Author Interview: Daniel S. Pierce on Tar Heel Lightnin’: How Secret Stills and Fast Cars Made North Carolina the Moonshine Capital of the World

In this Q&A, Daniel S. Pierce, author of Tar Heel Lightnin’: How Secret Stills and Fast Cars Made North Carolina the Moonshine Capital of the Worldsits down with director of publicity Gina Mahalek to discuss the business of moonshine in North Carolina.

From the late nineteenth century well into the 1960s, North Carolina boasted some of the nation’s most restrictive laws on alcohol production and sale. For much of this era, it was also the nation’s leading producer of bootleg liquor. Over the years, written accounts, popular songs, and Hollywood movies have turned the state’s moonshiners, fast cars, and frustrated Feds into legends. But in Tar Heel Lightnin’, Daniel S. Pierce tells the real history of moonshine in North Carolina as never before. This well-illustrated, entertaining book introduces a surprisingly varied cast of characters who operated secret stills and ran liquor from the swamps of the Tidewater to Piedmont forests and mountain coves.

Tar Heel Lightnin’ is now available in print and ebook editions.


Q: Why is moonshine worthy of serious study?

A: Producing corn liquor has been an important North Carolina industry since the Colonial Period and that did not change when the federal excise tax made much of that production illegal. It’s impossible to say how much illegal liquor was (and is) produced in the state, but from the statistics and anecdotal evidence we have, illegal liquor was one of North Carolina’s most important and lucrative products from the 1860s to the 1960s. In addition to its economic impact, the moonshine business also shaped North Carolina’s cultural and social life in many ways. Finally, moonshine was important in every section of North Carolina and in every social and ethnic/racial demographic.

Q: When did moonshine become linked to North Carolina and its citizens?

A: Beginning in the late 1860s when the federal government started cracking down on liquor producers who did not pay the new federal excise tax. In the 1870s and 80s, Western North Carolina was a major focus of revenue agents in the so-called “Moonshine Wars” and became nationally known as one of the major producers of illegal liquor through intensive and sensationalized coverage in the press (including such major papers as The New York Times), in fictionalized “local color” magazine articles and novels, and even in dime novels. From this point on, North Carolina and moonshine became inextricably linked. The state’s equally (and paradoxically) strong attachment to prohibition only increased the market for moonshine in the state and kept the state in the forefront of illegal liquor production nationally through the 1960s.

Q: North Carolina’s moonshine business has gone through periods of decline and resurgence. What has led to these swings?

A: The ebb and flow of moonshine production in North Carolina was determined by a number of factors. The laws obviously played a huge role beginning with the federal excise tax of 1862, then local option legislation beginning in the 1880s, statewide prohibition in 1909, national prohibition in 1920 and its repeal in 1933, and then ongoing local option laws up to the present day. Each legal attempt at curtailing alcohol production only increased demand. Related to this, law enforcement efforts played a role as increased enforcement drove the business further underground, although it also stimulated creative approaches to hiding the activities of illegal producers. High demand also led to new technological innovations that made liquor production more efficient and increased production.

Q: The names used for illegal liquor producers and their product have changed over time. Talk about this.

A: This was a really fun part of my research. The names have evolved over the years and I learned a number of terms through newspaper research that have long since gone out of usage. Some of these were even unknown to noted linguists. Blockade, or blockade liquor, was the term most commonly used in the late 19th century in reference to the federal attempts to block the sale of illegal liquor similar to the blockade of North Carolina’s coast by the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. It gave the profession an air of a noble and honorable activity in defiance of an unjust (federal) law. Moonshine became more common around the 1890s and has since that time been the most common term. Of course, white lightning and mountain dew were also commonly used. A couple of my favorite terms have distinctive North Carolina origins. Sow paw, named after a North Carolina patent medicine that was mainly alcohol, became a popular term in the 1890s and early years of the 20th century. Perhaps my favorite is peartnin’ juice, a term used in the far western part of the state and popularized by Asheville Citizen-Times columnist John Parris.

Q: What kinds of roles did women play in the moonshine business?

A: This was one of the big revelations from my research. Women played a huge role in the business, especially in the late 19th and early 20th century. They played supporting roles as sentries looking out for suspicious strangers and warning husbands and other kin of their approach and aided in normal operations. One of the biggest roles played by women was as operators of liquor houses where they dispensed liquor by the shot. But there were many cases of women producers heading up sizeable operations. In many cases, women involved in the moonshine business as producers or distributors were without male providers—widowed, divorced, or abandoned by their husbands—often with small children. When these women were arrested they often received light sentences or were released outright if they promised to quit making or selling moonshine.

Q: Who was Betty Sims, and why was she known as “Queen of the Moonshiners”?

A: Betty was arrested by revenue agents in 1906 for selling several barrels of liquor in Polk County. She evidently ran a pretty sizeable operation and was very successful. She was young and very attractive and appeared in court on several occasions wearing the latest fashions. The newspapers, especially The Charlotte Observer who called her the “Queen of the Moonshiners,” loved her and described her appearance and deportment in the court in great detail. Her story became even more sensational when she set fire to the jail, tried to escape, and fought it out with the jailer. This led the Observer to refer to her as a “daring Amazonian woman.” Further reporting also revealed Betty’s story was actually pretty typical for women moonshiners. She had been abandoned by a ne’er-do-well husband and had three small children to support.

Q: How were African Americans involved in moonshine?

A: This is one of the great untold stories of moonshine and one that offers lots of opportunities for further research. African Americans are inextricably tied to the moonshine story in North Carolina although their presence was often invisible to the general public. Indeed, African Americans and Native Americans were the first moonshiners in the state as the legislature passed laws in the 1830s and 40s outlawing liquor production among so-called “free persons of color.” Building on traditions of slave distilling, much of the illegal alcohol production in the eastern part of North Carolina was done by African Americans after the Civil War. Most of this was done in a share-cropping type relationship with white men who supplied them with stills and supplies, gave the producers a share of the proceeds, and bailed them out of jail and provided legal support when they were arrested. In addition, a significant part of the retailing of illegal liquor was conducted by African Americans in liquor houses and juke joints scattered all over the state in both rural and urban areas, often run by women.

Q: You explored the link between automobiles and moonshine in your previous book, Real NASCAR. How are the books connected? Were you able to delve deeper into this topic in Tar Heel Lightnin’?

A: Of course, one of the great cultural legacies of moonshine in North Carolina is the business’s role in the origins of NASCAR. In some ways I should have done Tarheel Lightnin’ first as it really puts North Carolina stock car racing in the proper historical context. I did delve deeper into the subject and what I found really confirmed my findings from Real NASCAR that stock car racing, in its origins, was really a product of the moonshine business.

Q: Fans of The Andy Griffith Show will agree with your observation that moonshine and moonshining are a near constant presence on the sitcom. In your opinion, did the show get its facts right?

A: I’m a huge fan of Andy Griffith and there have been few days in my life when I have not watched at least one episode of The Andy Griffith Show. Probably more so than any TV show or movie that deals with moonshine, his show gets moonshining and moonshiners right. He has an episode dealing with women moonshiners, understands that relations between law enforcement and illegal producers were often amicable, and depicts moonshiners as ordinary human beings, often making their product to help them through tough economic times. I think his early life growing up in the 1930s and 40s in Surry County, an area known for its moonshiners, gave him insights into the business that few other Hollywood-types possessed. I had originally decided not to have a dedication in this book, but I had an epiphany one day that Andy Griffith was the perfect person to honor. I think it’s one of the better ideas I’ve ever had.                                                                                                                                           

Q: Can you name some of the factors that led to a revival of moonshine around the turn of the 21st century?

A: It’s somewhat amazing the amount of fascination that people have with moonshine and the moonshine business. I think it has a lot to do with nostalgia over simpler times and simpler ways. Two North Carolina moonshiners, Popcorn Sutton and Jim Tom Hedrick, effectively tapped into that nostalgia in the early 2000s. Folks in regional and national media saw the possibilities in promoting moonshine and the moonshiner image that the two so effectively portrayed and a flood of documentaries and reality TV shows ensued. The coming of the internet also offered recipes, supplies, and equipment so curious types could make their own (generally terrible) moonshine in their homes. Changes in laws in most states legalized small-batch distilling and a number of enterprising North Carolinians built on the public’s fascination with moonshine and launched highly successful legal moonshine operations. So far, the moonshine craze shows no signs of abating and new distilleries and new media depictions continue to proliferate.

Q: What about legal moonshine? What is it, exactly?

A: Changes in North Carolina law in the mid-2000s legalized small-batch distilling for the first time since the early 20th century. Founded by a R.J. Reynolds advertising executive in Madison, Piedmont Distillers was the first “legal moonshine” producer in the state. “Legal moonshine” (some folks consider this a misnomer and claim “if it’s legal, it ain’t moonshine”), like most illegal moonshine, is clear, unaged corn liquor usually proofed at 90-100 proof. Legal moonshine generally differs from the illegal variety in that legal producers use much more corn meal, often milled from heirloom corns, in their recipes. Most legal producers also make a variety of moonshine-based products using a variety of flavorings. Probably the most popular of these is called apple pie which uses apple cider and spices to make the moonshine more palatable to a wider variety of consumers. Legal moonshiners also tout their clear product as an ideal cocktail base.

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Photo by Robin T. Parish

Daniel S. Pierce is professor of history at the University of North Carolina Asheville. His previous books include Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France.