Please welcome guest author Denise Smith. Smith lives in Rocky Gap, Bland County, VA, as have 11 generations of her ancestors. She graduated from the school of hard knocks and Emory & Henry College with a BA in history.
She’s worked in the genealogy, historical research, and tourism industries in Appalachia for 20 years. She was the former Museums Program Coordinator for Wolf Creek Indian Village & Museum in Bastian, VA before becoming disabled, diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. She is the author of the blog Appalachian Heart wood.
You’ll just lay beneath the junipers,
as the moon shines bright
Watchin’ those jugs a fillin’
‘neath the pale moonlight.”
—refrain from the song Copper Kettle.
I’m a big fan of the TV show “24” with Kiefer Sutherland. The show is created to reflect what is called real time — at any one time there are different scenarios of occurrences happening with different people. I use the concept of the show and apply it to history. Events are always occurring at the same time, happening all at once, making up the history of our lives, which affects society as a whole. That is the way I look at history. There are individual people and parts that make up a whole story.
I only speak about my own family history and we are only one very small part of a very large story. Getting as many of those tiny parts put together as possible gives us a better view of the story of Appalachia we know and love.
The move to reinvent our history, or be so ashamed as to want to leave certain stories or different parts out, is to leave gaps in our history. Thus we create a skewed misunderstood version in the story of the Appalachian people. As a historian, I just can’t abide by that, nor take a shine to it.
Many try to get away from the Hollywood stereotype of the moonshiner, a backwoods hooligan forever existing for most of Appalachia. To some extent that was true. It was not everyone’s story to be a part of the illegal whiskey making tradition in Appalachia, but it was a valid part of a long history in our mountains.
I have found to get anyone to speak about it in their families comes with a great deal of anxiety and shame. Whether that shame is a leftover from the days of disapproving local preachers (like our area’s famous Robert Sheffey, who laid down his black sheepskin rug in the road when he came across a moonshine still and prayed for the moonshiner’s destruction, which I’m told he did to a relative or two), or the broad stereotype of moonshine ruination with the run down shack, overgrown fields, and dirty kids, all because daddy’s drunk making moonshine, the profession is met with disdain.
Many mountain folk are cautious about the moonshiner tales. But moonshine was a business occupation, and the stereotype of lawless disregard doesn’t fit my family though the occupation was one very entrenched in our family history.
I don’t understand why a family history of moonshiners causes so much concern. Why it is with even some of our tourism initiatives there is a conscious effort in many circles to try to evade the alcohol story that is a part of our history?
I enjoyed interviews with older family members who had experience in the alcohol trade. I have all my life heard so many stories of our family and its participation in the moonshine and alcohol business. I have a hard time in general dealing with the animosity towards those stories by other family members, as well as members in our community wanting to suppress or change the view of actual events or original perceptions. I write this post because I believe to get the whole picture, those stories need to be told.
My first encounter with moonshine was in the mid 60’s. I was at an aunt’s house playing with some cousins. I remember you could get shrimp cocktail in these individual small glass containers and my family would save those as glasses for us kids. Kind of the pre-sippy cup. You asked for a drink of water and they would give you one of these hourglass small glasses. If a kid broke one, it was just a junk jar, not one of the good matching glasses.
My cousins and I had been chasing each other, playing whatever games kids played. I had been given a glass of water during this and I left it on the table and ran back outside. In the meantime I had not realized that my father and my uncle had pulled two of these glasses to raise a drink of shine to each other.
When I ran back in and grabbed what I thought was my glass off the table, before my father could stop me, I took a large gulp! I was probably 6 years of age. It burnt all the way down and all the way back up! I couldn’t breath, my eyes teared up, I was throwing up, it was awful. Needless to say I never did ever like moonshine. That one encounter broke me of ever having the habit.
Through the years the tales of family moonshiner exploits would leak out. Usually in hushed tones. No one actually came out or openly discussed that there were moonshiners among us. It came out in rifts and stories.
I became aware of a big rift between my grandmother Hazel Burress’s family and my grandfather Wesley Bane Boyle’s family. Bane’s side of the family said he would have made the big time in the music business had he not ran across my other grandfather Stewart Burress.
Stewart Burress was a kind, good, hardworking and honest man. I remember him as a softspoken storyteller. Even when he was mad he never sounded loud at all. His official trade was as a blacksmith making hand forged tools. But he, like others in the mountains, had another profession.
As a matter of fact, his daughter Callie said her pappy had told her he could not remember a time his side of the family did not make corn whiskey. Stewart Burress was known as a moonshiner of quality liquor in the hills of Virginia’s Bland, Tazewell and Mercer Counties.
Now this is where the story gets hard to tell. Because it was a business, and Granddaddy Burress worked for and distributed his liquor through mainly one man, the sheriff of a local county. I believe this is one reason why there is silence in the telling of the moonshiner tales. There were many businessmen and elected officials also in the trade network. And many of their descendants are still elected officials and businessmen.
It’s not something you want known, that your upstanding family ancestor might have walked a little on the wrong side of the laws. But with hundreds, if not thousands of gallons of liquor being produced, you know it had to have a distribution network for that much shine. It happened and is as much a part of the mountain history as anything else.
In a 1992 interview, Stewart Burress’s daughter Callie Burress Boyles (Callie married Bane’s brother, David Brown Boyles) said her greatest hate and worst memory growing up was worrying about a barking dog. Where she lived as a girl it could mean customers who knew her daddy had arrived, or the dreaded revenuers had arrived. She remembered that when customers came they were kept in the house until someone would fetch a jug from the hiding place, usually hidden in the creek or the spring, in mason jars.
Callie said that she and her sister Hazel, my grandmother, met Bane and Brown Boyles because their father, Granddaddy Stewart, hired them to run the liquor to the distribution points for the sheriff. Usually hid in a wagon hauling coal or a truck hauling other goods.
Late in 1927, Stewart Burress told Bane he was getting out of the liquor business. Federal revenuers were descending upon the mountains. He had been warned by the sheriff that even the high local sheriff could not protect them against the federal government. He warned Granddaddy Bane not to run or deliver any more. He was right. I recently found, while searching through newspapers of 1927 between January and August, 136 moonshine stills had been busted up in the areas around Mercer County. In those records, I learned how much of an extended family business it was. There was Uncle Sid, Uncle Hiram, Uncle Fred, Cousin Farley, (who was preacher on Sunday), all in those news notices of arrested men. It makes the song Copper Kettle a family anthem!
Granddaddy Bane didn’t listen, as most of the young men did not listen, and shortly after recording at the Bristol Sessions with the West Virginia Coonhunters, he too was caught transporting illegal liquor and sent to prison, ending any chances he had of a recording career.
Thus the rift in the family. My Aunt Mabel, Granddaddy Bane’s sister, more than once told me that “if Bane had not met that Stewart Burress and got caught with that illegal shine, he would have made it.”I don’t believe that was true, as he took his own chances. Everyone knew someone in it or participated somehow in this business for it to go on as long as it did. My father related that when he was 17, even he was hired as a lookout. He was always real happy when the run was through because if they would have caught him, it would have been the same 3 years in a Georgia prison just for being a lookout. First guard duty he ever had, he said, and it prepared him well for guard duty in World War II.
Now were some family members still in it after the 20’s? I don’t really know. But there was this 1950’s Ford in the family. I remember it well because my mother absolutely LOVED that car. We came “Up home” for one of our usual visits when my dad was in the military in Texas, and my Granddaddy Bane told my mother someone had a great deal on a car. We had an old blue station wagon we had traveled in but I remember she bought this Ford very cheap.
I also remember riding in it, following the station wagon back to Texas, thinking how big inside it was. In later years, my mother talked about that car. It was her favorite she said of all the cars we had owned. I was a grown adult before she told me what was so special about that car.
It was a moonshiners’ car. She told me it had a clear title; she even stayed an extra day to make sure of that by putting it in her name before she left. She thinks it was just being looked for. When she bought it in the early 60s, they would have had to look for it in Texas.
It was a special car. I remember first off the sound of the motor wasn’t like any other motor I have ever heard since. A low rumble that sounded like it was saying in a bass voice, “Blub, blub, blub.” The back seats were so odd because they had hinges on both sides that flipped up on the top and the bottom, creating hidden compartments.
Though I can’t remember how, she said the springs under it were reinforced to haul heavy loads, but it didn’t appear to have extra springs under it. My mother told me extra springs on a car were the first thing law enforcement looked for during that time. Instead, the front fenders and bumper of this car were weighted with lead molded into them. When I asked her who did the modification on the car, she matter-of-fact-like said, “This was courtesy of some kith who worked in the railroad machine shops.” This was a moonshiner’s trick so that when there was a load in the back, the motor end didn’t rise up.
My mother’s favorite car had a lot of power to fly down the road and in the same way it was made for hauling a heavy load of moonshine, it also worked extra well for hauling 5 children around. I was amazed she knew so much about this subject. When I asked whose car it was and whether it was family, she cut her eyes at me in a way that said I wasn’t to ask; she wasn’t telling. And she never did.
I don’t know of any family members today that carry on the tradition. Somehow it just died out like so many of our older traditions. I think about it though when I make dandelion wine.
In the history of my family and extended family, there were people of all types of occupations: miners, railroaders, teachers, etc. In that group were also saloonkeepers, owners of beer joints and moonshiners. Alcohol is a staple throughout our American history and though it has had its historic bad reputation of being the cause of ruination, it was also a builder of personal fortunes and empires, whether legal or not. That’s part of the American story. We should not hide it from our Appalachian story either.