Prohibition, fast cars, and mobsters is what most people think of when they think of Moonshine. The truth is prohibition was only a small part of the story and came along over 100 years after the birth of moonshine. North Carolina has a unique history and Western North Carolina especially played a major role in prohibition becoming law. Most people think of prohibition starting in 1919, when it became a national law, but in 1908 some counties in Western North Carolina voted to go dry including Buncombe, Madison, and Yancey County. This made them one of the first in the nation. By 1909 North Carolina went dry and voted in a statewide prohibition. Decades of lawlessness, violence, and murders on both sides of the law played a big role in leading to statewide prohibition. Other options like the timber industry and factory work to make money also played a part. Moonshine had been one of the only and main sources of getting money in the barter society that still existed in the Appalachian Mountain region, until around the early 1900’s. For many families it was the first time leaving the mountains in generations, although some kept to the old ways.
The gangs that were crated by the Civil War and its aftermath had been going on for about 3 generations also. Between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the date of an article in 1898 about Shelton Laurel in Madison County, N.C. 48 people were killed in one graveyard over feuds and revenge killings. Many fueled by moonshine. Other articles like the one from the Asheville Citizen Times in 1890 with the headline six men killed and twelve wounded at government still in Mitchell County were not uncommon at all during that time, especially considering there were 575 distilleries in the U.S. legally before prohibition and 227 were in North Carolina. It was not just the moonshiners either. In 1885 several drunk sheriff deputies from Yancey County were reported to have tore up a grist mill mistaking it for a still. The Charlotte Observer, in 1903, said that Ed Ray a former U.S. Deputy Marshall and Revenue Agent killed a young boy for not telling him where his father’s still was. There was an $800 reward for Ed Ray in 1885. In 1877 he was charged with killing the two men he went to arrest for distilling and in 1884 he was charged with killing several men in an argument at a mine. It was a full on war that went on through Prohibition and the laws today still reflect it. Most people wonder when it became legal to make Moonshine like we do at Howling Moon Distillery. The answer is it was always legal and illegal at the same time and still is. It’s a catch 22. It is illegal to have a still in North Carolina without a permit, but to get a North Carolina distillery permit you must first have a federal permit. To get your federal permit you must have a distillery set up to apply. What changed is the law in North Carolina quit arresting people who were trying to set up a legal distillery. The game of cat and mouse has went on for hundreds of years between the government and moonshiners. The earliest known thump keg was in Western North Carolina in the 1870’s. Way before most people thought it was created. Its purpose was to make it possible to distill in one run. It double distills the moonshine. Before its creation and addition to a moonshine still you made your first run and kept, unable to sale it or use it until you had enough first runs to fill up the still again and redistill it into what was called the doublings or second run. The thump keg made it possible to set up and distill then move easier and faster keeping one step ahead of the law.
The last gang I know of in this area that made moonshine and could not be controlled was the gang of my cousin Hiram Wilson. He was run out of North Carolina in 1908. He went on the run to Colorado for several years. He was on the cover of the New York Times and many other major news papers for his murders, distilling and threat to kill any man who came to stop him. After all distilling was made illegal there was still violence. A lot of it made it to the big cities and got more coverage in big newspapers. The supped-up cars that could outrun the law came next. Gangsters and moonshiners both wanted cars faster than the law. In our region people out ran the law to take a care load of liquor to cities like Atlanta, where they could get more money for them, but what most people don’t know is the mountain region didn’t have good roads that fast cars could run on in the early 1900’s. We still had sled roads, which were made for a wooden sled to be pulled by a mule. That didn’t stop people like from this region like my great grandfather Wylie Bradford and others from moving large amounts of liquor. Deep in the mountains at that time the train ran and stopped at places no other machine could reach. Lost Cove was one of those places. Located in Yancey County North Carolina, it was created during the Civil War by people looking to escape the brutality of the war at home. It lasted for almost 100 years until the trains stopped running. The town has no road in or out. They sold timber and moonshine to survive. During prohibition the train would stop in Lost Cove and moonshine was loaded into bulk tank containers on the train. I have heard this same story from people all over Western North Carolina in isolated communities that had train stations. This would only work in an area so isolated that no one could walk up on this in action and alert revenue agents or local law enforcement. Lost Cove was the perfect place for local moonshiners to load their product on a train. Like I mentioned there was never a road to the town. There still isn’t. The trail is steep and rocky as well as several miles long from the trail head, which is reached by going to one of the most isolated parts of Yancey County and then turning up a gravel road that goes miles up a mountain without any houses or people besides an occasional hiker. At the top of the mountain the trail starts down into a gorge where Lost Cove is located. It is a rough area to hike if you get off the trail. There are steep mountains, rock cliffs that drop off into the Nolichucky River and it is known for its population of bears and rattle snakes. The river is used today for white water rafting, but during prohibition white water rafting was not going on and the river was to rocky and rough to navigate by boat. The only other way in would be to follow the train tracks in from Tennessee. Lost Cove also was a disputed area. It was not clear until the 1900’s which state the land was in. It is on the Tennessee and North Carolina border. At that time law enforcement could not cross state lines and capture a fugitive so Lost Cove was not regulated by either. It later that the rough area was surveyed and concluded that it was part of North Carolina. What would become the FBI was created near the end of prohibition because of the need to catch criminals who crossed state lines to get away. My ancestors used this to their full advantage.
After local law enforcement targeted my family following the Civil War and after large portions of their land was lost, many went deeper into the mountains into areas that were hard to access then and today. They built communities on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee and made moonshine on one side and lived on the other. They also were known to hide half of their moonshine in one state and half in the other. One time there was a bust and half of the moonshine on hand as well as the still was taken. They used the money from the other half of the moonshine to build a new still and were back up and running in no time. My great grandfather Wylie Bradford and his brothers and cousins ran several locations like this. Wylie died in 1925 and his life was a mystery. We were always told he was an outlaw, but little was said about him and you could not get anyone to tell you very much. Records show his brother Joe Berry Bradford was arrested for making Moonshine. His brother Bob Bradford who also went by Bob Edwards was arrested also and broke out of jail. He was on the run for a year when a U.S. Deputy Marshall recognized him at a train station in Knoxville, Tennessee and arrested him again. I can’t find much on Wylie as far as arrest records, but what records I can find point to the fact he was most definitely and outlaw. We know he was a moonshiner. I have part of one of his moonshine stills that has been passed down generations. I found out in researching him that his name was not Wylie. It was John, like his uncle who was such an outlaw after the Civil War. He was married 3 times, but no divorce papers can be found. He signed his real name on his first marriage certificate. After that he went by Wylie Bradford, but he had aliases and he never spelled his name the same on any document. In 1909 he faked his death. I can prove this because he signed the birth certificate of his last son in his second marriage in 1909, but his second wife was listed as a widow in the 1910 census and their last son together was just a few months old so there is no way they divorced, and she remarried in that time. In 1911 Wylie married my great grandmother Cora Honeycutt. All three of his wives came from families of outlaws. Cora had a son already but had never been married. At that time that was looked down on. We were always told that they moved a lot and I cant track all his moves, but he never stayed in the same place long. It was always said that Cora would have the wagon packed and food cooked when they would move and when Wylie came home they would leave in the middle of the night. I don’t know what all he was running from, but I found something that shocked me in my research. We never knew my grandfathers real name. We don’t know if he ever did either, but none of his kids knew it. He was listed as being born William Bradford, then on the 1930 census, 5 years after his father died, he was listed as Richard Bradford. After that he was listed as Hillard Bradford, which is the only name we ever knew him by. He has multiple birthdates and places of birth listed on documents also. I don’t know everything Wylie did, but I know someone doesn’t go to such great lengths to hide their identity, fake their death, and hide the identity of their children for no reason.
Shortly after my great grandfathers death the state and federal government declared war on Yancey County, North Carolina according to a 1926 issue of the Asheville Citizen Times. The Prohibition Enforcement Officer over the Carolinas and Tennessee claimed that the district made more moonshine that anywhere else in the South and that its border distilleries in Yancey County North Carolina, Cooke County Tennessee and Rayburn County Georgia were singled out as the worst in the region. A judge brought the attention to the state and federal authorities attention in a letter claiming that the area in and around Asheville, N.C. were overrun with illegal distilleries. This had a major impact on my family. It was around this time that much of the organized large scale moonshining came to a halt in the region. The safe havens created my family in communities deep in the mountains like the Whistling Gap and Rocky Fork on the North Carolina Tennessee line ceased to exist. Before these communities, which were in between Lost Cove, N.C., were communities that openly made moonshine and were a safe haven to outlaws on the run. Many went back to small scale distilling deep in the mountains with just one or two people running the still. Large scale distribution to the North by train through the mob and syndicate came to an end and each person had to find a way to transport their small amounts of moonshine to sale themselves. In the years to come famous gangsters and fast cars loaded down with moonshine outrunning the cops became the big stories in moonshine and the long and amazing prior 125 plus years of moonshine history got lost in the mix. My family started to travel and hop trains. Many of them ended up in California. Some stayed, but most came back. They all did pretty good for themselves considering the times. They worked in the logging industry in California. By the 1950’s most of them were back in Yancey County N.C. or across the mountain in Tennessee. Most of them built new houses and had new cars. I don’t know if they were that successful logging or if they carried on the family business on the other side of the U.S. There are so many mysteries in my family history that I most likely will never know the whole truth. I know they kept distilling when they came back from California, but not on the scale my family had for generations before. The knowledge and art of distilling as well as several family stills up to 150 years old have been passed down. I started Howling Moon in 2010 to share our family history and stories as well as our moonshine so they would not be lost to time. Few of us still know the stories or the old ways I have spent much of my life learning. I thought many of the stories were so outrageous they couldn’t be true, but after getting a 4 year degree in history from UNCA and spending over a decade tracking down the stories from multiple people, going through the records and archives, and looking through old news articles and warrants along with the information I already knew that had been passed down, I found out that the stories were actually toned down and the truth was almost unbelievable.