is unjust, and that he is only exercising his natural rights. Such a man, as President Frost has pointed out, suffers none of the moral degradation that comes from violating his conscience; his self-respect is whole.

In describing the process of making whiskey in the mountain stills, I shall confine myself to the operations of the little moonshiner, because they illustrate the surprising shiftiness of our backwoodsmen. Every man in the big woods is a jack-of-all-trades. His skill in extemporizing utensils, and even crude machines, out of the trees that grow around him, is of no mean order. As good cider as ever I drank was made in a hollowed log fitted with a press-block and operated by a handspike. It took but half a day’s work to make this cider press, and the only tools used in its construction were an ax, a mattock in lieu of adze, an auger, and a jackknife.

It takes two or three men to run a still. It is possible for one man to do the work, on so small a scale as is usually practiced, but it would be a hard task for him; then, too, there are few mountaineers who could individually furnish the capital, small though it be. So three men, let us say, will “chip in” five or ten dollars apiece, and purchase a second-hand still, if such is procurable, otherwise a new one, and that is all the apparatus they have to pay money for. If they should be too poor even to go to this expense, they will make a retort by inverting a half-barrel or an old wooden churn over a soap-kettle, and then all they have to buy is a piece of copper tubing for the worm.

 In choosing a location for their clandestine  work, the first essential is running water. This can be found in almost any gulch; yet, out of a hundred known spring-branches, only one or two may be suitable for the business, most of them being too public. In a country where cattle and hogs run wild, and where a good part of every farmer’s time is taken in keeping track of his stock, there is no place so secret but that it is liable to be visited at any time, even though it be in the depths of the great forest, several miles from any human habitation. Moreover, cattle, and especially hogs, are passionately fond of still-slop, and can scent it a great distance, so that no still can long remain unknown to them. 6


Moonshine Still in Full Operation


Consequently the still must be placed several miles away from the residence of anyone who might be liable to turn informer. Although nearly all the mountain people are indulgent in the matter of blockading, yet personal rivalries and family jealousies are rife among them, and it is not uncommon for them to inform against their enemies in the neighborhood.

Of course, it would not do to set up a still near a common trail — at least in the far-back settlements. Our mountaineers habitually notice every track they pass, whether of beast or man, and “read the sign” with Indian-like facility. Often one of my companions would stop, as though shot, and point with his toe to the fresh imprint of a human foot in the dust or mud of a public road, exclaiming: “Now, I wonder who that feller was! ’Twa’n’t (so-and-so), for he hain’t got no squar’-headed bob-nails; ’twa’n’t (such-a-one), ’cause he wouldn’t be hyar at this time o’ day”; and so he would go on, figuring by a process of elimination that is extremely cunning, until some such conclusion as this was reached, “That’s some stranger goin’ over to Little River [across the line in Tennessee], and he’s footin’ hit as if the devil was atter him — I’ll bet he’s stobbed somebody and is runnin’ from the sheriff!” Nor is the incident closed with that; our mountaineer will inquire of neighbors and passersby until he gets a description of the wayfarer, and then he will pass the word along.

Some little side-branch is chosen that runs through a gully so choked with laurel and briers and rhododendron as to be quite impassable, save by such worming and crawling as must make a great noise. Doubtless a faint cattle-trail follows the backbone of the ridge above it, and this is the workers’ ordinary highway in going to and fro; but the descent from ridge to gully is seldom made twice over the same course, lest a trail be printed direct to the still-house.

This house is sometimes inclosed with logs, but oftener it is no more than a shed, built low, so as to be well screened by the undergrowth. A great hemlock tree may be felled in such position as to help the masking, so long as its top stays green, which will be about a year. Back far enough from the still-house to remain in dark shadow when the furnace is going, there is built a sort of nest for the workmen, barely high enough to sit up in, roofed with bark and thatched all over with browse. Here many a dismal hour of night is passed when there is nothing to do but to wait on the “cooking.” Now and then a man crawls on all fours to the furnace and pitches in a few billets of wood, keeping low at the time, so as to offer as small a target as possible in the flare of the fire. Such precaution is especially needed when the number of confederates is too small for efficient picketing. Around the little plot where the still-shed and lair are hidden, laurel may be cut in such way as to make a cheval-de-frise, sharp stubs being entangled with branches, so that a quick charge through them would be out of the question. Two or three days’ work, at most, will build the still-house and equip it ready for business, without so much as a shingle being brought from outside.

After the blockaders have established their still, the next thing is to make arrangements with some miller who will jeopardize himself by grinding the sprouted corn; for be it known that corn which has been forced to sprout is a prime essential in the making of moonshine whiskey, and that the unlicensed grinding of such corn is an offense against the law of the United States no less than its distillation. Now, to any one living in a well-settled country, where there is, perhaps, only one mill to every hundred farms, and it is visited daily by men from all over the township, the finding of an accessory in the person of a miller would seem a most hopeless project. But when you travel in our southern mountains, one of the first things that will strike you is that about every fourth or fifth farmer has a tiny tub-mill of his own. Tiny is indeed the word, for there are few of these mills that can grind more than a bushel or two of corn in a day; some have a capacity of only half a bushel in ten hours of steady grinding. Red grains of corn being harder than white ones, it is a humorous saying in the mountains that “a red grain in the gryste [grist] will stop the mill.” The appurtenances of such a mill, even to the very buhr-stones themselves, are fashioned on the spot. How primitive such a meal-grinder may be is shown by the fact that a neighbor of mine recently offered a new mill, complete, for sale at six dollars. A few nails, and a country-made iron rynd and spindle, were the only things in it that he had not made himself, from the raw materials.

In making spirits from corn, the first step is to convert the starch of the grain into sugar. Regular distillers do this in a few hours by using malt, but at the little blockade still a slower process is used, for malt is hard to get. The unground corn is placed in a vessel that has a small hole in the bottom, warm water is poured over the corn and a hot cloth is placed over the top. As water percolates out through the hole, the vessel is replenished with more of the warm fluid. This is continued for two or three days and nights until the corn has put forth sprouts a couple of inches long. The diastase in the germinating seeds has the same chemical effect as malt — the starch is changed to sugar.

The sprouted corn is then dried and ground into meal. This sweet meal is then made into a mush with boiling water, and is let stand two or three days. The “sweet mash” thus made is then broken up, and a little rye malt, similarly prepared in the meantime, is added to it, if rye is procurable. Fermentation begins at once. In large distilleries, yeast is added to hasten fermentation, and the mash can then be used in three or four days; the blockader, however, having no yeast, must let his mash stand for eight or ten days, keeping it all that time at a proper temperature for fermentation. This requires not only constant attention, but some skill as well, for there is no thermometer nor saccharometer in our mountain still-house. When done, the sugar of what is now “sour mash” has been converted into carbonic acid and alcohol. The resulting liquid is technically called the “wash,” but blockaders call it “beer.” It is intoxicating, of course, but “sour enough to make a pig squeal.”

This beer is then placed in the still, a vessel with a closed head, connected with a spiral tube, the worm. The latter is surrounded by a closed jacket through which cold water is constantly passing. A wood fire is built in the rude furnace under the still; the spirit rises in vapor, along with more or less steam; these vapors are condensed in the cold worm and trickle down into the receiver. The product of this first distillation (the “low wines” of the trade, the “singlings” of the blockader) is a weak and impure liquid, which must be redistilled at a lower temperature to rid it of water and rank oils.

In moonshiners’ parlance, the liquor of second distillation is called the “doublings.” It is in watching and testing the doublings that an accomplished blockader shows his skill, for if distillation be not carried far enough, the resulting spirits will be rank, though weak, and if carried too far, nothing but pure alcohol will result. Regular distillers are assisted at this stage by scientific instruments by which the “proof” is tested; but the maker of “mountain dew” has no other instrument than a small vial, and his testing is done entirely by the “bead” of the liquor, the little iridescent bubbles that rise when the vial is tilted. When a mountain man is shown any brand of whiskey, whether a regular distillery product or not, he invariably tilts the bottle and levels it again, before tasting; if the bead rises and is persistent, well and good; if not, he is prepared to condemn the liquor at once.

It is possible to make an inferior whiskey at one distillation, by running the singlings through a steam-chest, commonly known as a “thumpin’-chist.” The advantage claimed is that “Hit allows you to make your whiskey afore the revenue gits it; that’s all.”

The final process is to run the liquor through a rude charcoal filter, to rid it of most of its fusel oil. This having been done, we have moonshine whiskey, uncolored, limpid as water, and ready for immediate consumption.

I fancy that some gentlemen will stare at the words here italicised; but I am stating facts.

It is quite impracticable for a blockader to age his whiskey. In the first place, he is too poor to wait; in the second place, his product is very small, and the local demand is urgent; in the third place, he has enough trouble to conceal, or run away with, a mere copper still, to say nothing of barrels of stored whiskey. Cheerfully he might “waive the quantum o’ the sin,” but he is quite alive to “the hazard o’ concealin’.” So, while the stuff is yet warm from the still, it is taken by confederates and quickly disposed of. There is no exaggeration in the answer a moonshiner once made to me when I asked him how old the best blockade liquor ever got to be: “If it ’d git to be a month old, it ’d fool me!”

 They tell a story on a whilom neighbor of mine, the redoubtable Quill Rose, which, to those who know him, sounds like one of his own: “A slick-faced dude from Knoxville,” said Quill, “told me once that all good red-liquor was aged, and that if I’d age my blockade it would bring a fancy price. Well, sir, I tried it; I kept some for three months — and, by godlings, it aint so.”


Photo by F. B. Laney
Cornmill and Blacksmith Forge


As for purity, all of the moonshine whiskey used to be pure, and much of it still is; but every blockader knows how to adulterate, and when one of them does stoop to such tricks he will stop at no halfway measures. Some add washing lye, both to increase the yield and to give the liquor an artificial bead, then prime this abominable fluid with pepper, ginger, tobacco, or anything else that will make it sting. Even buckeyes, which are poisonous themselves, are sometimes used to give the drink a soapy bead. Such decoctions are known in the mountains by the expressive terms “pop-skull,” “bust head,” “bumblings” (“they make a bumbly noise in a feller’s head”). Some of them are so toxic that their continued use might be fatal to the drinker. A few drams may turn a normally good-hearted fellow into a raging fiend who will shoot or stab without provocation.

As a rule, the mountain people have no compunctions about drinking, their ideas on this, as on other matters of conduct, being those current everywhere in the eighteenth century. Men, women and children drink whiskey in family concert. I have seen undiluted spirits drunk, a spoonful at a time, by a babe that was still at the breast, and she never batted an eye (when I protested that raw whiskey would ruin the infant’s stomach, the mother replied, with widened eyes: “Why, if there’s liquor about, and she don’t git none, she jist raars!”). In spite of this, taking the mountain people by and large, they are an abstemious race. In drinking, as in everything else, this is the Land of Do Without. Comparatively few highlanders see liquor oftener than once or twice a month. The lumberjacks and townspeople get most of the output; for they can pay the price.

Blockade whiskey, until recently, sold to the consumer at from $2.50 to $3.00 a gallon. The average yield is only two gallons to the bushel of corn. Two and a half gallons is all that can be got out of a bushel by blockaders’ methods, even with the aid of a “thumpin’-chist,” unless lye be added. With corn selling at seventy-five cents to a dollar a bushel, as it did in our settlement, and taking into account that the average sales of a little moonshiner’s still probably did not exceed a gallon a day, and that a bootlegger must be rewarded liberally for marketing the stuff, it will be seen that there was no fortune in this mysterious trade, before prohibition raised the price. Let me give you a picture in a few words. — 

Here in the laurel-thicketed forest, miles from any wagon road, is a little still, without so much as a roof over it. Hard by is a little mill. There is not a sawed board in that mill — even the hopper is made of clapboards riven on the spot.

Three or four men, haggard from sleepless vigils, strike out into pathless forest through driving rain. Within five minutes the wet underbrush has drenched them to the skin. They climb, climb, climb. There is no trail for a long way; then they reach a faint one that winds, winds, climbs, climbs. Hour after hour the men climb. Then they begin to descend.

They have crossed the divide, a mile above sea-level, and are in another State. Hour after hour they “climb down,” as they would say. They visit farmers’ homes at dead of night. Each man shoulders two bushels of shelled corn and starts back again over the highest mountain range in eastern America. It is twenty miles to the little mill. They carry the corn thither on their own backs. They sprout it, grind it, distill it. Two of them then carry the whiskey twenty miles in the opposite direction, and, at the risk of capture and imprisonment, or of death if they resist, peddle it out by dodging, secret methods.

This is no fancy sketch; it is literal truth. It is no story of the olden time, but of our own day. Do you wonder that one of these men should say, with a sigh — should say this? “Blockadin’ is the hardest work a man ever done. And hit’s wearin’ on a feller’s narves. Fust chance I git, I’m a-goin’ ter quit!”

And it is a fact that nine out of ten of those who try the moonshining game do quit before long, of their own accord.


One day there came a ripple of excitement in our settlement. A blockader had shot at Jack Coburn, and a posse had arrested the would-be assassin — so flew the rumor, and it proved to be true.

Coburn was a northern man who, years ago, opened a little store on the edge of the wilderness, bought timber land, and finally rose to affluence. With ready wit he adapted himself to the ways of the mountaineers and gained ascendancy among them. Once in a while an emergency would arise in which it was necessary either to fight or to back down, and in these contests a certain art that Jack had acquired in Michigan lumber camps proved the undoing of more than one mountain tough, at the same time winning the respect of the spectators. He was what a mountaineer described to me as “a practiced knocker.” This phrase, far from meaning what it would on the Bowery, was interpreted to me as denoting “a master hand in a knock-fight.” Pugilism, as distinguished from shooting or stabbing, was an unknown art in the mountains until Jack introduced it.

Coburn had several tenants, among whom was a character whom we will call Edwards. In leasing a farm to Edwards, Jack had expressly stipulated that there was to be no moonshining on the premises. But, by and by, there was reason to suspect that Edwards was violating this part of the contract. Coburn did not send for a revenue officer; he merely set forth on a little still-hunt of his own. Before starting, he picked up a revolver and was about to stick it in his pocket, but, on second thought, he concluded that no red-headed man should be trusted with a loaded gun, even in such a case as this; so he thrust the weapon back into its drawer, and strode away, with nothing but his two big fists to enforce a seizure.

Coburn searched long and diligently, but could find no sign of a still. Finally, when he was about to give it up, his curiosity was aroused by the particularly dense browse in the top of an enormous hemlock that had recently been felled. Pushing his way forward, he discovered a neat little copper still installed in the treetop itself. He picked up the contraband utensil, and marched away with it.

Meantime, Edwards had not been asleep. When Jack came in sight of the farmhouse, humped under his bulky burden, the enraged moonshiner seized a shotgun and ran toward him, breathing death and destruction. Jack, however, trudged along about his business. Edwards, seeing that no bluff would work, fired; but the range was too great for his birdshot even to pepper holes through the copper still.

Edwards made a mistake in firing that shot. It did not hurt Coburn’s skin, but it ruffled his dignity. In this case it was out of the question to pommel the blackguard, for he had swiftly reloaded his gun. So Jack ran off with the still, carried it home, sought out our magistrate, Brooks, and forthwith swore out a warrant.

Brooks did not fuss over any law books. Moonshining in itself may be only a peccadillo, a venial sin — let the Government skin its own skunks — but when a man has promised not to moonshine, and then goes and does it, why that, by Jeremy, is a breach of contract! Straightway the magistrate hastened to the post-office, and swore in, as a posse comitatus, the first four men that he met.

Now, when four men are picked up at random in our township, it is safe to assume that at least three of them have been moonshiners themselves, and know how this sort of thing should be done. At any rate, the posse wasted no time in discussion. They went straight after that malefactor, got him, and, within an hour after the shot was fired, he was drummed out of the county for good and forever.

But Edwards had a son who was a trifle brash. This son armed himself, and offered show of battle. He fired two or three shots with his Winchester (wisely over the posse’s heads) and then took to the tall timber. Dodging from tree to tree he led the impromptu officers such a dance up the mountainside that by the time they had corralled him they were “plumb overhet.”

They set that impetuous young man on a sharp-spined little jackass, strapped his feet under the animal’s belly, and their chief (my hunting partner, he was) drove him, that same night, twenty-five miles over a horrible mountain trail, and lodged him in the county jail, on a charge more serious than that of moonshining.

In due time, a United States deputy arrived in our midst, bearing a funny-looking hatchet with a pick at one end, which he called a “devil.” With the pick end of this instrument he punched numerous holes through the offending copper vessel, until the still looked somewhat like a gigantic horseradish-grater turned inside out. Then he straightened out the worm by ramming a long stick through it, and triumphantly carried away with him the copper-sheathed staff, as legal proof, trophy, and burgeon of office.

The sorry old still itself reposes to this day in old Brooks’s backyard, where it is regarded by passersby as an emblem, not so much of Federal omnipotence, as of local efficiency in administering the law with promptitude, and without a pennyworth of cost to anybody, save to the offender.




6 It is a curious fact that most horses despise the stuff. A celebrated revenue officer told me that for several years he rode a horse which was in the habit of drinking a mouthful from every stream that he forded; but if there was the least taint of still-slop in the water, he would whisk his nose about and refuse to drink. The officer then had only to follow up the stream, and he would infallibly find a still.

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.