Read an Excerpt
SPIRITS OF JUST MEN Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World
By CHARLES D. THOMPSON JR.
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Prologue I STEERED THE PICKUP TO A STOP on a gravel road alongside a thicket of dried honeysuckle and blackberry canes near Shively Branch in Endicott, Virginia. "It's right over yonder," said my grandfather pointing through the brush. I got out in the crisp October air to search while he and my mother waited in the truck. I had to fight through yards of dry briars higher than my head before I found, nearly rotted through, a wooden floor perched on top of stacked rock corners. The roof and the walls had fallen in, leaving a heap of rubble that people afraid of snakes—including the two in the truck—wouldn't dare go near. I stepped carefully onto the cluttered old floor and overturned some of the loose boards. I found the front door with a porcelain knob and under some old boards a rusted Drink Nehi sign. This was the store I had asked about.
I felt grateful to have made the pilgrimage when we did because Grandpa was in declining health and cold weather was already coming on. I knew he wouldn't have gone outside to explore in the dead of winter, and I was afraid there might not be another chance. Sadly, I was right. Grandpa died just weeks later, in the early part of December.
I had never met or even seen a picture of my great-grandfather Pete Thompson, the man who had owned that store, and hadn't exactly wished to, as Grandpa had told me enough about his childhood with this man—of the snow falling on blankets on the boys' beds upstairs while the old man slept with heat near the kitchen downstairs, of the old man's drunken rages and the beatings and the verbal abuse, of having to work on the farm for a pittance, and of my grandfather's pledge to get away as soon as he was able. Grandpa's own mother had died in childbirth, and the new Thompson wife and stepmother had no time for the older children. Too many of her own were being born. But Pete Thompson was my ancestor, my own loving grandfather's father, and I wanted to see this store—and to go there with Grandpa to hear him talk about it.
"What did he sell there?" I asked. He had a little bit of everything, he told me: some dry goods and a few hardware items, some drinks and a few food items. He sold a lot of sweet feed: molasses-soaked grains for cattle and hogs. But most of his profits came from his sales of five-gallon metal cans and fifty-pound bags of sugar, malt, and yeast. He didn't have to tell me these items were for the bootlegging trade, the business that people back in the store's heyday in the 1920s and through the Great Depression of the 1930s sometimes called blockading. But I pressed for a few more details. "Liquor was the only way people had to make a dollar," was about all he said that day. Maybe it was because my mother was along. Maybe it was because the memories were of a hard, hard time. No chuckles or jokes—just a look of pity on his face about his people who had lived in poverty. He had a way of choking up when he talked about people and hard living. "They had it rough," he said.
Moonshine is what we call it today, and you see references to it everywhere in Franklin County, Virginia. T-shirts and ball caps emblazoned with the slogan Moonshine Capital of the World are for sale in all the convenience stores. The local historical society in Rocky Mount promotes moonshine lore and history today as a central part of the county's heritage, with tours and reenactments. Also, Ferrum College's Blue Ridge Institute and Museum has long collected and displayed stills and other liquor paraphernalia as part of their folklore collection. Their exhibition White Liquor—Blue Ridge Style was their most popular ever. You don't grow up with connections to Franklin County and fail to know something about the clear whiskey produced there. Though my family had been deeply involved back in Pete Thompson's day, there was still so much I needed to learn.
My grandfather could look through patches of weeds and even into seventy-five-year-old forests and see things that used to exist in them—houses and farms owned by people he knew when he was growing up. A network of stores, gristmills, and a post office tied people together in Endicott then and continued to exist in his memory. Three main hollows named for the creeks that formed them composed the community: Long Branch, Runnett Bag Creek, and Shooting Creek, made famous by Charlie Poole's song by the same name. "Going up Shooting Creek, going on a run; going up Shooting Creek, have a lot of fun." A subsequent verse turned less friendly: "Going up Shooting Creek, gonna take my razor and my Gatling gun." The place that inspired North Carolinian Charlie Poole, Grandpa could still see it in his mind's eye.
Today the shady state road that winds along Shooting Creek is part of the increasingly popular Crooked Road Music Trail, a driving tour celebrating mountain music from the area; but during my grandfather's childhood more than forty families lived on farms there, along with equal numbers up the other creeks—on land that today seems to be pristine forest and on terrain seemingly so steep and forbidding it could never be cleared and farmed. But it was, and the people who farmed there survived. Driving through those places brought Grandpa a flood of stories of people and their history that I loved to listen to. I drove with him as much as I could, and slowly the stories began to connect.
Only a few weeks before Grandpa went into the hospital for the last time, I took him to the Friday night Jamboree at the Floyd General Store about ten miles from Endicott, where he still loved to get out on the dance floor to flatfoot, just as he had done as a young man to bands like the North Carolina Ramblers. He didn't dance but a song or two that night, and that fact above all said he was truly ailing; maybe that reality setting in is why he told me more that night than he ever had. As we drove up to Floyd County from his farm through Shooting Creek and Endicott and back, I asked him questions about his father, his leaving home, and his own start in farming. Dropping his usual reticence, he answered in detail. Though I tried not to show it then, I was stunned by what he said.
"I left home when I was fifteen," he told me. "I only went to the seventh grade in school. That was all they had back then. I knew I couldn't make no money working on my daddy's farm. I used to work for him and he'd give me a few cents. I even washed the dishes after dinner [midday] while the other ones rested. I'd earn money that way, enough to buy a drink down at the store and save up some. When I got old enough and had enough money saved to buy me a car, and I started hauling liquor to West Virginia." "To the coalfields?" I asked. "Yeah," he replied, "I had the car loaded down with liquor, driving as fast as that car would go, trying to make it through Roanoke and over the mountain into West Virginia. I was shot at several times by deputies. I had a few bullet holes in the car, but they never hit me, or my tires. Used to have several cars running together, and one would stay behind and try to cut off the deputies so the others could get through." All this told by my gentle grandfather who never took even a swig of alcohol as far as I knew.
I wish the road had been longer. But in the next few miles on the way to the farm I found out as much as I could. He told me that he had also sold whiskey cans, sugar, malt, and yeast from an old store building that had set out behind his house. He had bought the farm complete with the old store and house and then built a two-story brick home where my father and his siblings were born and where all the grandchildren went to visit as often as we could—all with seed money he had made from liquor hauling and ingredients sales. He had always been a farmer and a logger as far back as I could remember. I had never known until then how he had made the leap from Endicott, where land was steep and poor, to the rolling farm he ended up with five miles from Endicott. There was more to this on my grandmother's side as well. Her father, Luther Smith, had been a revenue officer for the county and he, too, had sold liquor-making supplies on the side. Having some extra cash, Luther Smith purchased my grandparents' farm first and in turn sold it to them. So in my family, the sales of ingredients and hauling the finished product led to some savings and to a down payment and beyond. That, along with a lot of hard work on the land, is how my grandparents came to own the family farm I grew up with—though it all was so hidden that the fact came to me as a revelation long into my adulthood.
That same night on the road, Grandpa also told me that one of my grandmother's brothers—a character deeply enmeshed in a liquor conspiracy in the county—had put a gun in my grandfather's face and threatened to kill him, saying something about suspecting him of informing on their liquor ring. That accusation goes against common sense, since informing would have hurt my grandfather's own income, and it contradicted pretty much everything I know of my grandfather's ability to keep secrets. But arguing the truth can only go so far when staring down the barrel of a gun. Grandpa, though small, was stout enough then to win a bet that he could carry a hundred-pound sack of corn on his back two miles from a store to his home. He knocked his brother-in-law flat with his fist and got away. But from then on until the brother-in-law died, Grandpa never went anywhere without carrying his pistol to protect himself. All those times we were together throughout my childhood, he never let on. He was that discreet. Thankfully, he never had to use it. All that we children knew from our grandfather was his love for his family, his way with cattle, his soft heart, and that he would do pretty much anything we'd ask of him. Indeed, he kept his knowledge of the past to himself for us. So, with these revelations driving down a road that night, my innocence ended, and my questions about my family's past got all the more serious.
On Sunday two days later, I stopped by to see Grandpa one last time before heading back to my home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My aunt was there, so I refrained from asking more questions about what we had been talking about. But he did show me a book he had been poring over—the only one I'd ever seen him read. "Here's a good book and you ought to read it," he said, "I'm halfway through." The book was a local memoir published by a daughter of Endicott named Gladys Edwards Willis, someone Grandpa knew growing up. The book is entitled Goin' Up Shootin' Creek. The exchange we had about it was our last.
A few weeks after Grandpa's funeral, I stopped by the family farm, where my Aunt Lucille was staying. After visiting for a while, I asked her about the book Grandpa had been reading. He said I should take a look at it, I told her. She scanned the small bookshelf in the den and found it. I held it reverently. There halfway through the book was Grandpa's bookmark. She let me borrow the book, so I took it and, as if I was poring over my grandfather's own memories, read it all that night in a log cabin a few miles from his birthplace. Mrs. Willis, like Grandpa, was keenly aware of how moonshine supported the families she knew as she grew up.
While she searched on the shelf, Lucille also had shown me another book she had just purchased entitled Calendar Record of James Goode Lane Hash. She said, "If you're interested in this history, you ought to look at this, too." The book is a large hardbound volume, transcribed by Hash's son, Vanderbilt Professor Emeritus John Hash, and John Hash's wife, Mary Hash, consisting of all of Primitive Baptist Elder Goode Hash's notes he had kept on large wall calendar for fifty years. The family found the preacher's calendars neatly rolled and stored in a trunk. The calendars had waited decades for discovery. When the family did find them, they realized the calendar contained the story not only of their own family but of an entire community, with memorable notes of births, deaths, and even the weather on nearly every date. The Hashes printed up the transcriptions for family and friends, had them printed and bound, and promptly sold all of them. Everyone with any connection to Endicott wanted one, as Hash was a beloved pillar of the community and his notes recalled many forgotten facts about their own families and gave them actual dates. Fortunately I was able to borrow a copy from my uncle right away, photocopied it, and began sifting through the years with Elder Goode, as most people knew him. This fascinating collection of notes, a testament to people's desire to preserve their histories however they can, helped inspire this book. I couldn't have written about Endicott without Elder Goode's help, or his family's.
Also, a few years after my grandfather's death, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities graciously awarded me a two-year field research grant to conduct oral histories with those who remembered early life in Endicott, including Hash's children and many others. The grant also allowed me to plunge further into archival research about the community my grandfather and grandmother grew up in. The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where I am employed, provided the means for me to get away to do the work. In my fieldwork within the community, I heard numerous stories about Goode Hash, whom everyone remembered fondly. Also, two women missionaries emerged as central characters in Endicott's story. Miss Ora Harrison and Miss Maude Beheler started and ran for nearly five decades the mission known to most as the Rock Church, but officially named St. John's-in-the-Mountains Episcopal Mission. Much of their story and writings are preserved in the Special Collections archives at Virginia Tech. This collection, along with Goode Hash's calendars and photographs of the family lovingly preserved at the Blue Ridge Institute, became the lodestones of my research. Fortunately these leaders left me many clues, and their work prompted yet more interviews and archival searches.
As most people know, official records regularly leave out the poor and the unsung. From the ship records of travelers from Ireland and Scotland to Philadelphia and on to the Blue Ridge to the agricultural census in Virginia, clues are often sketchy and fit together at best like a patchwork quilt—which in my grandparents' day was a covering made from the frayed scraps of old garments that were never complete as single parts. Memories of neighbors and kin, as anyone who's tried to do oral histories knows, are like that. Indeed, when I found the one man people in the community considered most knowledgeable about the liquor trade sitting in a Franklin County nursing home, he was unable to tell me anything more than a few words. "I sold liquor for a living," he said with a smile. I sat with him trying different routes to get a story to emerge. It never emerged. The gravestones in Endicott are often only flat rocks stood on end with no dates or inscriptions there to help. The homes are but a pile of foundation stones buried under leaves. Old store signs like the one I found with my grandfather, or the still boxes—usually riddled with axe holes—I have found while walking along creeks, or old stoves rusting at old home sites show how people made a living and that they bought and sold things in those hills. Rusted iron and old crockery lie silent. These artifacts, while hard evidence of lives lived in what now seems to be forests, are a good start, but they call out for more explanation. Yet even with many people willing to tell me their memories and letting me use many of their photographs and written documents, I still had to piece together this story out of remnants. Is history ever otherwise? Certainly not, but those with education and wealth have more written documents to begin with, and that fact often skews history.
Fortunately there were others who came before me who have kept remnants from old cloths and connected them before I arrived. Many have worked hard at this task, including Endicott's own, as mentioned previously. In addition, a Franklin County native researcher and lawyer, the late T. Keister Greer, self-published an extraordinarily helpful resource entitled The Great Moonshine Conspiracy of 1935. His work contains the official court transcripts and details gleaned from newspaper stories of the countywide conspiracy and federal trial and provides much-needed facts regarding the moonshine business and its investigation by federal officers. Like many other readers, after buying the book I went straight to the index of the nine-hundred-page tome to see whether my family members' names were in the book. They were, particularly my great-grandfather Luther Smith's name, who Mr. Greer, in an interview I conducted with him, was gracious enough to call one of the "heroes of the story" because Smith quit his job as deputy rather than join the pay-to-play scheme. My grandfather Thompson is in the index, too, as are others of my relatives. My grandmother's brother, Roosevelt Smith, is mentioned eighty-six times. He was one of the convicted conspirators.
This is not a fact to celebrate exactly, but a reality that I must claim. In pursuing this project, I wanted to understand why people—especially ones I knew to be gentle and honest—got involved in whiskey making to begin with. Of course, some of the characters that emerged from my search turned out to be greedy and some were up to pure meanness, but many were simply trying to live. At the same time, people weren't naive. They knew they were producing an illegal substance. That fact made them both wary of those in power and vulnerable to exploitation. Their secrecy and vulnerability in turn gave an opportunity to certain unscrupulous county leaders, including those elected to enforce the law, to create a huge liquor ring employing hundreds of men and women who produced, hauled, and sold liquor for the profit of a few. So the drink that started out as a way for poor farmers to make a few dollars to keep their farms and families solvent later turned into a racket that netted countless thousands of dollars each for a small cadre of power brokers—at least until they were caught and brought to justice, though some say afterward as well.
All this corruption led to three interrelated trials that started with a grand jury hearing in 1934 and ended in 1937—all of them stemming from the same conspiracy. The first of the three is known as the conspiracy trial per se, and was held in Roanoke, Virginia. In that trial thirty-four of Franklin County's most powerful were indicted for conspiring against the federal government. Fifty-five others were charged with aiding the ringleaders. The second trial was also a federal trial in Roanoke and directly related to the first in that it charged some of the defendants and their collaborators with bribing jurors to sway the outcome of the conspiracy trial. The third, held in Franklin County, was a closely related murder trial, though the government didn't prosecute it that way. In that trial, Hubbard and Paul Duling, two brothers out of West Virginia, were charged with killing one of the deputies involved in the conspiracy and leaving his body riddled with shotgun and pistol wounds on a Franklin County back road. The murder trial was prosecuted in the Franklin County courthouse by the state of Virginia using only Franklin County prosecutors, which became the source of much controversy.
Excerpted from SPIRITS OF JUST MEN by CHARLES D. THOMPSON JR. Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.