It's All Legal Until You Get Caught: Moonshining in the Southern Appalachians

by Jason Sumich

Moonshining has been a strong tradition in the Southern Appalachian mountains. It was a prime source of income for generations of mountain people. Historically, it was one of the few ways to earn cash in the subsistence-dominated mountain economy. It is the basis for many local stories and an important part of the mountain myth of individualism and resistance to outside authority. It has thrived in spite of legal and religious condemnation.

It is now a fading tradition. The price of sugar more than tripled in the 1950s. This is a critical ingredient for some forms of moonshine. Quite a few bootleggers were driven out of business at the time. The economy has since changed and diversified, creating different opportunities for young men that might formerly have gone into moonshining. It has also been usurped by the far more profitable drug trade.

While it is disappearing from the local scene, its legacy is still felt. Moonshine was a strong but secretive presence in mountain counties. This secrecy is evident in local peoples' drinking habits. The concept of social drinking really does not exist in the mountains. People either abstain completely or get very drunk privately. Sometimes men will gather for hunting trips and drink together in the privacy of the woods. This is unlike much of the rest of America, where people will drink in public, and it is embarrassing to get drunk. In the mountains, there are strong social sanctions against drinking, but if you are going to drink, you might as well get drunk. It is not entirely uncommon for men to drink, although many will not admit it publicly. It is far more uncommon for women to drink.

I spent a month doing fieldwork in Alleghany County, NC. I was surprised at the ambivalence in peoples' attitudes toward moonshiners. Some moonshiners were considered common criminals, but most were not viewed negatively. Even people who strongly adhere to the local religious code which is anti-alcohol were on a friendly, first-name basis with many unrepentant former moonshiners. Drug dealers, on the other hand, were almost universally condemned. I decided to do case studies of two men that used to be moonshiners. I wanted to try to find out how they viewed their former profession, and why they thought it was a fading tradition. I also wanted to explore attitudes of local people towards them.

A Brief History of Moonshining

Moonshining has a long history in the United States. The term comes from the fact that it is done at night so people will not see the smoke from the still. Therefore, it can be hidden from the police or thirsty neighbors. The first revolutionary outbreak against the U.S. government was Daniel Shays' "Whiskey Rebellion." This occurred right after the Revolutionary War, when a cash-strapped government tried to tax home-brewed whiskey. It was crushed, but to this day the issue is still not entirely settled.

Moonshining was always strong in the Southern Appalachians. Many of the people are descended from the Scotch-Irish, who already had traditions of home-brewing whiskey. Much of the region has also been historically isolated with little interference from the law. Moonshining was a good way to make a little extra money in a cash-poor, subsistence farming economy. It was a lot easier to haul to market than large amounts of corn. While moonshining was once common in many parts of the country, the increased access to outside markets, the loss of farming for many as a way of life, and the competition from legal distilleries drove it from the scene. Things were different for relatively isolated rural Appalachians. In this environment, moonshine flourished and still continues to exist today although it is being overshadowed by the modern world.

The law first tried to clamp down on moonshining in the Southern Appalachians during the Civil War. "During the Civil War several southern states passed laws prohibiting the use of grains for anything but food. These measures outlawed home distillation, but the hard-pressed Confederate authorities could do little to enforce them" (Miller 1991:40). After the Civil War, a federal tax on home distilleries became law. During the chaos of southern reconstruction, the law was easily ignored. During the 1870s, however, the law began to be enforced. Many of those arrested in the early days were unaware of the fact that home-brewing was illegal and could not understand why they did not "have the right to make a little licker" (Miller 1991:40). This did not last. The tax soon bred informers, vengeance raids, moonshining clans that ruled entire counties, and shoot outs with the tax collectors. The sides in this conflict were not always clear cut. Moonshiners would inform on each other to gain their rival's market. "A moonshiner who should happen to gain the displeasure or excite the malice of a meddlesome neighbor was in serious trouble, as many people would walk twenty-five miles to swear out a warrant" (Miller 1991:56). The tax collectors were not always intrusive outside authorities. "A group of North Caolina blockaders and outlaws were rumored to be working as revenuers in adjoining South Carolina" (Miller 1991:58). This war ended in a draw. The moonshiners could not drive the revenuers out of the mountains, and the revenuers could not entirely stop the moonshiners. It gave rise to the myth of moonshiners as strong individualists unwilling to submit to outside authority.

When alcohol was banned during Prohibition in the 1920s, there were now huge amounts of money to be made in illegal brewing. Stills worked overtime to fill the orders that poured in. Tommy, one of the moonshiners I interviewed, remembers trucks coming in twice a night to haul liquor during this period. The liquor was often shipped to Chicago or other big cities to supply the bootleggers there. There has been speculation that moonshining during this period was the origin of stock-car racing. It is said that moonshiners would race each other to Chicago. There are several different kinds of moonshine: corn, rye, wheat, seed cane, and sugar liquor. There are also several kinds of fruit brandy, such as apple, peach, banana, and blackberry to name a few. Back then, all of these were being shipped around the country.

Even when Prohibition ended, moonshining continued to boom. Prohibition was followed by the Great Depression. For many in the mountains, there was simply no way outside of moonshining to earn any cash. Most people did not starve, as they grew their own food. But at the time, there was no way to afford store-bought luxuries such as salt, sugar, clothes, and shoes. Many men turned to moonshining. According to Tommy, he could not go hunting without running into at least five stills. One night, he ran into thirty-two. At this time, many people worked in "outfits," which consisted of two or more people and a still. Some of these could grow to be quite large and elaborate. Tommy worked at a four-man outfit; one person was the owner and the rest were employees. They worked for daily wages, Tommy earned a dollar per twelve-hour shift. The still was running twenty-four hours a day. It was like a mini- illegal factory. This is rather contrary to the myth of fierce independence that characterizes moonshiners. Many of them were no more fierce individualists than the average factory worker. These outfits were also quite common. In Tommy's area, there were around two hundred and fifty in operation.

After the Depression, moonshining began to slow down a bit, although it was still quite big in Alleghany County and many other parts of North Carolina. This could be in part due to North Carolina's rather strict laws concerning alcohol:

Under North Carolina liquor laws, counties and incorporated towns decide by popular vote whether to be wet or dry. A town within a dry county can elect to be wet, and a town in a wet county can elect to be dry. Towns with at least five hundred voters are allowed to have a liquor store. The sale of liquor is overseen by the Alcoholic Beverage Control board, which must devote at least five percent of its gross revenue to support an ABC officer, whose job it is to protect the county's income by putting a stop to illegal competition. In forty-six counties and in the ninety-nine cities and towns that are wet, the sale of beer and wine at a bar is permitted. Hardly anywhere outside of a few cities and resorts is it legal to sell liquor by the drink (Wilkinson 1985:6).

This could be why Wilkes County, N.C. (a dry county as are most in the mountains), where both of my informants were born, is known as the "moonshining capital of the world." Even when the price of sugar tripled in the 1950s, moonshining continued in North Carolina. Since sugar is only needed for certain kinds of moonshine, many brands were unaffected. One of my informants, Zack, did not stop moonshining until fifteen to twenty years ago.

Sugar and a changing economy hurt moonshining, but one of its biggest competitors was the drug trade, especially growing marijuana. For many, moonshining was a part-time job. You were a farmer or a sawmill operator first. For a lot of moonshiners, especially those employed with outfits, you did not make that much money. When drugs came in, you could have a fulltime job with a much higher profit potential. The rural relatively isolated areas were ideal; you could grow pot in the forest and it is doubtful anyone would ever find it. It can also be planted between the rows of the now common Christmas tree farms. This shields it from aerial and most forms of ground observation. With the price of moonshining going up due to sugar and other ingredients, it is harder and harder to compete with the legal distilleries, and the demand for drugs is probably higher.

Another factor that had an effect on moonshining is the Blue Ridge Parkway, built in the 1930s as a tourist route. The increase in tourist traffic might have provided a larger market for moonshiners. Bottleggers also used the Parkway to haul in cheap whiskey from Washington, D.C. Despite this, I feel the Parkway's overall affect on the industry was negative. First of all, it made the area more accessible to the outside world. This gave various law enforcement agencies more access. It also took large amounts of land that was now patrolled by rangers. If they found stills on this land, they were more likely to bust them up than to turn a blind eye.

The main impact of the Parkway was the change in the economy. When the Parkway was built in the 1930s, there were other ways for men to earn cash. (Moonshining was a heavily male dominated profession.) A legal paycheck was not that much lower than what the average moonshiner made with whiskey. And the paycheck was a sure thing; you no longer had to guard your still. You also would not get a four-year prison sentence working in a legal occupation. This was just the first wave of a changing economy. Even if you were not employed on the Parkway itself, its opening caused the creation of hundreds of gas stations, restaurants, and tourist shops where many could find employment. The Parkway also decreased the isolation of the area. Factories began to move in, especially in Wilkes County where there was access to a railway. The area is still rural, but factories are one of the largest employers. This opened many legal options for those who wanted to earn hard currency, in what was a cash-poor area. Moonshining was no longer the only choice.


I spent a month living with a host family in a rural section of Alleghany County while enrolled in an ethnographic field school. I have relied primarily upon oral history and interviews both formal and informal, for this report. My key informants were two older men, Tommy and Zack. Zack is an eighty-four year old man. He was a moonshiner from the age of about sixteen to around sixty-five or seventy. He is not sure of the exact dates. He was one of the biggest moonshiners in the area. He now works part-time at a sawmill. Tommy is seventy-seven years old. He started moonshining at the age of seven. He was working for an outfit by the age of eight. He worked for the outfit fulltime until he was sixteen. He moonshined off and on until his mid-twenties. He works at a sawmill now as well. He also leases out his land to Christmas tree farmers for a percentage of the profit. Zack and Tommy know each other. They came into contact with each other back in their moonshining days.

Much of the history in this paper and some of the analysis comes from various informal interviews I have conducted with Zack and Tommy's family, friends, and community members while doing participant observation at a local country store near my host family's home. The country store also serves as the informal men's gossip center. I have also engaged people in conversations while taking long car rides, while hanging out at family reunions, cattle sales, and barn dances, and as an invited guest in peoples' homes.

The Case Studies

Zack and Tommy are both former moonshiners. They are well liked and respected in their communities. Zack is described as a little wild. He has become something of a local legend, and his exploits are often discussed. In the following case studies, I describe their perspective on and involvement in their former profession. I will also explore reasons why they are well-liked and respected, even though they spent much of their lives breaking strictly-held social mores. A brief section on the technology involved in the production of moonshine is included.


"So, you are interested in moonshining," said one fellow. "You should talk to Zack, he was a big- time moonshiner." "Yeah," said Jimmy. "He's a tough old guy. He killed seven people. Been in the federal pen...twice." All the regulars in J.B.'s country store started telling their Zack stories, amid speculation on whether or not he would talk to me. "I think he will," said Linda. "He's a sweetheart." The regulars immediately agreed that he is a nice guy. "Don't worry," said Linda. "He has a fondness for young people, especially if they are trying to get their education. I'll take you over there sometime. He is my great uncle so I will introduce you."

When I first met Zack, I was a little nervous. How do you interview a bootlegger and reputed killer? What shouldn't you mention? Soon after talking to Zack, I realized that my worries were unfounded. The regulars at the store were right: he is a nice guy. He has an endearing habit of calling you "honey," which puts you at ease. It was impossible to pay for anything while in his company. He is very open about bootlegging, although he made it clear there were certain aspects of his life he would not talk about. He is an unrepentant moonshiner. In fact, he thought it was fun. He really enjoyed car chases; those were exciting. He routinely flouted certain social conventions throughout his adult life. Still, he is very popular in his community. After spending time with Zack, and listening to others talk about him, I began to understand why.

He may have broken certain social mores, but he is a product of his community. He strongly adheres to the values of his society, albeit in what some would deem an unconventional manner. He is friendly and will converse easily with passersby. He is the "pull up a chair" model of southern hospitality. He lives in the Bible Belt and is deeply religious. Every so often in casual conversation he would quote scripture. He does not attend church regularly, but while driving by one, he will always slow down as a sign of respect. This is noticed by others and appreciated. He is a hard worker; at the age of eighty-four he still works at a sawmill. He was a farmer and is living in a farming community. Although he only attended school through the fourth grade, he respects education. He is tough; no one ever pushed Zack around. He is also quite a ladies' man. When he was in his sixties, he was dating a twenty-one year old police officer. His youngest son is rumored to be nineteen. He is a family man and has eleven children. He is fiercely protective of his family. His advice to me was, "Don't mess with dope" and "If anyone ever hurts you or your kin, kill 'em. Then deny it for the rest of your life." When he was in trouble, he never gave the names of anyone else involved. When anyone he knew was in trouble, he did not condemn them. Instead, he would try to talk to them.

He had what Patricia Beaver (1986) describes in her book Rural Community in the Appalachian South, as "worth." This is not a mere economic judgment, but a statement of the value of the person as a whole. A man can be wealthy and law abiding, yet utterly "worthless" due to his personal value. Zack may have been wild, and many people may not have liked what he was doing, but due to his personal value, he is still a "worthy" person. Although his activities can be viewed negatively, they are based on qualities that tend to be lionized in American culture. He is the embodiment of capitalism and rugged individualism. He never relied on anyone to make his living, nor did he let anyone dictate what he would do to make it. As a country, we are fascinated with violence. Parts of his life are rumored to be very violent. I think it is almost symbolic that he was born on the 4th of July. He was the underdog, struggling to make a living against an outside authority. Most of all, he was an anti-hero, the likable bad guy. This is a quality that many Americans find irresistible. Zack is an extreme case, but I think that this was the pattern for many bootleggers who made a niche for themselves in mountain society. They are rooted strongly enough in their own culture to break some of its rules with relative social impunity.

Zack is a lifelong resident of the mountains. He lived in a house that was part log cabin, part frame, until it was washed away in the Flood of 1916. His family has been here for generations and is well known throughout the county. He has also taken an active part in the community. Zack and a few friends used to run a square dance. After three years, they managed to raise $36,000 for a new community center. They also had three thousand dollars left in the bank, which they gave out to sick family and friends. The square dance was eventually shut down for unnamed reasons, although Zack insists they weren't doing anything wrong. In his moonshining days, he often gave out free whiskey to the sick. In the mountains, it is widely believed that moonshine has medicinal properties. Bonded whiskey is not believed to be medicinal because it is not pure like corn liquor. Moonshine is also used like camphor, a commonly used medicine. The fact that he was a local and displayed generosity helped him to create a respectable place in Appalachian society. Kin networks and reciprocity are highly valued in Appalachia.

Moonshining was a family tradition for Zack. His grandfather probably was a bootlegger, and his father definitely was. His father was a rather colorful character himself. Once, the police confiscated his still. In retaliation, his dad rounded up three friends and then held up the police station. They tied the still to a mule and made their get away. For this, his father served two years in prison. Zack learned to make moonshine from his father. He was moonshining in earnest by the age of sixteen. Zack's children were also involved to a certain extent. At the very least, his son used to haul sugar for him.

Zack's operation was pretty large by local standards. At his peak he was making about six hundred gallons a day. He was once arrested with 3,260 gallons ready to ship. Most of his whiskey was shipped out of the area. He did not really sell any in the county. He would give some to friends and reserve some for medicinal use. You could make such large amounts in those days (most likely between the 1920s and the 1950s, he is not sure of the dates) because enforcement of anti-liquor laws was rather lax. Many of the police were either involved in the trade or as consumers. Most stills were not on the owner's land, so it was also hard to figure out who was going to be arrested. One of the few times he was actually caught, the still was on his land. There was one cop in the area who actively sought out moonshiners. He was also notorious for offering wives early parole for their husbands in return for sexual favors. He was the exception, not the rule. If you were caught, you were usually given the standard four-year sentence. Zack has served a total of eleven years in jail. According to Zack, bootleggers were treated pretty leniently in prison. Many of the guards did not feel that it was a crime.

Zack feels that moonshining did not have the rampant violence that is associated with the drug trade. Fist fights over whiskey were far more common than shootings. When there was violence in this area, it was usually kin based. For example, Zack's grandmother did not believe in banks. She kept all of her money in her apron. One of her nephews came over with a butcher knife. He slashed open her clothes and took the money. He also cut her as well. When word of this got out, most of her family went looking for him. Somebody found the nephew and killed him. Zack has been blamed for the death of this man. Although he claims he would have killed him if he had found him, he says he is innocent.

When a death occurred that involved moonshine, it was usually because the person was a violent drunk. One man, who was a customer of Zack's, was considered a nice enough guy while sober, but he was a horrible drunk. He once found a used condom on his property and forced his wife to eat it. He had a habit of taking pot shots at his children and running them out of the house barefoot when it was snowing. Finally, his sister-in-law had had enough and warned him to mend his ways. He didn't listen, so she shot him in the head. Zack said the prosecutor refused to file charges. He, along with a large segment of the population, felt the killing was justified. The most commonly expressed sentiment heard was "What took you so long?"

Zack was a moonshiner for about fifty years. He started at sixteen in 1929. He quit around the age of sixty-five in 1978. He learned from his father, and saw the glory years of bootlegging in the 1920s and 30s. He saw the decline in the 70s and 80s. He finally quit because he was "tired of it." He has not made any since the last time he was sent to prison. He now works part-time in a sawmill. He doesn't have to worry about the law anymore. He does miss the excitement every now and then, but it is behind him.


A friend of mine knew I was doing a paper on moonshining and offered to set up an interview with his brother-in-law, who used to be a moonshiner. I showed up at Tommy's house one afternoon with a camera, tape recorder, and notebook. I hoped he knew why I was coming to interview him. I always felt rather awkward bringing moonshine up. Tommy greeted me at the door. He was seventy-seven years old, but he looked twenty years younger. He was one of those people who can make you feel welcome immediately. Tommy was wearing his work overalls, having just returned from the sawmill where he still works. Luckily, he had been informed as to the nature of this interview and brought up the subject himself. He said he was a moonshiner as a younger man, but he "did not fool with that anymore."

Tommy is a born-again Christian and a member of a local Baptist church. He still keeps moonshine in the house for medicinal value. Unlike many other local Baptists, he does not seem adverse to drinking. He let me sample his moonshine and even gave me some to take home. His wife sat in on the interview and was fully aware of his past. Unlike many mountain wives, she did not disapprove. In fact, she used to sell Tommy and Zack sugar. She said her store was always trying to find creative ways to justify why someone would need two thousand pounds of sugar. She was also well acquainted with many other local bootleggers.

Tommy, like Zack, is very friendly and a genuinely nice guy. This seems to be a common trait among well-regarded moonshiners. He is also a member of the most common local religious denomination. He is hard working and dependable. All of these traits endear him to his community. Tommy is less flamboyant than Zack. He is not a local legend, nor did he really moonshine for fun. He grew up in the Great Depression. He did what he had to do, he says, to get by. He was more of the bootlegging equivalent of the proletariat. He worked in another man's outfit for daily wages: one dollar per twelve hour shift. During the Great Depression, these were really good wages. It was basically an illegal factory. It produced about one hundred gallons a night. The reason he worked for the outfit, instead of for himself, was that he could make more money. His still at home could make only ten gallons a week. He would get seven dollars and fifty cents per gallon for the moonshine he made, but once the cost of the ingredients was factored in, the profits were small. Working at an outfit was also less of a risk. It the police came, he could run. If they destroyed the still, the owner had to pay for a new one. Although Tommy was a moonshiner off and on for seventeen years, he was never arrested.

Tommy explained how moonshine was commonly made. You needed three barrels. The first one is large, and then the barrels get consecutively smaller. For a small still, the first barrel would be fifty gallons. You grind corn into a meal and kneaded it into a stiff dough. You then let it sit, and after a period of time it gets sour. This is "sour mash." When it becomes sour mash, you boil it. You stir the boiling mash with a three pronged stick, that has wire strung in-between the prongs. You stir the mash to the consistency of gravy. You let the mash boil until it foams, and then let the foam dissipate. The product then travels through a system of pipes into the second barrel which is the condenser. Finally, it travels to the smallest barrel which is filled with water. This barrel is the cooler. The liquor drips out of a pipe attached to the cooler. Forth gallons of corn mash will produce ten gallons of pure liquor. The pure liquor is over one hundred proof. You have to mix it with water to be drinkable. You mix liquor and water in a vial and then shake it up. If a bead goes around the top of the vial and then stays there for five or ten minutes, it is eighty proof and ready to sell. Fruit brandy is made the same way. Instead of corn, ground fruit is used. Sugar is added unlike with corn liquor. "Sugar liquor" is corn liquor with one hundred gallons of sugar added.

Tommy learned to make moonshine with his grandfather. His grandfather took him in when he was about one year old. His father was a moonshiner too. Moonshining seems to be a family tradition that is passed down, until recently. Tommy was working with his grandfather by the age of seven. What they made was more for home consumption than for sale. His grandmother also drank moonshine, an uncommon habit for women in these parts. By the age of eight, Tommy was in business for himself. He knew a guy who was running a bigger still, and he got a job in his outfit at the age of eight or nine. The outfit's still ran twenty-four hours a day. Two men worked the twelve hour day shift, and two men worked the twelve hour night shift.

When Tommy turned sixteen, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. Shortly after that, World War II broke out and he was drafted. He still made some liquor while in the army and stationed stateside, but only on weekend passes. After he came back from overseas, he did not really bother with it anymore. He joined the economy that was radically transforming the county after World War II. Before the war, this was a farming economy. There were very few factories and, in some areas, none. In Wilkes County, there were very few farms. Most people had a subsistence plot, but not much else. Moonshine was the only way to make money. That is why Wilkes County was the moonshining capital of the world. After the war, factories started coming in and Wilkes County became a very blue-collar county. Tommy worked at factories and sawmills throughout his adult life. The money was about as good as moonshining, with no legal repercussions. There still is some moonshining in the county today, but not near the amount that there used to be. Most people work in factories, and if you are going to do something illegal, the drug trade is far more profitable. Moonshining still exists but it has been marginalized.


Moonshining has been a strong presence in the Appalachians mountains. It thrived in North Carolina due to the strictness of the state liquor laws and the area's relative isolation. Many mountain counties remained relatively isolated rural communities. Jobs outside of farming were hard to get. If you managed to get one, you were often only paid twenty-five cents a day. The Great Depression wiped out what little industry existed here. With few options available to them, many communities coped with this crisis through mass migration to urban areas. Moonshining enabled generations of young men to stay home and earn a living.

The stereotype of the outlaw moonshiner is, in my opinion, inaccurate. Some were considered a bit wild, and some were thought of as common criminals. But for the most part, they were simply neighbors doing what they had to to get by. They may have come into conflict with certain social mores, but they did not challenge them. They were products of their society, not rebels against it. That is why so many are well-liked members of the community now.

After World War II, the relative isolation of the mountains was broken. With the Blue Ridge Parkway, government agencies, tourists, the drug trade, and the new blue collar economy, Appalachian society is more integrated with mainstream America. Brick houses and trailers have replaced log cabins. Professional farmers are now in the minority. Almost every house has a TV set that can bring in the outside world with the push of a button. Wealthy outsiders have bought summer homes here. It is hard to find anyone in their twenties living in the county; they have all migrated out. The old tradition of moonshining has been replaced by factories and marijuana. But its legacy lingers on.

Works Cited

  • Beaver, Patricia D.
    1986 Rural Community in the Appalachian South. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

  • Miller, Wilber R.
    1991 Revenuers and Moonshiners Enforcing Federal Liquor Law in the Mountain South, 1865-1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

  • Wilkinson, Alec
    1985 Moonshine: A Life in Pursuit of White Liquor. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.