The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge


By Conway Smith © 1987

Issue: July, 1987

Frizzly Bill McCoy said he learned the art from his "pappy" and "gran'pappy." He was unaware that his ancestors had made whiskey in the highlands of Scotland long before any of them crossed the Atlantic to find new homes in Virginia's Highlands.

Far up a pine–scented hollow beside a clear mountain stream the moonshiner sets up his still. Amid the beauties of nature he carried on his profession in a leisurely way – his only concern was to keep his business hidden from the prying eyes of "the law."

Time was when many moonshine stills operated in the western Virginia Mountains. These were generally pot type copper stills with a copper "worm" coiled into a "worm box" into which was sluiced cold water from a nearby spring or mountain stream. The still – loaded with "mash" (corn meal fermented in water) – sat over a stone fireplace. Steam from the boiling mash jinked through the coiled copper worm and was condensed into liquid as the worm passed through the cold water in the worm box – and "white lightning" dribbled from the worm into a stone jug. Nearby stood several wooden mash boxes or barrels from which the still was supplied.

Should you start up a mountain stream and hear a series of revolver shots ring out from up the hollow it doesn't necessarily mean you are being shot at. It simply means they are stilling up the hollow and don't want any visitors. So in order to avoid embarrassment it may be well to retrace your steps. But the moonshiner often protected his business from unwelcome guests by more courteous methods.

It was over sixty–five years ago that I made the acquaintance of the first moonshiner I have known. I was a member of a Boy Scout troop the Baptist preacher had organized here in Martins Tank. With knapsacks and tent rolls on our backs we often hiked into the mountains west of town for overnight camps. In Raines Hollow – where we sometimes camped – was a clearing surrounded by mountain ridges. A clear mountain stream ran through the hollow. It was an ideal campsite – also an ideal site for the moonshine business.

One evening when we had just arrived in the hollow, and were setting up our pup tents, a tall mountaineer came out of the woods. He was a rather awesome looking character, over six feet, with a bushy black mustache, and wearing a wide–brimmed black felt hat. Under one arm he carried a long single–barrel shotgun. He came striding into our camp, passed the time of the day with the preacher, and sat down on a log, with his gun across his knees. He proved most friendly. Said he had come to warn us to stay out of a particular hollow he pointed out to us. "They's a mean ole bull up in thet holler. He's dangus – an' Ah don't want eny o' you young'uns to get kilt. So be sure an' don't go nowhere near thet holler."

Having given us this friendly advice he got to his feet and strode off. We watched him disappear up the very hollow where the "mean ole bull" had his habitat. We got the message.

One fall Thad Utely and Lum Aiken were grouse hunting over on Brushy Mountain. They were following a branch up a hollow when they came unexpectedly upon a moonshine still in full operation. To their amazement no one was tending the still which was boiling merrily. They knew the moonshiners must be nearby – and they felt a bit apprehensive.

The two operators had high tailed it to the top of a ridge from which vantage point they were observing their visitors. Seeing that they were merely hunters – and not "the law" – the moonshiners came down from their hiding place and gave their visitors a friendly welcome – inviting them to "set a spell." Thad and Lum sat on a log by the moonshiners swapping yarns as they watched the still bubble and the "white lightning" dribble through the copper worm into a jug.

Every few minutes the moonshiners requested their visitors to throw a few chunks on the fire beneath the still. Thad and Lum complied in all innocence. As they got to their feet preparing to conclude their visit their hosts gave them a warning: "Now look'ee here strangers, you've throwed wood on the fire and hep'd make this likker, an' we kin prove it. So don't go blabbin' to nobody about this still. Ef the law gits us, you're right in it along wif we'uns." This was a standard dodge used by moonshiners – and it worked.

One day Jake Odell was hunting grouse along the ridge on Long Spur. Down in the hollow on Spur Branch, Jake noticed an old man with a white beard busy working with his still and mash boxes. But he paid him no mind. Just then Jake's dog Old Blue came to a stand near the top of the ridge. When the bird came up Jake let go with his twelve–gage and the feathers flew. Sometimes a grouse that has been hit will set his wings and sail a long way before falling. The grouse sailed all the way down the ridge into the hollow where the still was in operation – and fell "splash" into the mash box. Old Blue was right after him and got there almost as quickly as the bird did. The old moonshiner saw what had happened. He fished the grouse out of the mash box, shook the beer off its feathers, and handed it to Old Blue. The dog took the bird in his mouth and trotted back up the ridge to his master. Jake put the grouse in his hunting coat, waved to the old moonshiner, and went on his way.

The moonshiner is a unique and picturesque character. Through the years he has remained one of the last of the rugged individualists and proponents of free enterprise. But – unable to compete with huge licensed distilleries and state liquor stores – he is fading from the picture in Virginia's highlands.