Moonshine Memories

In the riverbed between Edgefield County, South Carolina, and Lincoln County, Georgia, a copper still sleeps in the ooze gluing two states together. That still, the last vestige of a moonshiner’s art, belonged to my grandfather. How it ended in the Savannah River is a tale of brotherly salvation.

Every family—some will admit it—shuns some relative from its past. Mine is no exception. Growing up, I heard shadowy references to my grandfather’s shady past. To me, he was a good man though not affectionate; he wasn’t the clichéd kindly old grandfather. We did few things together, save drive up cattle come lightning bug time, he calling them through cupped hands with a word I can only approximate as “quoey.” To this day he remains an enigma, the man who fathered my father but otherwise moved through my life largely unknown, a silhouette on a scrim. I wish I had known him better.

He had linguistic talent. He was the “finest cusser” in the county as one gray-headed field hand told me and he was known to have a wandering eye. My grandmother, having caught wind of his assignations, lowered a 12-gauge shotgun on him. He leaped the banister of a 15-foot porch, hit the ground running as a load of #8 birdshot flew over his head, and didn’t come back for four days.

In memories I best see him chopping hog meat with a hatchet on a thick oak table. Each chop cut slightly past and across the last yielding a fine crosshatched layer of BBQ. He wore overalls, a felt hat as men did in his day, and in winter a brown leather jacket. He had money but dressed like the blue-collar fellow he was. I don’t recall him ever buying a new car, not one. He owned a large farm with eleven fishponds that infused my boyhood with bream-bed joy. He raised a herd of 700 white-faced cattle and grew cotton, which was bound into 500-pound burlap bales, and light green watermelons run over with dark green, zigzagged stripes. In the summer he girdled oaks and in winter felled the dried-out trees and burnt yellow logs with red hearts in a black wood stove. The fragrant wood smelled sweet and sour at the same time. He would spit at the stove with its cherry-red stovepipe, each glob of phlegm landing with a hiss. When one landed atop the stove it rolled around sibilating like a ball bearing from Hell.

At its zenith, his farm sprawled across 5,000 acres along the Georgia side of the South Carolina border. That high point was before the US Army Corps of Engineers built Clark Hill Dam, penning up the mighty Savannah and inundating more red clay than it should. Shoddy engineering over-projected how high the waters would rise, giving bureaucrats control over massive amounts of acreages. In short, the government stole 1,000 acres of fully timbered land from my grandfather for $1 an acre. The Corps never gave it back. That was the federal government’s pound of flesh, its way of extracting revenge from Mr. Johnny, as grandfather was known for Mr. Johnny, you see, made white lightning.

 

 

Born in 1902, my grandfather was just eighteen when Prohibition arrived. He was thirty-one when Prohibition and its documented ills ended, proving that the road to hell is, indeed, paved with good intentions. Sometime during those parched years Mr. Johnny perfected the making of moonshine, “the best liquor in the county” as one farmhand told me years later. From what I can gather, he didn’t kill people or blind them by using radiators and lead solder. He made and sold quality hooch and found a ready market, parlaying the bounty from his corn liquor into land. That much I deduced. Otherwise, I know little about the man and his black market Prohibition days. One tale, however, made it through family censors: a raid by federal agents.

Granddad and his charismatic brother, Thomas Carey, “Carey,” who often sashayed around with two women on his arms, were working a still close by the Savannah River. Perhaps they stayed in one spot too long. Maybe some fellow jealous of Carey ratted them out. Perchance the revenuers saw smoke and got lucky. However they found his still, they raided it while Granddad alone was distilling shine. Granddad broke and ran. He ran through briars and brambles, through thorns and thickets, through woods and over barbed wire and when he could run no more and had lost every stitch of clothing, they caught him.

The agents escorted him home where my grandmother met them on the front porch. With an agent holding him by each elbow, Granddad spoke. “Thelma, I have to do some business for a few days in Augusta with these gentlemen. I’ll be back.”

While Granddad was detained in Augusta, the word got back to Carey. Carey, too, remains a bit of an enigma. Women loved him. Sister Nanny, said, “That Carey. He always had dolls. Carey partied a lot and after a night of revelry he got extremely ill. A doctor’s injection reacted with the alcohol … so the family believed and at the age of 37 he was no more. ” That much I know. I like to think that Carey loved my grandfather very much, and I will write here that he did. Carey, hearing of his older brother’s plight, gathered up some farmhands and took the still, barrels, and all and put them on a barge. They poled it to the middle of the Savannah and sunk it. When the revenuers returned to get their evidence there was none. They freed Granddad.

Moonshine memories live long down here. Down South moonshine put some jingle in pockets, food on the table, and in Granddad’s case land on the courthouse tax rolls. I’m not sure but I believe he ended his days of shine after his brush with the law and turned to full-time farming. Why not. His shine days had set him up handsomely and he adhered to a principle today’s undisciplined people are hard pressed to do: he lived within his means.

Were he alive today he’d be 113. Let’s just pretend that were he a younger man and alive today things would be different for dear old granddad. Thanks to recent micro-distillery laws it’s legal to distill liquor as an individual. You pay taxes on it, of course, and just across the Savannah River in Edgefield—where his mother’s people came from the Red Oak Grove community—Granddad could set up shop and make some shine with no worries about running naked through the woods. He’d have a plethora of regulations and requirements to meet but his experience with the government would serve him well. I like to think that he’d set up a fine moonshine establishment, all legal and proper. Perchance his brand would be Double Branches Moonshine for the community of Double Branches is where he made shine.

All these memories, thoughts, and speculations spiraled through my mind Saturday, December 20, as I drove back in time to the storied era of white lightning, moonshiners, and infernal revenuers, as Billy DeBeck’s bulbous-nosed Snuffy Smith called them. Departing Columbia and taking the interstate, I forsook I-20 for country roads whereupon I tunneled through fog. As the fog melted away, a soft gray sky teased the land with the promise of snow, though it was too warm. (Down here quilted winter skies always hint of snow.) The good folks at Carolina Moon Distillery had invited me to join them as the last of their “Booze And Books” authors for 2014, and driving to Edgefield felt like Christmas should feel. Real.

Edgefield needs no introduction. The home to ten governors, history here runs deep. It’s a quaint town with interesting shops and a beautiful presence. The square with its statue of Strom Thurmond is among the best. Go there and you, too, can drive back in time. At 116 Courthouse Square you’ll see a handsome red brick building with a large tan and green sign. “Whiskey.”

Mr. Johnny’s mission was to make money. Carolina Moon Distillery’s mission is a bit more principled: preserving the South’s tradition of fine corn whiskey. T. “Cal” Bowie and David F. Long, two Edgefield entrepreneurs, set their moonshine dreams in motion in 2012. Today, a still runs in the back of the old hardware store on the square. If you go, you can see the distillery process in action. What you won’t see are “infernal revenuers.”

I parked to the right of the distillery and getting out of my car, a surprise! Snowflakes and Christmas carols swirled through the air. In the square, a snow machine blew diminutive flakes into the air and Old Strom’s magnetism drew them his way. It was a strange amalgam … “O Holy Night” and snowflakes whirling around Strom’s bronze 800-pound statue, compete with an etching of a cockroach beneath his coattail. (It’s true, a story for another day.)

Inside Carolina Moon, the heady fragrance of liquor greeted me, as did Martha, the transplanted branding guru. When I guessed that she was from Pennsylvania and had lived in Massachusetts and Chicago it surprised her. Some accents prove easy to decipher.

During my time at the distillery shoppers were about, and they drifted into the gift shop filled with pottery, clothing, jewelry, and more. People came not just to buy moonshine, though many did. Some bought books. I was there to sign two new books, Classic Carolina Road Trips and Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II. All manner of people drifted in looking for gift ideas but most ignored my books and me. The door flew open and brandishing a jug Snuffy Smith would have loved, a fellow exclaimed, “This jug has a problem!”

It must leak I thought, but he cleared things up. “It keeps getting empty.”

One of the distillery’s attendants, said, “Hi Ike,” and that got my attention. Ike is not the most common name and I knew that Robert Clark and I had featured Ike Carpenter from Edgefield in our new book, Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II.

When a fellow behind the counter pointed to me and said, “Ike, this fellow is here signing books,” Ike wandered over. “I’m in this book. Page 61.”

On page 61, in “The Upcountry, Realm of Peaks, Vales, and Falls” section, you’ll see Ike hammering a chisel with a wooden mallet as he works a piece of oak at Walnut Grove Plantation near Spartanburg, more precisely Roe Buck. The first weekend in October, Walnut Grove Plantation hosts over 200 re-enactors, storytellers, and artisans who transform the 1765 homestead into a living colonial village. Ike does his part, having demonstrated old time woodworking at the festival for twenty years. As I wrote in Reflections II, Ike Carpenter is aptly named.

A Mrs. Willis wandered in, flipping through every page of Reflections II, lingering on a few pages in particular. Quiet, she seemed shy. She seemed sweet. “How much,” she asked softly. I told her and she paused … “Will you take a check?”

“Sure.”

“I have to go home to get my check book.”

Other people came in. Like most small towns everyone seemed to know one another and the conversation flowed, well, like moonshine. During quieter moments I enjoyed the view of Edgefield’s town square. (All small towns need a square; my hometown doesn’t have one thus people can’t convene as they should.) A family of five came in and the Mrs. coughed and sputtered after downing a shot of white lightning. Her children snickered as if they had caught mom doing a dastardly deed.

The clock kept ticking and my time in Edgefield grew short. No Mrs. Willis. As my allotted time approached its end I doubted Mrs. Willis would return. I began to pack up books, dawdling a bit. Just then a young man with a Georgia Bulldog cap came in and we at once began to talk Georgia football. Finally, it was time to go. I had one more book signing that afternoon in Columbia at the State Museum at 5 p.m. Just as I was leaving, Mrs. Willis came in and bought her copy of Reflections II. I’ve watched multitudes of people flip through books. She was different … The book seemed to mean something to her and I wondered if she had seen someone or something special between its covers. Whatever the pull, I’ll never know.

Several things made this signing memorable. Granddad’s past. (Today he’d be considered a craft distiller and go from villain to vogue.) Another thing was the unique venue. A moonshine distillery was a first. Yet another was my past. Growing up in the shadow of a small town puts an indelible stamp on you. You see things differently and big cities seem artificial. Life in a small town is genuine if slow but the pace picks up during the holidays, and I have always loved the way small towns come to life at Christmas. Big cities get choked with traffic, strangers, and commercialism but small town people get a Christmas spirit hard to beat. Edgefield basked in the spirit that day.

As for Granddad, I’d have loved to have seen the look on his face if he could have walked into Carolina Moon Distillery. Suffering chest pains, he died July 23, 1972, sitting in his car. Thelma had driven him to the clinic attached to the home of my hometown doctor, a legend, where an indolent doctor was substituting for the county’s much-loved vacationing physician. “Yeah, you’re having a heart attack,” said the substitute, a quack. “Get to a hospital,” and with that he went back inside. There was no hospital.

Granddad died on the spot, done in by years of homegrown steaks, eggs, and bacon. That night I tried to comfort my grandmother who gruffly retorted, “Go on. I’ll be all right.”

At Granddad’s funeral it surfaced that he had long donated a lot of money to his church, though he never attended it. Field hands, however, did attend his service, the first time to my knowledge the little Baptist church down by a branch was integrated. And forty-three days after Granddad passed, my daughter, Beth, came into this world in the clinic, a mere 30 feet from where Granddad sought help in vain. The Russians have a proverb, “One wedge knocks out another.”

All of this dying and birthing was forty-three years ago. All the moonshining was longer than that and still does that copper still sleep in the Savannah River. How I’d love to salvage it. As for granddad, well, my mother never cared for him. I’ve never heard her say one good thing about him. To this day, given an opening, she will insult him. She berated Granddad for being a bootlegger but the moonshine money that bought the land Dad inherited and sold nonetheless sustains her. No complaints about that.

I too inherited something valuable from the man in the felt hat and coveralls—advice that would change my life. “If you can make money for the man, you can make it for yourself.” Thanks to his advice I’ve quit four jobs, saving my sanity and pride in four fell swoops.

Days like December 20 will stay with me a long time. It revived a past the likes of which I will never see again. It was far from ordinary and it prompts me to make a suggestion. Go to Edgefield. Step back in time as you cross Carolina Moon’s threshold. For $3 you can sample the various flavors of shine … basic white corn liquor, strawberry, cherry, and scuppernong. Just keep the sipping under control, and if your family admits to having a black sheep bootlegger in it, well, may the day resurrect memories for you too.

4 thoughts on “Moonshine Memories

  1. Merry Christmas, Tom, and happy new year! I really enjoyed the memories of your grandfather. You capture the people and places of your past and present with such skill I feel like I’m walking through history with them.

    I’m supposed to be grading papers right now, but I took a break to read your words. The sky no longer teases us with snow in Wisconsin. We had a full blown snow storm several days ago complete with 30 mph winds. I begin school on Monday next week, but like you I’m considering quitting my job after this year ends to preserve my own sanity and to do what really matters to me. Thanks again for your writing. It inspires me.

    Shannon

  2. This was one of the most touching stories I have ever read. It touched me in so many different ways that I lost count. I learned about your writing this year and am looking forward to reading all of it. God bless you for your work and what it means to people. I plan to attend the Southern Studies Showcase and hope to see you there.

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