Moonshine Liquor has flowed freely from the Smoky Mountains of Western North
Carolina ever since the first Scott’s-Irish settled here. The recipe for moonshine has been
past down in my family from generation to generation, as in most families. Moonshine is
a big part of our family’s history, not only from my father’s side, but my mother’s family
too. Isaac Ledford, my maternal GGG Grandfather was listed in the1800 census in
Madison County, North Carolina as owning a distillery and having paid a $12.50 liquor
My parental GG Grandfather, Samuel McGaha, was a surveyor and moonshiner. Samuel
was born in 1798 in Buncombe County, NC, In 1808 Haywood County, near the
Tennessee line, was formed out of Buncombe County, and this is where Samuel lived, a
rough and lawless place still inhabited by the Indians. At first timber was a way for the
settlers to make money, but after all the timber was cut the only way they could survive
was to make moonshine. Samuel owned over two hundred acres of land, half in North
Carolina and half in Tennessee, where he had many stills. Sam closed down his
moonshine stills when he joined the confederate army. After the war ended Sam returned
home to his family and his stills on Mount Sterling, NC, This was during the Civil War
and many of the men there were killed by the home Guard. My g grandfather lived there
and used to tell how the men dressed in women clothing so they could tend the crops and
the liquor stills. How Capitan Teague’s army had killed George and Henry Grooms. How
they made Henry play his fiddle before they shot him. He remembered how Kirts Raiders
raided the homes and stole the moonshine, food and whatever else they could find. Mount
Sterling was rugged, wild and lawless. This would have been the same time, and the same
trail that Inman took when he trudged the long and rugged path home in Charles Frazier’s
novel, Cold Mountain.
In 1929 at the Big Bend, near Mount Sterling, on the Tennessee border my Grandfather,
father, and uncle were in the middle of making a big run of moonshine when they were
interrupted by two men looking for their wives, whom they thought were with my uncle.
Having been discovered they had but one choice, and that was to kill the two men. It
didn’t matter that one of the men was a nephew of my grandfather, and a first cousins to
my uncle and dad. My grandfather, uncle, and some say, my father shot the two men as
they begged for their lives. My uncle responded to their pleas, “Dead men tell no tails’
after, making sure they were dead, they buried them beneath the still. There their bodies
laid for over a year until they were discovered by detective Scott O’Malley form New
York City. My father, Grandfather, and uncle were jailed and after several months,
released because no proof could be found that they had been involved in the
disappearance of the two men. But, later on my uncle was jailed and found guilty of the
murder of Mims White and Scott Brown. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison, of
which he spent ten at Caledonia Prison Farms in Halifax County, North Carolina. After
he was paroled he went back to making moonshine.
Moonshining back then was a dangerous job, not only for the moonshiners but also, for
anybody that had the misfortune of wandering in on a moonshiner’s still, be it a revenue
officer or someone just out hunting.
After grandfather Riley got too old to tramp through the mountains, Daddy setup his own
still and started making moonshine. We lived way back in the mountains, in the shadows
of a mountain named Dirty Britches, the perfect place for making moonshine. Daddy
worked in the fields during the day, for these people whose land we lived on, and traded
at their store. Whatever he worked out in the fields would go towards paying of the bills
at the old country store where he bought coffee, flour and sugar. What he made from
selling moonshine, our main source of income went to buy school clothes for us children
and other necessities, such as we would have not had.
Daddy’s stills were made from pure copper and he proofed his liquor with clear mountain
spring water. He would save the first few jars, which were pure alcohol, and slowly add
the water to the other jars until it beaded just right. If the beads were sudsy looking,
meaning the liquor was too weak, he would add more from the first saved jars of liquor.
He would keep mixing until the bead was big and clung to the jar and slowly died away.
Liquor too weak won’t bead and liquor to high won’t have a bead. It had to be just right
for the big beads and he could tell the proof by how long it took the beads to disappear.
After proofing the liquor Daddy would pour the liquor into clean mason jars that I had
washed and dried really good. Daddy always told me to be sure and dried all the water
out for just drop would ruin his liquor. My hands were little and I could reach the towel
into the jar and dry all the water out. I loved helping Daddy as we sit at the old spring
mixing his liquor.
Daddy always grew enough corn during the summer to help make the moonshine. He
would dry the corn and shell it and keep it in a dry place. When it came time to make the
liquor he would fill a tow sack, burlap bag, with the corn and put it on the creek bank
where he covered it with damp leaves so the corn would sprout. When the corn had
sprouted just right he would grind the corn up and use it to top of the mash.
I don’t remember how much Daddy got for a jar, or case of his liquor, but I do remember
that some of his best customers were lawmen. I remember one evening, about dusk, I saw
a car come up the rocky dirt road towards out house and it had a big star on the side. As
the car came closer I could read “US Marshall” on the side of the car. The two men were
dressed in uniforms and had badges on. When they got out of the car they greeted Daddy
like they were old friends and talked for a while, then they came into the house and started
carrying out cases of moonshine and loading them into the trunk of the car. As the car
pulled out of the driveway the back end of the car dragged on the rocks in the road. Later
on I learned they were US Marshall’s that had come to get the whisky for a big lawman’s
ball that they were having in Florida.
Another time, Daddy had picked-up another still and had it in the back of his car when he
got stop by a deputy sheriff. Once in a while daddy did take a little drink and that night he
was kind of weaving going through town. The deputy asks him had he been drinking and
Daddy said, nope the wheels are out of line. The deputy just grins and said ok Slick, get
on home and don’t be out again tonight.
One time a new deputy stopped Daddy for something, I can’t remember for what, but
anyway, the deputy wrote him a ticket. When Daddy got to court that morning the judge
that was to try him was also a good customer. The Judge charged Daddy a $200.00 fine.
But after court recessed for lunch the Judge called Daddy into his chambers and told him
just to clean out his basement for the fine. The Judge gave Daddy lots of good stuff from
his basement and paid him $200.00 to boot, Daddy was happy to work for the judge.
Election Day was always a good day for selling. Daddy was off in the mountains working
with his still and I remember car after car kept come up our old dirt road and by the time
Daddy got home that night for supper Momma had already sold over a thousand dollars
worth of moonshine. Back in them days a thousand dollars was a lot of money.
To keep up with demand, Daddy needed to get a bigger still so he got this man that
owned a sheet medal business to make him a big, pretty copper still. The man was to
meet us at the gate, that the landlord kept lock to keep his horses and cattle from getting
out. Well, we were at the gate on time, 12; OO Midnight, but the man didn’t come. After
waiting an hour or so daddy decided to drive to his house in Waynesville to see what was
holding him up. When we got there no one was home, so daddy decided we had better go
on home and contact the man in the morning to see what had happened. When we got
back to the gate daddy’s keys wouldn’t fit in the lock. Daddy thought this was strange so
he tried all his keys, but none of them fit. It was getting late and we were very sleepy so
daddy drove over to the landlord’s house and woke them up to get their key. After daddy
got them awake they told him that someone had sawed the lock off the gate and went to
our house, sawed the lock off our door and put a big still in the kitchen. They also told
him that the sheriff had found a man in our bed asleep and they took him and the still to
the jail house. Well that was the end of the big still for it was such a nice still that the
sheriff kept it on display at the court house for many years, could still be there.
One time in early winter, just about dark, we were all sitting around the big fire in the
chimney when we heard a knock on the door. Daddy opens the door and there stands the
High Sheriff, with a search warrant in hand. Daddy invites him and the deputies in out of
the cold. The Sheriff asks daddy if he could look around and daddy tells him yes. The
Sheriff and his deputies shine their flash lights around the room, that was only lighted by
oil lamps, and, then shines them up the stairs, not finding anything the Sheriff ask daddy
what was in the jar cases under the stairs and daddy tells him to go head and look, but
there’s nothing but jars of canned food that momma had put up for the winter. After
moving two or three cases of soup, tomatoes’ and green beans, the Sheriff tells the
deputies to go wait on him, that there’s nothing to be found. They turn off their
flashlights and put the canned food back. The deputies go wait in the car on the sheriff.
The Sheriff tells daddy that he had a complaint, but not to worry that everything was ok. I
am pretty sure that the Sheriff knew that if he had removed any more jars from the stack
of cases that he would find twenty or more cases of moonshine behind the stack of
canned food. The Sheriff and daddy talk for a while and Daddy calls him by name and
tells him to come see him, the sheriff says he will, and for momma to save him a case of
that good soup. The sheriff tells momma if we need anything to let him know. They get
in the patrol car and drive away.
In the early 1950’s, I can’t remember the exact year, a man got mad at my dad and uncle
over moonshine for what reason I don’t know, but I suspect that it was because daddy
business was growing and he thought they were taking his business. But, anyway, while
Daddy, momma, my aunt and uncle were in the house visiting with my great aunt and
uncle, all us kids were outside playing. It was getting pretty late in the night, about 10:30
PM, when I heard my cousin, who was the same age as me, start screaming. I started to
run back towards the house, but when I saw her running towards the porch covered with
blood, and saw her pretty pink dress cut to shreds, my knees turned so weak I couldn’t
move. She had been cut in the face, hand and stabbed in the stomach several times.
Daddy and my uncle heard her screams and ran out of the house with their guns drawn.
My great-uncle, sitting at the kitchen window, saw a man run behind his shed and run
into the woods. He gets his rifle and runs out the back door. My aunt grabs my cousin up
and wraps her in towels while my uncle runs to get his car. Daddy and momma grab my
little brother, and me and we get into our car and follow them to the hospital. While my
cousin is being tended to at the hospital, we all head back to the house with the sheriff
and his deputies. They have the bloodhounds with them. When we get to the yard they
turn lose the bloodhounds and they head up the mountain towards this man’s house. The
man’s wife answers the door and tells the sheriff that her husband is in bed and has been
all evening. They bring the bloodhounds back to the yard, and again they follow the scent
back to the man’s door. The wife tells the sheriff again that her husband hadn’t been out
of the house all evening. But, just inside the door is a pair of muddy shoes, shoes that are
covered with fresh mud. The sheriff is suspicions of the man’s wife claim as the rain
didn’t start until about 9:00 PM that evening, but since he had an alibi there’s not much
that the sheriff can do. The sheriff tells daddy and my uncle to keep us inside and they
will continue to investigate, but they never could get enough evidence to charge the man.
He dodged my daddy and uncle and would turn the other way when he saw
Many years later, I had to take my son to the hospital with a cut knee. As we were
following the nurse out the cubical to x-ray, she told us not to look at the man in the next
cubical. Well, I couldn’t help but look and I saw this man with his face and head beat into
mush. I didn’t recognize him since his face and head was in such bad shape, but when we
got back to the ER someone was there with him and called him by name. He was the man
with the muddy shoes and a local guy had beaten him with a hammer until he was
unrecognizable. I thought that finely he got what he deserved.
Shirley Fairchild 2012
“The hardest thing i’ve ever done was carry a empty oak whiskey barrel up a steep mountain through laurel thickets and over rock cliffs at night without any light” (Raymond Fairchild)